Henri-Jules Borie, Aérodômes, Paris, 1867 redesign of his original 1865 proposal. (Design Quarterly, 85, 1972)

In Volume One I gave you my definition of the “skyscraper principle:” a building design using the elevator to include more floors than the pre-elevator limit of five-six stories, in order to increase the building’s rental return to help pay for the high cost of the land upon which it was planned to be built.   I also have identified Henri-Jules Borie’s Aérodômes of 1865 for Paris as the earliest proposal, that I have found, to build tall buildings exploiting the advantages of the elevator, as well as Henry Hyde’s Equitable Building in New York in 1867 as the first manifestation of the idea. Many historians have pooh-poohed these early skyscrapers as unworthy of the term because they are not “tall enough” to merit the appellation.  Once again, we have here the tendency to evaluate the past on present terms.  Of course, if one has grown up with 10+ storied buildings, one is used to this urban datum that must be truly broken for a tall building to qualify as a skyscraper.  But as the photo below shows, if one has grown up in a pre-elevator city in which the urban datum is five stories, then, indeed, a ten-story building looked very high and deserved to be called by a new term!

John J. Flanders, Mallers Building, Chicago, 1884. Compare the height of pre-elevator Chicago at the far right with the new skyscrapers. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

Chicago’s heady atmosphere of 1884, generated in part by the unsurpassed height of the Board of Trade’s tower, was such that the local media began to adopt the term “skyscraper” for the tall buildings then under construction.  I am not interested in the history of the term that over time had been applied to such diverse objects as tall horses to the tall masts of sailing ships.  John Moser, an architect from Atlanta, had used the term “sky-scraper” in June 1883 in an article, “American Architectural Form of the Future,” that was published in American Architect.  In pursuing an appropriate form for the architecture of the United States, he believed that:

“a public building should always have something towering up above all in its neighborhood, to proclaim the fact afar that here is where McGregor sits, here is the head of the table.  It should be in our case slender, vigorous, bold, rakish and daring… This form of sky-scraper gives that peculiar refined, independent, self-contained, daring, bold, heaven-reaching, erratic, piratic, Quixotic, American thought… The capitol building should always have a dome.  I should raise thereon a gigantic “sky-scraper,” contrary to all precedent in practice, and I should trust to American constructive and engineering skill to build it strong enough for any gale.

John Moser, Sky-scrapers, “American Architectural Form of the Future,” Atlanta, 1883. (American Architect, June 30, 1883)

It is interesting to note that although Moser associated the term “sky-scraper” with very tall structures, he reserved its use for all buildings except commercial structures. 

In August 1884, the Real Estate and Building Journal reprinted an article from the Daily News that listed what it considered to be Chicago’s “skyscrapers,” many of which had been built in the prior year.  After reading it, one could easily make the case that W.W. Boyington could deserve to be known as “the father of the Chicago Skyscraper.” 

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. La Salle Street south from Adams Street. (IChi-00253, Chicago Historical Society)

In descending order of height, these were:

-Boyington’s tower of the Board of Trade, 303′ (Sperry’s Corona had increased this to 322′); 

-[Eidlitz’s Dearborn Street Station tower, 195’];

-[Beman’s Pullman Town Watertower, 195’];

-Boyington’s Water Works Tower, 175′; 

-Boyington’s recent addition of twin towers for the La Salle Street Station, 170′;

-[Boyington’s Office Building behind the Board of Trade, 10+ st.]

-Beman’s recently-announced 13-story office building for Marshall Field to reach 170′ (to be discussed later in this chapter); 

-Beman’s Pullman Building, 165′; 

-Boyington’s Royal Insurance Building, 164′; 

-Burnham & Root’s Insurance Exchange, 160′; 

-Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, 159’; 

-Burnham & Root’s Counselman, Calumet, and Montauk Buildings, 145.’ 

W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station with addition of the 170′ tall towers. (Douglas, Rail City)

So Chicago’s own professional press had lumped the Home Insurance Building (that at this date was only two stories out of the ground with the ironwork scheduled to be started in September) as only one, and one of the shorter ones at that, of a dozen of Chicago’s buildings into the catagory “skyscrapers.” Obviously, in 1884 the Home Insurance Building was not considered to be Chicago’s first skyscraper.

