Left: LeRoy S. Buffington, Competition Entry for Sailors’ and Solders’ Monument, Indianoplis, 1887. (American Architect, April 1888); Right: First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Having reviewed Eiffel’s pioneering use of iron in large structures and how it was reported in the American professional press (that was followed by Buffington), I can now return to LeRoy Buffington’s proposal to erect his all-iron framed, 28-story, 350’ high Cloudscraper, the first image of which was published in the July 1888 Inland Architect. Just to set our clocks, in July 1888 construction in Chicago was just beginning to stir from its two-year long class warfare-imposed stoppage. Louis Sullivan was dismantling the temporary hall erected for the Republican Convention within the Auditorium site while Adler was taken by Peck on a tour of European theaters. And the French Republican government had celebrated Bastille Day, July 14, with a fireworks display launched from the top of construction of Eiffel’s Tower that had reached the second level, at a height of 380.’

Buffington’s design for the exterior of the Cloudscraper revealed the influence of Richardson.  Historian Dimitri Tselos was one of the first to identify Its resemblance to the tower in the Allegheny County Courthouse: the corners of the tower have an engaged round turret that was topped with its own conical roof, and even the tower was capped with a pyramidal roof. It was once believed that the design was by Harvey Ellis, an itinerant architect/renderer who had been hired by Buffington in 1886 to produce a number of competition drawings.  This was based on the thought that Ellis had once worked for Richardson, and hence, the direct linkage with Richardson’s work, but recent scholarship has since argued that there is no record of Ellis’ employment in the Richardson office records.  

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Online)

From my perspective, the most important detail in Buffington’s design historically, was the 18-story unbroken vertical piers. On top of a three-story base, Buffington placed a body of 18 floors of repetitive, alternating windows and spandrels. Although this detail had been used by architects before (once again, I repeat that Sullivan did not invent this language), the sheer height of just the 18 unbroken stories was more than 50% taller than any existing building in the world!

Buffington, Cloudscraper, Typical Floor Plan and Section. The elevator doors opened into the corridor. There were to be two sets of firestairs within the core. At each floor, two flights (opposite of each other) went up to a common landing, and two flights (again, opposite of each other) went down to the landing. (Yes, apparently as you made your way down, you had to walk around the corridor to get to the next flight down.) (Online)

The 350′ tower had a plan 80′ by 80′ in which Buffington had wrapped the perimeter with a single loaded corridor, leaving the center as a core comprised of 12 elevators around its perimeter within which was set a fire exit with twin sets of stairs.  A rotunda on the ground floor gave easy access to the elevators, which were “arranged so that each two floors have their own elevator, so that the passengers to the twenty-second or twenty-third story, for instance, may make the trip without stop, thus expediting the service greatly.”  (A minor problem with this scheme that we can probably overlook was that the twelve elevators with this design could serve 24 of the 27 upper floors…)

Reactions in America’s press in the second half of 1888 to Buffington’s proposal ran the full spectrum from pure enthusiasm to sarcastic disbelief:

The Building Record (of New York):

“An architect in Minneapolis, Minn., who is neither a crank nor an ignoramus, proposes to go New York eight stories better, and has actually drawn working plans for a twenty-eight story office building.  His principle of construction is peculiar.  It is said that some of his devices are patented and his plans copyrighted.  As nearly as we can gather, each story is supported independently, and is a continuous skeleton of metal.  By this marvelous plan he expects that any one story will be built to stand alone, and by this means the weight of the upper sections are carried on shelves to support the skeleton, thus doing away with thick walls, as from twelve to fifteen inches is all that is needed on any story.  As in all such schemes, the details are not for the public, this enterprising individual is regarded by his fellow citizens as an architect of no ordinary caliber… The West takes the persimmons, and no mistake.”

The Architectural News:          

“L.S. Buffington, an architect, claims to have invented a system of construction to build buildings in iron.  He does not know that the expansion and contraction of iron would crack all the plaster; that in a few years there would be only the shell left.  Iron is good in its place, but not to build buildings entirely of.”

No matter how one had viewed Buffington’s patented system when it was first announced, one fact was consistent throughout all of the published reviews of the Cloudscraper: nowhere did any author mention the precedent of an existing building in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, or any other city that had been constructed solely with an iron skeleton frame. No one challenged the granting of or the validity of his patent.  As we have seen, this was simply because no tall building as of July 1888 had yet to have been so conceived or constructed (with the possible exception of Burnham & Root’s Midland Hotel in Kansas City).  

Buffington had wisely prepared the architectural community in anticipation of a successful patent application by keeping his name in front of the profession with the monthly publication of a variety of his projects in Inland Architect and American Architect during the last half of 1887 and the first half of 1888.   The real measure of his professional reputation in the Midwest at the time of his patent, however, was that he was voted to be the Vice-President of the Western Association of Architects at its 1888 convention held in Chicago that November, only four months after the first publication of his “Cloudscraper.”  This was no small responsibility at this point in time, for the W.A.A. had initiated a campaign to consolidate the country’s two architectural professional organizations into a new, nationwide association. (See next Chapter.) 

Thus was the reputation and professional stature of Buffington immediately following the publication of his patent and the 28-story Cloudscraper in the fall of 1888.  If the Cloudscraper was such a joke, as some historians have since made it out to be, some having gone so far as to not only just ignore it, but to also actively ridicule it as well as his professional abilities (see Sec. 3.17), would Buffington have been held in such high regard by his contemporaries to have been elected the Vice President of the W.A.A. at such a critical point in its short history?  


Christison, Muriel B., “LeRoy S. Buffington and the Minneapolis Boom of the 1880’s,” Minnesota History, Sept. 1942, p. 50. 

Larson, Gerald R., “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the United States,” in Zukowsky, John, Chicago Architecture: 1872-1922, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

Morrison, Hugh, “Buffington and the Invention of the Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, vol. XXVI, No. 1, March 1944, p.1.

Tselos, Dimitris. “The Enigma of Buffington’s Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, March 1944, p. 3.

Upjohn, E.M. (1935) “Buffington and the Skyscraper,” The Art Bulletin, v.17, 1935, p. 67.

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


Stephan Sauvestre, Early Design for the 300-M Tower. The two side towers contained the elevators to the tower, so that the center was left open from the ground. Fortunately, Eiffel decided the elevators should follow the curve of the legs, a technology never tried before. Fortunately, Otis Elevators were able to solve the problem. (Online)

It still took seven more months for the government and Eiffel to sign a contract on January 8, 1887.  The primary issue that took so much time in negotiating was the financing of the project.  The government was adamant about limiting its financial exposure in the project to 1,500,000 francs, and having no financial liability whatsoever (the final cost of the tower was 7,800,000 francs).  Eiffel eventually had to stake not only his reputation, but his personal financial stability by agreeing to accept sole responsibility for financing the entire project, less the government subsidy.  In return for doing so, he asked for and was granted the concession for all receipts generated by the tower (including the sale of all images of the tower!) for the next twenty years.  In typical fashion, Eiffel had the self-confidence to form a stock company to finance the project, offering 10,000 shares at 500 francs each.  Having calculated the expected return based on attendance estimates, he would keep half of the shares for himself.  He recovered his entire costs within the first year, and the following years’ profits would make him truly financially independent.