So if the Home Insurance Building was not considered to be Chicago’ first skyscraper at the time of its construction in the Chicago press, how did it eventually become associated with the reputation of being the first skyscraper?  This legend has a long historiography that I will dip into now and then when appropriate to do so, but I am not interested at this point to discuss this in depth.  Chicago’s advocates, acknowledging that New York had erected a number of buildings with 10 or more stories before 1884, in order to claim Chicago as the birthplace of the skyscraper, would eventually settle upon the idea that to be a skyscraper, a building must be skeleton-framed in iron. Therefore, they eventually settled upon the Home Insurance Building as being the first such building: a skyscraper erected solely with an iron frame.  Although this was not factual, as we will see in the next section, the legend of the Home Insurance Building was born and still does not die easily (I’ve been trying to set the historical record straight since 1985.) I will discuss over the next few chapters how this legend evolved after 1888, and why this date is important, but for now, let’s review the development of iron framing before Jenney had incorporated his version of the technique in the Home Insurance building in March 1884.

James Bogardus, McCullough Shot Tower, New York, 1855. (Silver, Lost New York)

I have reviewed in great detail how iron framing developed first in Great Britain, then in France, and eventually in the U.S.  In the U.S., the technique was perfected and patented by New Yorker James Bogardus.  The structure most noteworthy was his McCullough Shot Tower of 1855.  In this tower Bogardus had erected a self-supporting iron frame and then enclosed its interior by erecting brick panels at each level of the iron framing: the technique that will eventually be used to build skyscrapers.  The problem with Bogardus’ system was the exterior iron structure was not protected from fire.  I have reviewed how Peter Wight and others had solved the fire protection problem with interior iron framing with the use of terra cotta casings, so that all of Chicago’s tall office buildings erected in the early 1880s were constructed with an internal iron frame that was fireproofed.  The iron skeleton was then enclosed around its perimeter for protection with exterior masonry bearing walls.  As these buildings quickly grew taller, their exterior brick walls correspondingly grew thicker (and heavier) in order to support the increased weight of the floors above.  This conflicted head-on with the desire to make the windows as large as possible to maximize the daylighting of the interior.  The problem faced by Chicago’s builders of the taller office buildings of the 1880s was how to duplicate the excellent quality of daylighting that was achieved with the cast iron front of the 1850s, without sacrificing the fireproof characteristics of the red brick box of the 1870s.  

Post, Produce Exchange, Photo of Construction showing the iron skeleton framing in the lightcourt walls. (Landau and Condit, New York)

Therefore, the iron frame in 1883 was not an unknown technique waiting to be “invented” as many historians have claimed; by this date it was a well-developed system of construction. George Post was in the process of erecting just such construction in the New York Produce Exchange.  French Engineer Gustav Eiffel had already used this concept in the Statue of Liberty that had been standing in Paris for all to see since October 1881, the first illustration of which had been published in Sept. 1883.

Statue of Liberty under construction in Paris, 1883, Génie Civil, 1883. First Image of the structure of the Statue of Liberty reprinted in the American Press, American Architect, September 1883. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

By 1881 iron construction was being given more exposure in Chicago’s architectural press.  Across the street from the Montauk Block, then under construction, Haverly’s Theater was being erected.  Although the exterior consisted of solid brick walls, the supports of the galleries were all iron, leading Real Estate and Building Journal in July 1881 to state: “It is possible and feasible to construct the auditorium entirely of a light iron framework, which would make it practically fireproof, and every theater should be built this way.”  The same issue contained an article on the newly constructed Cape Henry Lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay: “It is 155′ from base to top.  The exterior, which is octagonal in shape, is constructed of cast iron.  Every story is solidly bolted together by heavy cast iron floor plates… 7,000 pounds of bolts were required.” This article may well have been the inspiration for the structure used by Beman in the Pullman water tower that had been made by Bouton and Pullman’s Union Foundry and Pullman Car-Wheel Works that was also responsible two years later in 1883 for producing the largest iron columns built during the 1880s, the massive phoenix columns for the tower of the Board of Trade. 