Excavation Begins, January 1887. (Online)

Once he had a signed contract, Eiffel wasted no time and began clearing the Champ de Mars and excavating for the tower’s foundations on January 28. (Four days after Adler started clearing the site for the Auditorium.)  The traditionalists at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, would not go down without at least one last-ditch attack on the metal symbol of the Republican future.  They had defeated Viollet-le-Duc when he had been appointed by Napoléon III to the École, it was time to do the same to the upstart, distasteful engineer.  Paul Planat, publisher of the conservative magazine La construction modern, hosted a dinner on December 18, 1886, for the leading alumni of the École, where champagne flowed while a variety of sarcastic skits and cynical songs roasted Eiffel and his “funnel planted on its fat butt.”  Charles Garnier, the architect of the imperial Paris Opera, who had also coined the term, “Second Empire,” to describe its imperial style, would be at the forefront of the reactionary attack on Eiffel.  A committee of 300 (one for every meter) leading artists and intellectuals who were vehemently opposed to the construction of the metal tower was formed to register their protest.  On February 14, 1887, Le Temps printed an open letter now known as the “Artists’ Protest,” to Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, stating the reasons for their opposition:

“…we, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of the threatened art and history of France, against the erection, right at the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the caustic public, often endowed with good sense and judgment, has already dubbed the “Tower of Babel.”… Without falling into an excess of chauvinism, we have the right to proclaim aloud that Paris is a city without rival in the world…

“Are we then going to allow all this to be profaned?  Is the city of Paris then going to associate herself with the grotesque, mercenary inventions of a machine builder, so as to deface and deflower her?… when foreigners come to see our exhibition, they will cry out in astonishment, “What!  This is the atrocity which the French have created to give us an idea of their boasted taste!”  And they will be right to laugh at us because the Paris of sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon,… will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre-Dame, the Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe; all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed buildings will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years, over the whole city which still trembles with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see stretching out like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

Construction of the Foundation for One of the Legs, April 1887. (Online)

The protest was signed by 47 of Paris’ outraged leading citizens, including architects Charles Garnier and Joseph Auguste Émile Vaudremer, composer Charles Gounod, artist Ernest Meissonier, poet Francois Coppée and writers, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, and Sully Prudhomme.  Not surprising, missing from the list were the names of all of the well-established Impressionist painters in Paris (Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro) that were all fighting the same ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes during this period for their own medium.  In fact, Georges Seurat would use the tower as the subject of a painting he did in the year before the Fair opened. 

Georges Seurat, The Eiffel Tower, 1888. (The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)

Having a contract in hand, as well as already having started construction, Eiffel could afford to be controlled and rather understated in his replies to these onerous, desperate criticisms of his design and his abilities:

“I believe that the Tower will have its own beauty.  Because we are engineers, do people think that we do not care about the beauty of our constructions and that as well as making them strong and durable, we do not try to make them elegant?…

“Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?   The first principle of the aesthetics of architecture is that the essential lines of a monument should be determined by their perfect appropriateness to their end.  Now, what condition do I have to take into consideration above all others in a tower?  Wind resistance.  Well I maintain that the curves of the four arrises of the monument, as the calculations have determined them, will give an impression of beauty because they will demonstrate to the viewer the boldness of the conception.”

Eiffel had simply repeated the argument in favor of a modern aesthetic whose lineage reached back to the French theoretician, Marc Antoine Laugier, who had written in his 1753 treatise, Essai sur l’architecture, that architectural beauty comes not from the man-made precedents of the past, but from the processes of Nature.  Perhaps, however, the argument was best made by Jules Simon, the Minister of Fine Arts who wrote in the official guide for the Eiffel Tower:  

“This masterpiece of the builder’s art comes at its appointed hour, on the threshold of the twentieth century, to symbolize the age of iron we are entering.  From the second platform, and, above all from the upper-most, a panorama unfolds such as never been seen by human eyes…Nature and history are unrolled side by side in their most powerful guise.  It is on the plain, stretched out beneath your feet, that the past comes to an end.  It is here that the future will be fulfilled.”

Indeed, Garnier and his co-signers were rooted in the aesthetics, as well as the politics of the imperial past; time and technology had already left the protestors’ ideas in their dust. The Republican government had ideas different from theirs; construction of the iron tower would continue unabated with its blessing. Vive la République!

Completion of the First Level, March 26, 1888. (Online)


Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

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


Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin, “Pylon 300 meters high for the city of Paris, 1889,” June 6, 1884. Note that the Statue of Liberty is still in Paris at this time. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

On June 6, 1884, Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin produced their first drawing of their ideas. Koechlin described their design as “four lattice girders standing apart at the base and coming together at the top, joined to one another by metal trusses at regular intervals.” Similar to the Garrabit publicity drawing, the tallest buildings in Paris (that at this time included the Statue of Liberty!) were stacked one on top of another to give the viewer an idea of the magnitude of the tower’s vertical scale.  They approached Eiffel with their idea, who seemed indifferent but gave his blessing to them to continue, but more than likely at this moment was still very much focused on the completion of the Garrabit Bridge.  The two engineers brought in architect Stephen Sauvestre, director of the company’s architectural department, for his assistance in making the engineered idea into an aesthetically acceptable monument, who added the decorative fake aches at the base, usable spaces at each of the three levels, and the requisite Beaux-Arts sprinkling of gratuitous monumental sculptures.

First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

A drawing of this design was exhibited at the Decorative Arts Exhibition that autumn (1884) at the Palais de l’Industrie. Around this time, the Garrabit Bridge was completed that allowed Eiffel to switch his attention from the bridge to the tower project, that by now was gaining traction within some circles.  By September, the three were ready to patent their design with the wise inclusion of their boss, that was submitted on September 18, 1884.  The Washington Monument was completed on December 6, and only six days later on December 12, Eiffel signed an agreement with his three employees to buy their patent rights and became the sole holder of the patent.  The very next day, December 13, only one week following the completion of the Washington Monument, le Genie Civil proudly published Sauvestre’s drawing.  

Above: James Buchanan Eads, Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River, St. Louis, 1867-74. (Online); Below: Gustave Eiffel, Garabit Viaduct, 1879. (Online)

Having claimed the record for the longest arch span from the Americans with the Douro and Garrabit bridges, Gustave Eiffel had now set his sights on the just completed Washington Monument:

“Without rebuilding the Tower of Babel, one can see that the idea of constructing a tower of very great height has for a long time haunted the imagination of mankind.   This kind of victory over the terrible law of gravity which attaches man to the ground always appeared to him a symbol of the forces and the difficulties to be overcome.  To speak only of our century, the thousand-feet tower which would exceed by twice the highest monuments it had been possible to hitherto construct [Washington Monument], was a problem set down to be solved in the minds of English [Trevithick, 1832 and Charles Burton, 1852] and American [Philadelphia Phoenix Tower, 1874] engineers.”

In all reality, the Eiffel engineers were also reacting to a proposal made the previous year by architect Jules Bourdais, who had also graduated from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures only two years after Eiffel, to erect a 300m masonry lighthouse in Paris.   The idea, a “Tour Soleil,” had been originally proposed by Amédée Sébillot, a young electrical engineer after he had made a trip to the U.S. in 1881, at which time the construction of the Washington Monument had been restarted.  He proposed to combine 100 electric lamps with parabolic reflectors into a 165′ high electric beacon that would sit atop the tower.  Its purpose was obvious, to use technology to overcome the limitations of the night by providing more light than was needed to read a newspaper within a radius several miles from the tower.  (Elmer Sperry would succeed in building just such a lamp in Chicago with the Board of Trade’s corona in late 1885.) Bourdais, an arch-traditionalist architect who was best known for his work on the Trocadero Palace with Gabriel Davioud in 1876, had adopted the idea and applied it to a masonry tower that was to rise from a 217′ high granite base.  The tower that ultimately would have supported the metal beacon consisted of five masonry drums, decreasing in diameter as the tower rose.  The masonry tower was to be covered with embossed copper sheets and surrounded with an arcaded screen that tapered with the reduction in diameter of the drums and supported galleries at each stepback in the tower.  Bourdais’ design was an example to the Americans who were in the process of completing the Washington Monument of how to design an “architecturally correct” monument.

Jules Bourdais, Design for a monumental lighthouse for Paris, 1883. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Even though Bourdais had sheathed his masonry tower in copper, once Eiffel’s competing design was published in le Genie Civil, Bourdais began to lash out at Eiffel’s “vulgar” use of exposed iron.  Thus began the next battle in France’s ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns) that I had first discussed in Vol. 2, Sec. 1.7 with its start in 1687. In this latest debate to win the hearts and minds of Parisians, the issue was the merits of “traditional” architecture in stone versus “innovative” or modern scientifically-based buildings that actually revealed their industrially-produced metal structure.  Eiffel attacked the feasibility of constructing a stone edifice to the height projected by Bourdais from five important, fundamental issues: the ability of stone and its mortar to resist the magnitude of the weight of the tower, Bourdais’s lack of understanding of the actual wind forces on such a tower, Bourdais’ seemingly cavalier attitude towards a foundation for such a massive weight (there was none, it was to simply sit of the ground), the actual cost of such a structure, and finally, the time required to construct such a monumental tower in masonry.  Bourdais’ offhanded, third-person response was meant to end all discussion:

“As regards stability, and, more particularly, with respect to wind resistance, Monsieur Bourdais used a formula which he says he has tested in practice more than once, and whose results, according to him, agree with dimensions used in the tallest buildings in the world.  We shall accept his results without questioning them… the dimensions of the tower give no ground for fear, since the height of the tower does not exceed the maximum height permitted by theory…Thus there is no cause for anxiety here.”

Bourdais was clearly out of his league with such a structure, but his ego could not admit this fact.  Eiffel was quick to prove the point:

“It goes without saying that iron will never entirely replace stone and wood…but in recent years there has been a constant battle, and iron increasingly invaded the field of major construction, and today it is one of the principal materials.  What are the advantages of metal?  Primarily, its elasticity [strength].  From the point of view of the loads which one can safely support with one or other of the materials we know, for equal area, iron is ten times more elastic than wood and twenty times more elastic than stone.  It is in large constructions especially that metal elasticity reveals its superiority over other materials.  The actual weight of the work plays a considerable role; it limits the height and distance which one can reach.   At the same time, the relative lightness of steel constructions makes it possible to decrease the importance of supports and foundations.”


Eiffel and Bourdais continued to promote their designs and to throw barbs at their opponent’s design throughout 1885, but in truth, there was no real consensus over whether there should even be a fair in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of the 1789 revolution.  After all, there was no consensus among the general French population about what was the best form of national government: communist, republican, imperial, or monarchy.  They had tried them all at one time or another during the past 100 years, and all four were still very much in play in 1885, for not every Frenchmen viewed either the Revolution or the Second Empire as a positive event.  To the benefit of Eiffel’s long-term reputation, the general election of 1885 in the fall would return the incumbent Republican government to office that finally settled the issue.  The celebration of the revolution’s centennial was assured, and it would need an iconic, central point of interest.  Eiffel had been very active in promoting his design during the intervening year, and at least among the Republican ministers who were going to be in charge of the fair, his design was unanimously viewed as being the most symbolic of the progressive political ideas of the revolution they wished to promote through the fair.  As usual, no one was more articulate about the political symbolism of his design, than Eiffel himself:

“The tower would seem to be worthy of personifying the art of the modern engineer and the century and science, for which the road was prepared by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be erected as testimony of the gratitude of France.”

The effectiveness of Eiffel’s campaign was such that the Minister of Trade, Édouard Lockroy formally announced on May 1, 1886, that the period for proposing designs, which had been ongoing since the first official prospectus on the fair was issued in March 1885, would end on May 18 and that all designs: 

“must investigate the possibility of erecting a square-based iron tower, 125 meters square at the base and 300 meters high, on the Champ de Mars.  They must draw out this tower on the plan of the Champ de Mars, and if they deem it fitting, they may submit another plan without the said tower.”

The architectural and political conservatives, led by Paul Planat and his magazine La construction moderne, attempted to derail Eiffel’s design that same day with an editorial that denounced it as “an inartistic…scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron.”  Only a few hours later, across the Atlantic, over 350,000 workers began a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday in the U.S.  Four days later, a bomb was thrown into a group of Chicago policemen in the Haymarket Square.  While American business leaders reacted with overwhelming force to thwart America’s labor reformers from achieving their goal in the summer of 1886, the French Republicans, who had first overthrown Napoléon III’s Second Empire, and then had to defeat the Paris Commune, were still in control of the national government and would succeed in fighting off the efforts of Second Empire reactionaries to stifle the ultimate expression of the centennial of their revolution in the modern form of Eiffel’s iron tower.

Suspicions were aroused by the unreasonably short period of only eighteen days allowed to design, refine, and render a plan for what would be the tallest structure ever constructed, but still, over one hundred submissions were recorded by the deadline.  On May 12 a committee was formed, chaired by Lockroy and Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, to review the designs.  It identified a list of nine semi-finalists, that included Bourdais’ (who had to obviously revise his masonry design using iron) and Eiffel’s designs, and after much discussion and review by the Republican committee, on June 12, 1886, it announced:

“the tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition should clearly have a distinctive character, and should be an original masterpiece of work in metal, and that only the Eiffel Tower seemed to satisfy these requirements fully.”

The Modernes had won this round of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes Vive la République!

The Eiffel Tower and the Highest Monuments in the World.” The French now can acknowledge the Washington Monument, albeit in perspective, it appears shorter in relation to the Eiffel Tower than in reality. (Revue illustrée, 1889; Loyrette, Eiffel)


Larson, Gerald R., “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the United States,” in Zukowsky, John, Chicago Architecture: 1872-1922, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

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


First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Let’s review the 300-meter tower in order to get a better appreciation for the measure of Eiffel’s accomplishment.  Why was it built in the first place?  Perhaps the first published image of the Eiffel Tower in the American press may have said it best.  On it were listed the tallest structures in the world at this moment:

                  Strasbourg Cathedral             142m/469′

                  Rouen Cathedral                     150m/495′

                  Cologne Cathedral                 159m/515′

                  “Projected” Tower                    300m/986′

Curiously, the Washington Monument, completed to a height of 555′, making it the tallest structure in the world, on December 6, 1884, only a week earlier than when this drawing was first published in France, was not included in this list.  Neither was the German St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, completed in 1874 at 483.’ There may have been just a “slight amount of national prestige” involved in the final decision to build Eiffel’s Tower.  Le Genie Civil proudly announced Eiffel’s design on December 13, 1884:

“For a long time it seemed as if the Americans were to remain the leaders in these daring experiments that characterize the investigations of a special genius that enjoys pushing… the strength of materials to their extreme limits.  (But now France could finally be proud of Eiffel and his engineers, who were had mastered) the colossal aspects of the problem… they seem to have considered these aspects as a natural extension of the enormous metal structures that they executed earlier, and in fact they do not feel that these aspects represent the maximum achievement possible in the erection and superimposition of metal.”