S. S. Beman, Pullman Water Tower, Town of Pullman, 1880. Section, Elevation. The 100′ tall iron columns that support the 500,000 gal. tank. (Online)

During the summer of 1883, the 16-sided Panorama Building at the corner of Wabash and Hubbard Court (Balbo) was under construction to house a 400′ long by 45′ high painting of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Designed by Bauer & Hill, the building’s 130′ diameter clearspan was framed entirely in wrought iron whose interior was enclosed by brick walls:

“The walls are fifty feet ten inches high, roof dome-shaped.  The constructive part of the building is entirely of wrought iron.  Iron pillars being anchored to the foundations of the piers run to the roof and continue in arched ribs to a center ring-piece, which supports a ventilating cupola.  The surrounding walls are to be entirely of brick, ornamented with galvanized belt courses and cornices.”

The success of the city’s first panorama prompted the erection of a second such building across the street from the first one in the spring of 1884, to poignantly house a painting of the 1871 Siege of Paris.  Chicago’s leaders were not about to let the actions of Paris’ Communards in 1871 fade from memory with this warning of how the event ended.  Although the building was designed by New York architect, John M. Carrere, its construction was supervised by Jenney, at the same that he had just started to consider the use of iron sections in the Home Insurance Building.  

Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. Note the skeletal nature of the structure surrounding the Trading Floor. (Chicagology.com)

In fact, in 1883 we began to see the reemergence of iron framing in the exteriors of Chicago buildings.  The first such instance appears to have been Boyington’s Board of Trade Trading Floor (image), where, with the apparent assistance of Normand Patton, iron columns at the building’s perimeter were used to support the heavy iron trusses that spanned the 170’ wide space. These were fireproofed by being encased in masonry.  Next in line appears to have been Cobb & Frost’s use of exposed iron framing in the first two floors of the Opera House Block.  In summary, in March 1884, when Jenney was thinking about using iron sections in the exterior piers of the Home Insurance Building, iron framing for multistoried buildings was already an accomplished fact, not a new idea that he was the first to invent.

Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block, Chicago 1884. Detail of the exposed iron framing in the first two floors. (Condit, Chicago)


To prove this point, Frederick Baumann, who had established a reputation as Chicago’s leading theoretician on building construction with his development of the uniformly-stressed pad foundation in 1873, appears to have been one of the earliest Americans to apply the concept of Bogardus’ independent iron frame to the construction of tall buildings, since it had fallen out of favor following the Civil War, in an article, “Improved Construction of High Buildings,” published in the March 15, 1884, issue of Sanitary News.  

“The design is to erect on foundations a firm and rigid skeleton, or hull, of iron, and cover it at once with a proper roof… The practicability of erecting buildings on Chicago soil, twelve and more stories high, then becomes a fact. Light, the great desideratum in all city buildings, is secured, even on the lowest-the most valuable-floors, whereas, otherwise, the necessarily broad piers would be a hinderance.  The piers may not only be made narrow, but shallow-twenty-seven inches at the most, thus, again making a saving of light..  The iron uprights are to be provided with a series of projecting brackets for the purpose of anchoring and supporting the parts forming the exterior enclosure.  These supporting brackets will be so arranged as to permit an independent removal of any part of the exterior lining, which may have been damaged by fire or otherwise.  The iron-floor girders are securely fastened to the outer posts at both ends.  This imparts firmness to the structure”

Baumann later stated that he had already publicly presented his scheme at an earlier lecture, so first public discussion of his ideas would have necessarily preceded the article by, being conservative, at least two weeks to account for writing, editing and printing.  This, then pushes the date of Baumann’s first presentation of the concept conservatively back to at least March 1, 1884, if not even earlier.  At the same time, Jenney had received the commission to design the Home Insurance Building.  According to Jenney’s personal notes, the first mention and calculation of the iron sections that he planned to embed within the building’s exterior masonry piers was dated April 17, 1884, over a month after the publication of Baumann’s ideas. 

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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