Johann Sonntag, The Duke of Lorraine and Imperial Troops Crossing the Rhine before Strasbourg, 1744. Strasbourg Cathedral, 1015-1439. At 469’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1647-1874. (Online)

It is a little-appreciated fact that even before the Prussian’s crushing defeat of the Second Empire in 1871, the French and the Germans had been engaged in a very serious game of nationalistic one-upmanship in terms of who had the tallest building in the world.  The spire of 469’ Strasbourg Cathedral (the city had been a Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman (German) Empire since 1262) was thought to have been the tallest structure in the Western world since 1647, when a lightning strike had destroyed the 495′ spire of St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany.  (The Great Pyramid of Cheops, originally built to 481’ but over time its veneer had been stripped reducing its height to 450’ was but a legend at this time. Its height wasn’t truly measured until 1882.)  This was the record-holding position the Strasbourg tower held in 1681 when Louis XIV annexed the city into the Kingdom of France.  This “temporary” ownership by the French, however, had not prevented Goethe from reminding one and all that it been a German who had originally designed it (in 1015, completed in 1439) in his 1772 essay, On German Architecture:

“thank God that [we Germans] can proclaim that this is German architecture, our architecture.  For the Italian has none he can call his own, still less the Frenchman.”

Notwithstanding the building’s German heritage, French cultural chauvinism had grown accustomed over the last 190 years to having the tallest building in the world.  (Even though in April 1794 following the revolution, its tower had been slated for demolition by anticleric radicals  who argued that the church was counter to the idea of equality.  Fortunately, within a month a group of townspeople stopped the plan by constructing a huge, metal Phrygian cap over the top of the tower. On the other hand, France’s largest and arguably, most historic church, the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny was not so fortunate.) But like so many other embarrassments that resulted from the 1870-1 war with the Prussians, Strasbourg, as part of Alsace, was lost by the French (or returned to Germany) when it was annexed into the new German Empire.  

George Gilbert Scott, St. Nikolai Kirche, Hamburg, 1846-74. At 483’, it was the tallest building in the world, 1874-76. (Online)

In 1874, the spire of St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, newly designed in 1846 from the ground up by British architect George Gilbert Scott (Midland Hotel in front of St. Pancras Station), was completed to a new record of 483,’ that only poured salt into the French post-war psyche.  The French reclaimed the record within two years in 1876 when Rouen Cathedral, whose lantern spire had been destroyed by lightning in 1822, received a new cast iron spire that was completed to the purposeful height of 495′ in order to be taller than the final projected height of the spires of Cologne Cathedral, then nearing completion. 

Rouen Cathedral and its Lantern Tower, 1876. At 495’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1876-1880. The right tower, known as the “Butter Tower,” was the precedent used by Raymond Hood in the design of the Chicago Tribune building. (Online)

But this record held for only a short four years, however, for the finials on Cologne’s spires were simply made even taller. Kaiser Wilhelm I, who had been crowned at Versailles only nine years earlier, once again was happy to deliver the coup de grace to the French by dedicating the 515′ high twin towers of Cologne Cathedral on August 14, 1880.

Cologne Cathedral, completed 1880. At 515’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1880-1884. (Online)


The resumption of construction of the Cologne Cathedral seems to have provided the final impetus for the U.S. Government to complete the Washington Monument.  Construction on the monument had been abandoned since 1854, where it had reached only 170′ of Robert Mills original height of 600′ in his 1846 design.  Its current condition stood as a testament to the state of the national will of the time: while the original ambition was to build the tallest structure in the world, the American government and its people could not deliver the goods.  The revival of nationalistic pride that accompanied the centennial in 1876 had finally pressured Congress to address the project.  In August 1876, it passed a joint resolution in which Congress “in the name of the people of the United States, at the beginning of the Second Century of the National Existence, do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument in the city of Washington.”  The privately funded Monument Society ceded its property, including the half-constructed obelisk, to the Federal Government, and the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a review of the structure’s foundation.

Partially Completed Washington Monument, photographed by Matthew Brady, ca. 1860. (Online)

The problem was that architectural tastes had greatly changed since 1846, when Mills’ Classical simplicity of the obelisk was then in vogue.  Almost everyone thought it would be best to demolish the existing work and start over, including with a different, more fashionable design.  Drawings and suggestions had flooded the committee charged with completing the project, and gridlock, so typical of Congress, resulted.  Meanwhile, Rouen Cathedral had been topped off at 495′ in 1876 with the appropriate fanfare.  

The Washington National Monument Society, Revised Plan, after 1873. Note Strasbourg Cathedral on the left. At this time, the projected height of the monument was 501.’ (Library of Congress, Freeman, Columbia Historical Society)

One of the first steps that led to the final design of the Washington Monument was a paper presented to the Monument Society in 1876 by J. Goldsborough Bruff.  In it he pointed out that great strides in Egyptian archeology had been made since Mills’ original design, and that it should be revised to be more historically accurate.  He had, therefore, redesigned the obelisk, setting its final height at 501′ one foot higher than the recent-announced revised height of 500′ of Cologne, that had been increased in order to be taller than Rouen.  In October 1877, the Army Corps of Engineers issued its report on the foundation, stating that it could be reinforced to support the original Mills design if so desired.  More than two years of deadlock continued while the Germans pushed ahead with the completion of Cologne, the final height of which had again been increased this time by fifteen feet to 515′ to be taller than the proposed American monument.   Cologne was completed in 1880.   

The Washington Monument as the tallest structure in the world, 1884. To the left of the Washington Monument, #34 is Cologne Cathedral. To the right, #42 is the spire of Lincoln Cathedral, destroyed in 1549. (Online)

The extra height, however, was simply not sufficient to hold back the Americans, who had reproportioned the obelisk to a truer ratio of the height equals ten times the base.  This made the final height of the obelisk to be 555′ and 51/8“.  By this time, the work on the foundation by the Army Corps of Engineers had been finished and they were recommending that the project be completed.  On August 7, 1880, only the week before Kaiser Wilhelm would dedicate the completed Cologne Cathedral, President Rutherford B. Hayes placed a new cornerstone and construction finally resumed.  An aluminum pyramid was set at the top of the obelisk on December 6, 1884, completing the tallest structure in the world.  Was it simply a coincidence or naked French chauvinism that found two of Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin, discussing and doing preliminary calculations on their own for a 300-m iron tower in May 1884, as the Washington Monument neared completion?

Washington Monument. Setting the Aluminum Capstone, December 6, 1884. (Online)

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


Left: LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for Iron Building Construction, May 22, 1888. (Online); Right: Gustave Eiffel, Iron Structure of the Statue of Liberty, 1880. (Trachtenberg, Statue of Liberty)

Buffington’s patent bore an uncanny resemblance to the iron structure that had been designed for the Statue of Liberty and erected in New York harbor only two years before the granting of his patent.  We last discussed Eiffel’s progress with the Statue in Vol. 3 Sec. 8.8 where he had completed its trial erection in Paris during January 1884.  Eiffel had designed a 92′ tall central wrought iron spine or pylon similar to the 200’ tall pylons he had recently designed for the Garrabit bridge, to be inserted into Bartholdi’s hollow copper sculpture, the individual copper plates of which would be independently hung from the pylon. 

Eiffel, Garrabit Viaduct under construction, 1883. (Loyrete, Eiffel)

The iron pylon consisted of four columns made of riveted (laminated) wrought iron plates.  These were connected with diagonal bracing that gave the pylon its stiffness against the wind.  A secondary system of wrought iron braces was built from the pylon that roughly estimated the actual shape of the sculpture.  This system’s role was to support each copper plate independent of the others, primarily to avoid the accumulation of the weight from the plates above, and to permit thermal movement in the copper to freely occur so that the statue would not tear itself apart as the seasons changed from summer expansion to winter contraction. (In concept, the copper plates comprised a “curtain wall” hung from the iron spine.)  Each copper plate was, therefore, joined to the secondary braces by a system of custom-fitted iron straps, that were not directly attached to the copper plates, but were slotted into copper sheathes that were riveted to the copper plates, again to allow each metal to move independent of the other.

Gustave Eiffel, Iron Structure of the Statue of Liberty, Paris, 1883. (Trachtenberg, Statue of Liberty)

Typical of Eiffel’s precision, the statue had been first erected piece by piece to make sure everything fit like a glove, at the Monduit workshop in Paris where the copper plates were being fabricated.  Erection of the iron pier began in October 1881, and by January 1884, Lady Liberty could be seen from all over Paris.  We know that Buffington had made a trip to Europe in September 1884 and that the statue wasn’t dismantled until January 1, 1885.  Any American architect traveling to Europe in the 1880s would have wanted to visit Paris to see its architecture, so it may have been by sheer coincidence that Buffington stumbled across the Statue of Liberty for the first time.  If so, it would not be his last visit. 

Gustave Eiffel, The Statue of Liberty erected in Paris, 1884. (Online)

As American architects were gingerly experimenting in the summer of 1885 with the iron frame as a potential structural system for the skyscraper, the French were exporting Eiffel’s advanced iron technology in 214 wooden crates aboard the French frigate Isère directly to New York.  Eiffel’s structure arrived in the U.S. on June 17, 1885, but its erection had to wait until the pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt was ever so slowly completed.   Erection of Eiffel’s iron tower in all its naked glory did not begin until April 1886, just weeks before the Haymarket Square bombing, and the statue was finally in place by October 1886, for its dedication on October 28, 1886.

Construction of Statue of Liberty, Summer of 1886. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)


Scientific American, June 13, 1885. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)

So when did Buffington actually “find” Eiffel’s work?  His documents reveal that he worked on his patent application from the summer of 1886 until November 14, 1887, when he submitted his application.  The first illustration of Eiffel’s structure for the Statue of Liberty in an American journal was in the September 1883 issue of American Architect, a year before Buffington’s trip to Europe in September 1884. Meanwhile, Daniel Badger died in November 1884.  In his obituary, American Architect reviewed Badger’s pioneering work with iron construction and credited his “many buildings with cast-iron fronts erected by him… which, although presenting no difficult engineering problems, are remarkable for the ingenuity with which a complete structure of iron is substituted for the masonry.” Is this phrase not exactly what Buffington had set out to do with his patent?  On the eve of the statue’s arrival in New York harbor, the American Press had flooded the country with images and articles on it.  The erection of Eiffel’s pylon in plain view for all to see began in April 1886 and the start of Buffington’s patent work that summer obviously coincide, but if this was all the “evidence” one had, it would be somewhat difficult to prove Buffington’s dependence upon Eiffel’s work. 

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, June 13, 1885. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)


First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

However, the American architectural community had already been shocked beyond belief earlier in 1885 by the first articles on Eiffel’s proposed 300-meter iron tower for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.   The first illustration of it was published in the U.S. in February 1885, prior to the Statue of Liberty’s arrival in New York, and therefore, it may have been the Eiffel Tower’s freestanding iron skeleton that first caught Buffington’s attention as a potential solution to building taller skyscrapers.  

There is an actual drawing by Buffington that reveals his study of Eiffel during this period.  The sleek, parabolic profile of his entry for the Indiana State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument competition in November 1887, bore a striking resemblance to the profile of the Eiffel Tower, by then under construction and attracting the attention of the world’s building community.  

Left: LeRoy S. Buffington, Competition Entry for Sailors’ and Solders’ Monument, Indianoplis, 1887. (American Architect, April 1888); Right: First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885.

The parabolic profile of Eiffel’s Tower had been generated by a strict engineering formula that calculates the result of the wind’s pressure (its bending moment) on the structure as if it was a cantilever out of the ground.  As Buffington may have read in early 1885:

“The skeleton of the [Eiffel] tower is composed essentially of four uprights which form the arrises of the pyramid, whose faces are disposed according to a curved surface determined by the theoretical consideration of the effect of wind strains.”

No American building prior to Buffington’s competition entry had ever reflected such a strict adherence to a scientifically generated shape as his did.  


Christison, Muriel B., “LeRoy S. Buffington and the Minneapolis Boom of the 1880’s,” Minnesota History, Sept. 1942, p. 50. 

Larson, Gerald R., “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the United States,” in Zukowsky, John, Chicago Architecture: 1872-1922, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

Morrison, Hugh, “Buffington and the Invention of the Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, vol. XXVI, No. 1, March 1944, p.1.

Trachtenburg, Marvin. The Statue of Liberty. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Tselos, Dimitris. “The Enigma of Buffington’s Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, March 1944, p. 3.

Upjohn, E.M. (1935) “Buffington and the Skyscraper,” The Art Bulletin, v.17, 1935, p. 67.

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


Imagine it’s March 1888, and you are either John Root trying to crank out the punchlist to finish the Rookery (while his 13-story Monadnock Block had been sitting in hybernation), or that you are Louis Sullivan feverishly trying to complete the interior of the Auditorium’s hall by June 1. You open the latest issue of Northwestern Architect and, to your utter amazement, there is an article detailing a proposal to erect a 28-story, 350′ high ‘‘Cloudscraper’’ designed by Minneapolis’ LeRoy Buffington.  At this moment, the 12-storied Washington Building at 258′ was the tallest building in New York, and the Maller Building stood at twelve stories in Chicago (with the Rookery’s eleven stories nearing completion). How would you react?

LeRoy S. Buffington, 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Inland Architect, July 1888)


Buffington’s ‘‘Cloudscraper’’ contained more than twice the number of floors in any American building!  He was able to design such a tall building because he had developed a system of iron framing that enabled the erection of buildings to almost unlimited heights, for which he was granted a patent two months later on May 22, 1888.  News of the patent and the rendering of the ‘Cloudscraper’ had to have greeted Chicago’s architectural community like a cold shower when it was first published in the July 1888 issue of Inland Architect.  Buffington had finally succeeded in giving physical form to James Bogardus’ claim in 1856 that with the iron skeleton frame, it was possible “to erect a tower or building many times the height of any other edifice in the world.”

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for Iron Building Construction, May 22,1888. (Online)


Although George Post would soon prove that masonry bearing walls could be used to erect skyscrapers to heights over 300’ (i.e., the 309’ high Pulitzer/New York World Building completed in 1890: note that the 215’ tall Monadnock Block WAS NOT THE TALLEST BEARING WALL STRUCTURE), the immense thickness of these walls ate up valuable rental area and reduced the amount of daylight penetrating into a building’s interior.  The weight of these thick walls posed a special problem in Chicago, as we have seen, simply because the strength of its soil wasn’t sufficient to support such pressure without excessive settlement.  While American architects and engineers had been using iron framing in the interiors of multistoried buildings for decades, these had always relied upon the rigidity of the masonry exterior walls to stabilize the building against lateral wind loads (i.e., “box” construction). In addition, the masonry exteriors provided a fireproof construction.  In order to erect a building solely with an iron frame (i.e., “frame” construction) meant that the function these walls had provided (i.e., lateral stability and fire resistance) would have to be provided in a different manner.  

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

James Bogardus was the first to erect such an iron-framed tower with the McCullough Shot Tower in 1856, in which he had supported 12” brick panels on each story of iron beams.  His bolted connection of the beams to the columns, in combination with the rigidity provided of the brick walls at the intersection of the columns and beams was sufficient to ensure the tower’s stability. Bogardus had claimed that his cast iron structures were fireproof.  Unfortunately, as the 1871 Chicago fire had proved, Bogardus’ cast iron was not fireproof has he had stated, and the iron frame was forced back into its masonry protective coating.  Peter Wight had eventually solved this problem, following the 1874 Chicago fire with his terra cotta tile fireproofing casings.  As I have documented, George Post was first to detail the exterior walls in the lightcourts of the Equitable Building and Produce Exchange in New York as an iron frame upon which he supported the enclosure’s masonry exterior panels at each level.  John Root had followed Post’s precedents a few years later in the Phoenix Building and Rookery.  The final problem facing builders who wanted to completely free the iron frame from its masonry bondage in 1888 was how to make the iron frame sufficiently rigid to resist wind loads.  As I will describe, Buffington employed a combination of rigid connections at the beam/column intersections and diagonal bracing.


In Chapter 1, we had seen that Buffington had become the Twin Cities’ leading architect during the first half of the 1880s.  By 1885, his office staff had grown to over 30, and it was responsible for buildings from New Hampshire to Wyoming, and from Kentucky to Canada.  In addition to the major buildings in the Twin Cities area, including the Minnesota State Capitol, he had also designed the state Capitols for North Dakota and West Virginia.  A reporter from the Chicago Times probably summed it up best in 1884, stating that:

“the one architect who more than any other has stamped the impress of his artistic personality upon the finest and most costly structures…[and that] his own abilities… have pushed him to the front in the wild race of competition which is characteristic of the great Northwest, particularly so in Minneapolis, the city whose fortunes and those of a few of her enterprising, hard working citizens, of which number Mr. Buffington is one, are so inseparably connected.”

But following the completion of the lavish West Hotel, potential clients had the perception that Buffington had expensive tastes and commercial developers tended to shy away from him.   Hence, the skyscrapers in the Twin Cities constructed in 1885 and 1886 were designed by architects other than Buffington.  This initially had little impact on his practice, as he had aligned himself over the years with the rich and powerful in the area and was kept busy designing mansions for these folks during the second half of the 1880s.  As we have seen in his Boston Block and the West Hotel, Buffington had always shown a keen and informed interest in using iron framing and Wight’s fireproofing systems, but why and how he developed his patent for iron-framed skyscrapers has always been shrouded in mystery and litigation.  

In the years that followed his patent, Buffington would state that he had initially been inspired to develop his system while reading the second volume of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Discourses on Architecture.  While the second volume had been published in France in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, although Henry Van Brunt had published the first English translation of the first volume in 1876, the first English translation of Volume II wasn’t published in the U.S. until late 1881.  Buffington credited these lines from Volume Two as his inspiration:

“A practical architect might not unnaturally conceive the idea of erecting a vast edifice whose frame should be entirely of iron, and clothing that frame, preserving it by means of a casing of stone…But it cannot be too often repeated, Iron should be left independent.  It cannot be allied to masonry.”

The first reports in 1888 of Buffington’s proposal had stressed the uniqueness of the building’s patented construction and described it in detail for those who could not travel to Washington to view the patent drawings:

“It consists of a continuous skeleton of iron, commencing on the iron footings and continuing of iron and steel to the full height.  The framework consists of a series of continuous laminated, riveted iron posts, diminishing in size as they ascend; braced diagonally, after the manner of lattice bridge girders, and horizontally braced by the iron beams of each floor, which form an integral portion of the building…[an] important consideration in the iron construction is the reduced thickness of the walls, as those on the exterior of the building do not in any part exceed 22 inches, thereby giving more light and air to the offices… The exterior is formed of stone and copper.  The stone is carried at each story, of oftener when necessary, by means of horizontal shelves of iron – the shelves themselves being hidden by the stone.”

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for Iron Building Construction, May 22,1888. (Online)

Buffington’s patented system incorporated continuous columns that were built-up by riveting together (also known at the time as “laminated”) plates of wrought iron that overlapped the joints of adjacent plates.  These would be assembled into a rigid rectilinear grid by iron C-section spandrel beams that were riveted to the columns via iron angles.  This created a rigid connection, and thereby, imparted a stiffness to the frame that would be needed to resist the pressure of the wind, if the exterior masonry wall’s structural stiffness was to be eliminated.  Wrought iron floor girders sat on these spandrels and were also riveted to the face of the columns.  

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for Iron Building Construction, May 22,1888. (Online)

Similar to Root’s earlier detailing in the lightcourts in the Phoenix and Rookery, Buffington detailed an iron lintel at the exterior face of each column, at each floor, providing a ledge upon which the building’s lightweight exterior enclosure of masonry and windows could be constructed.  With the exception of the solid section, built-up columns that had never been used in an American building by 1888, Buffington’s system had simply utilized the best contemporary details in use.  The one significant improvement he had made in construction technology was his use of diagonal bracing, one of earliest in an iron-framed skyscraper to increase the frame’s resistance to wind loads.  He had specified double-diagonal bracing per each floor, in the form of thin iron plates that were riveted to the columns and to each other where they crossed.

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for Iron Building Construction, May 22,1888. (Online)


Christison, Muriel B., “LeRoy S. Buffington and the Minneapolis Boom of the 1880’s,” Minnesota History, Sept. 1942, p. 50. 

Larson, Gerald R., “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the United States,” in Zukowsky, John, Chicago Architecture: 1872-1922, Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

Morrison, Hugh, “Buffington and the Invention of the Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, vol. XXVI, No. 1, March 1944, p.1.

Tselos, Dimitris. “The Enigma of Buffington’s Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, March 1944, p. 3.

Upjohn, E.M. (1935) “Buffington and the Skyscraper,” The Art Bulletin, v.17, 1935, p. 67.

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Temporary Enclosure for the 1888 Republican National Convention, June 1888. (urbanremainschicago.com)

With the commitment of the Republicans in December 1887 to come to Chicago in June 1888, the Auditorium Board directed Adler to concentrate all construction efforts towards completing the theater house to a temporary level that would be usable for the convention.  As the design of the theater had been the primary reason for Peck’s insistence on Adler & Sullivan, Adler had brought all his knowledge of and experience with acoustics to bear on its design.  This, and more, would be required as not only did Peck want to build the largest opera house in the world, but also had some decidedly democratic ideals for the theater that were at odds with some of the primary design concepts of the traditional nineteenth century opera house.

Hannaford & Proctor, Music Hall, Cincinnati, 1877. (Online)

First, being built in Chicago during the 1880s, it had to be the world’s biggest opera house (Cincinnati had 3627 seats, La Scala in Milan had 3600 seats). From the standpoint of Peck’s dream of making the Auditorium the permanent location for all Presidential conventions, the Auditorium had to be larger than Cincinnati’s Music Hall, still the largest mixed-use combined Opera House/Convention Hall in the U.S.  One of the reasons for Music Hall’s record seating capacity had been a minimum of private boxes, something that Peck admired.  Music Hall had also been intentionally designed to be flexible in order to accommodate exhibitions and conventions, precisely the model that Peck had chosen for the Auditorium.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1778. (Online)

Besides feeding the bragging rights of the Windy City, the record size was also a result of Peck’s political agenda for the project that he expressed to a Tribune reporter on the eve of the convention: “to be that of affording a meeting ground for the people, where the working masses could experience the influence of the finest music.”  Peck confirmed this later in a letter he wrote to the stockholders just prior to the Auditorium’s grand opening on December 9, 1889: “They [European theaters] are built rather for the few than for the masses – the titled and the wealthy rather than for the people – lacking the broad democratic policy of providing for all which prevails in the arrangement of your Auditorium, thereby lessening the gulf between the classes.”      

Hannaford & Proctor, Music Hall. Banquet in honor of the completion of the Cincinnati & Southern Railroad, 1880. The house was designed so that a level floor could be installed to allow the hall to also perform as a banquet or ballroom floor. (Painter, Music Hall)
Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The raised floor installed for a banquet. (National Trust for Historic Preservation: savingplaces.org)

Therefore, Peck had directed Adler to copy Cincinnati’s Music Hall and eliminate all private boxes, as Edward Garczynski recorded in his 1890 book, The Auditorium: “for [Peck] had no belief in privileged classes, and regards the Metropolitan Opera of New York, where the whole structure is sacrificed to the boxes, with infinite scorn and patriotic dislike.  This was a repetition of effete European ideas, and if there was one thing he impressed upon the architects, it was that he wanted the Auditorium to represent the present and future and not the corrupted past.”  Peck’s objective could not have been more diametrically opposed to the goals of Alva Vanderbilt in her single-minded desire to erect an opera house with as many private boxes as the rich could afford (see Vol. 3, Sec. 10.9.). Peck’s design requirement was one of the reasons for the theater’s non-traditional appearance.  Instead of consisting of concentric layers of private boxes like the Met or the great European Opera Houses, the Auditorium would be a vast sea of 4237 individual seats: Peck’s vision of “democracy.” (A significant number of major stockowners, however, refused to go along with such a radical plan and forced Peck to incorporate a small number (twenty in two tiers on each side) boxes that would, indeed, showcase Chicago “leading citizens.”)

The more seats that were available meant that the price of those seats could be reduced accordingly while still generally covering the costs of producing the event.  Hence, Peck’s primary goal was to make events staged in the Auditorium more affordable to a greater number of people who did not have the income to afford the more expensive productions in Chicago’s smaller venues.  Even so, the Auditorium still had to be larger than Cincinnati’s Music Hall.  Unfortunately, as we will see, this specific objective would force Adler into incorporating two more balconies (a total of three) in the house because he could not effectively fit the required number of seats with only one balcony into the 92’ x 178’ dimensions that the site on Congress Street dictated using his acoustic design requirements.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Section. Note the three balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Because of Chicago’s high watertable, Adler could not lower the stage into the ground in order to reduce the height that patrons had to climb to the upper levels, but placed it, for all practical purposes, at grade.  This meant that the main floor of seating, the Parquet, would start at grade and slope up, off the ground.  (The ramification of this was that he could not reduce the number of stairs one had to climb to the upper balcony by depressing the stage and Parquet into the ground.) Adler, following his well-used “isocoustic curve” that had been developed in 1838 by Scottish engineer John Scott Russell, that generated a curve that delivered uninterrupted sightlines and sound direct from its origin on stage to every listener, was able to comfortably arrange 1442 seats within this level, as it rose 17’ before it intersected with the Upper Foyer, where he stopped the last row, 112’ from the stage’s footlights.  This also permitted the Upper Foyer to provide overflow seating whenever needed.  The Parquet was divided by an iron trellis into the Lower Parquet, whose access was gained through tunnel-like vomitoria from the Main Foyer, located at street level, while ticketholders in the Upper Parquet were required to climb the Grand Stairs one flight to the Upper Foyer.  For acoustic and sightline reasons, Adler minimized the dimension that the First Balcony overhung the Upper Parquet, but once having determined the appropriate starting point for the First Balcony, he let it rise 40’ on its way to the back of the house, completely covering the Upper Foyer.  This move generated the greatest number of seats, 1632, of the four seating levels.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Top: View of interior showing central skylight over the first balcony. Both of the curved partitions have been lowered, closing off the second and third balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium.)

Again, trying to minimize the problems with overhanging the First Balcony, he pushed the Second Balcony as far to the rear of the house as he could (without interfering with sightlines of the First Balcony) before he inserted a number of rows that resulted in an extra 526 seats.  The lowest of these rows, however, was located approximately six stories above the stage, that suggested that elevators would need to be provided to take these ticketholders to their seats.  Doing the math of these three levels reveals a capacity of 3600.  The 40 boxes, each holding five persons delivered another 200, bringing the total capacity to 3800, just a few more than Cincinnati’s 3627, assuming that they would never make any changes.  Just to make sure that the Auditorium would be as large as possible to minimize any chance of ever being overtaken, Adler had to find room for a Third Balcony.  He could have repeated his sectional design process one more time and placed this balcony above and to the back of the Second Balcony, minimizing the overhang, but he did not do this.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. View from the Third Balcony. Note at the top the curved partition is stored in the “Up” position. (HABS, IL-1007.)

Quite simply, this would have increased the volume of the house and the corresponding reverberation time beyond which his acoustic calculations would support.  In addition, these people would have been the equivalent of eight stories above and away from the stage, with the corresponding view and transportation problems (climbing eight flights of stairs was simply not acceptable, no matter what the price of the ticket was).  To reduce these potential problems, he decided to compromise the quality of the Second Balcony by hanging the Third Balcony over and in front of the Second, using steel tension rods dropped from the ceiling trusses.  He also had to hang bridges to this level from the stairway for its occupants to gain access to their seats.

With the addition of the 437 seats of the Third Balcony, Adler’s final design resulted in a capacity of 4237 seats, or as the theater’s manager, Milward Adams boasted, it was “the largest opera house in the world.”  Therefore, Chicago got a “two-fer,” because the Auditorium would not only surpass Cincinnati’s Music Hall, but it would also have more seats than the 3045 seats in the New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  But that number of seats represented neither the house’s maximum nor its minimum seating capacity for Peck’s vision embraced a wide-ranging variety of functions to be supported by the Auditorium.  At the upper end, for a national political convention for example, Adler had provided a number of variations that could increase its total capacity up to 8000.  By raising the proscenium’s reducing screen and rearranging the stage’s floor levels via its hydraulic sectional platforms, an extra 500 seats could be located on the stage.  By reorganizing the seats in the boxes and along their corridors, and by extending the Upper Parquet back into the upper foyer at the rear, a total capacity of 7000 seats could be accommodated.  Lastly, a raised floor could be installed over the orchestra and into the front part of the Parquet, copying Cincinnati’s design, that extended the stage floor level into the majority of the house that could provide a ballroom or convention floor to house 8000.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Top: Section showing the Skylight and the movable partitions in the “up” location. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City); Bottom: View of interior showing central skylight over the balcony, with Fluery’s mural “Spring Song.” Note that both of the movable partitions have been moved to the closed position, closing off the lower and upper galleries (Siry, The Auditorium, ).

At the other extreme, however, many musical events would generate less interest than the capacity of 4237, so the requirement of providing as many seats as possible for the Grand Opera performances had been a double-edged sword.  One concern over the vast size of the house voiced by performers during the design of the project was their worry over the possible demoralizing effect a performer might experience playing in front of a half-empty house. In addition, with so many seats available, there was little pressure felt among the city’s concert-going public to have to make the financial commitment in buying a series subscription ticket, the lifeblood of any orchestra or opera company.  One could almost always buy a ticket at the last moment with 4237 tickets available.  Adler tried to account for these concerns by providing hinged panels that could be lowered to close off the Third Balcony as well as the Second Balcony that would decrease the available seats by 437 or 963 respectively.  Each panel consisted of two 20-ton partitions that were so counterbalanced that it took a crew of only six men, each one at a winch, to raise or lower it in a matter of minutes.  Sullivan was able to design these panels so that they disappeared into the overall design of the house, no matter if they were open or closed.  The acoustics of the space wasn’t nearly as ambivalent to the panels’ location, however, as one would expect as Adler had to design the space to perform optimally at full capacity.  (The panels would quickly become unusable, a casualty to the extreme settlement of the perimeter walls that wreaked havoc with the relative “level” between the walls, the ceilings, and the rigid steel partitions. Finally, the number of seats could be further reduced to 2574 by closing off the back third of the First Balcony with the placement of curtains between the columns that supported the Lower Gallery.

Another significant departure that Adler made in the design of the theater was a direct result of acoustics.  Rather than giving the theater the traditional flat or slightly domed ceiling, Adler’s understanding of acoustics led him to configure the ceiling immediately in front of the stage as one large “speaking tube,” similar to how he had designed the ceiling of the 1885 Grand Opera Festival Hall in the Interstate Exposition Building.  His calculations had shown that the farther away from the original source of the sound the reflecting surface was, the longer time it took the reflected sound to reach the ear of a listener.  If this time differential was more than 1/10 of a second, the reflected sound produced not a perceived reinforcement of the original sound, but a distinct echo.  Hence, it was vital to the acoustical success of the design to bring the ceiling down towards the stage’s proscenium to reduce the distance (and the time) of the reflected sound.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. From right to left: the four vaults acting as the sound board; the central skylight; the three balconies. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Adler had initially designed a series of four elliptical barrel vaults, each defined by an arch along its edge, that telescoped out to and over the audience until the last one intersected with the house’s central skylight (still required during the early days of electric lighting, if for no other reason than daytime cleaning) that ran the entire width of the house and fronted the three balconies.  Between each arch the vault’s ceiling was smooth-surfaced to act as a sound reflector:

“The spacing of these sections of ceiling is so calculated that sound waves from the stage are reflected downward to every part of the main floor and to part of the balcony.  A perfect semicircular reflecting arch would have focused all the reflected waves on one spot in the middle of the floor; the flat elliptical arches prevent focusing of reflected sound, and the vertical breaks between the arches throw the reflected waves farther and farther back, diffusing them over the entire area.”

The vault closest to the stage eventually had to be intersected with a cross-vault when a pipe organ was added to the theater to locate a screen for the pipes in order to provide sufficient height along the northern wall (a symmetrical screen was placed on the south wall which supplied fresh air).    

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Ground floor plan. Note that the theater is enclosed within a masonry wall. (Online)

The hall’s acoustic excellence had also been protected by Adler’s plan for the entire building, that had placed the theater completely within the interior of the site.This location allowed Adler to shield the hall from the noise of the three surrounding streets by placing 45’ deep single-loaded corridors of either hotel rooms or offices between the streets and the hall itself.  He then reinforced this isolation by surrounding the hall on all four sides with a solid masonry bearing wall that would also protect the hotel and office building from a potential fire in the theater. This last detail allowed Adler to construct a temporary hall independent of the exterior surrounding spaces, that was exactly what he had been ordered by the directors, in order to get the hall ready for the Republican convention in June 1888.  

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium temporary enclosure during the 1888 Republican National Convention. The stagehouse is in the foreground. Note that Adler got most of the third-story’s exterior erected in time. (Chicagology.com)

By March, Adler had finished the walls and had erected a temporary roof over the hall so that the final construction of the interior could commence.  This was completed by early June which allowed Adler to resume the erection of the original three-story granite base, hoping to have all three stories of it in place for the convention in order to give the out-of-town visitors an idea of its final configuration.  

Adler & Sullivan. The Auditorium during the 1888 Republican National Convention. (Chicagology.com); Inset: Detail of exterior stonework showing the transitional third story. (Author’s collection)

Sullivan had to revise the design of the third story after the Board had made the unilateral decision to change the upper eight stories from brick to limestone.  He still approached its design as a transitional layer, but now it had to transition from the two stories of dark gray, rock-faced Minnesota granite, to the smooth surface of the light gray Indiana limestone above. He did this by extending one feature of each layer into this transitional story: he continued the rock-faced surface of the first two floors into this story but used a granite from Maine that had a similar color to the limestone.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. The 1888 Republican National Convention. (Online)

Following the successful convention that took place June 19-25 and had launched Benjamin Harrison’s campaign to unseat Cleveland, Peck took Adler on a well-deserved vacation during August and September, to study the famous European Opera Houses, specially the latest in stage and scenery equipment. Adler left Sullivan in charge of the office, then engaged in dismantling the temporary construction erected for the convention so that construction could resume.  When Adler returned, he found himself immediately confronted with more design changes ordered by the Board.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium under construction, June 1888. The theater’s temporary self-contained enclosure is visible, rising above the exterior. (Siry, The Auditorium)


Cannon, Patrick F. Louis Sullivan: Creating a New American Architecture. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate, 2011.

Historic American Buildings Survey-The Auditorium: https://loc.gov/pictures/item/il0091/

Morrison, Hugh, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. 1935. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Twombly, Robert and Narciso Menocal. Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture. New York: Norton, 2000.

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


Jerome Bibb Legg, St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall, 1883. (Online)

While Peck had succeeded in getting the President to come to Chicago for the Cornerstone parade, the 1888 conventions were another matter. True, Chicago had pulled off a minor miracle by hosting both conventions in 1884, but their return in 1888 was, by no means a foregone conclusion. Chicago’s monopoly in 1884 had only ignited the ambitions of its rival cities.  St. Louis, that had lost its title of the “largest city in the West,” that it had wrestled from Cincinnati during the Civil War, to Chicago only after the 1871 fire, was finally beginning to appreciate the value/worth of “culture.”  In 1883, more than likely after Chicago had bagged both conventions, the city began construction of a facility to challenge Cincinnati’s Music Hall, the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall. Designed with a seating capacity of 3500 (vs. Cincinnati’s 3627), the entire facility covered over six acres and boasted an early installation of electric lights.

But six acres was chump change compared to how Cincinnati responded to the challenge.  1888 would be Cincinnati’s centennial, having been founded in 1788 (Chicago was only 55 years young in 1888).  The city had planned an expanded version of its annual Ohio Valley Expositions for that year (July 4 – October 27) as an appropriate celebration (and as a lure for either convention).  Music Hall with its two exhibition wings would still be the nucleus of the 47 acres of landscaped fairgrounds, that were to be expanded with the erection of two temporary buildings. 

1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. Foreground: Park Hall (Main Building); Midground: Music Hall; Background: the 1300’ long Machinery Hall, built spanning the Erie & Miami Canal. (Online)

The large main exhibition, Park Hall, erected across Elm Street from Music Hall in Washington Park had a two-storied cruciform plan, one arm being 600’ x 110’ while the smaller arm’s plan was 400’ x 110’ with their intersection covered with a dome that offered a public observatory.  (Park Hall alone was larger than the St. Louis structure.)

1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. View north up Elm Street with Music Hall’s entrance on the left. Note the electric lights erected on both sides of the streets. (Online)
1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. The buildings were open every night until 10 PM, made possible with the celebration of the electric light. (Miller, Cincinnati’s Music Hall)

Meanwhile, at the rear of Music Hall, what became the public’s favorite attraction, a gargantuan 1300’ long by 150’ wide Machinery Hall spanned the Erie & Miami Canal. It was designed by James McLaughlin (i.e., Shillito’s and the Cincinnati Art Museum) to be a Venetian delight. Four bridges, inspired by Venice spanned the canal within the building, where gondolas and their gondoliers, imported from Venice poled their boats up and down the canal that summer, including a daily parade of decorated barges, attempting to give Americans a taste of what the Italian city proffered, (and offering a tempting invitation to both political parties).

James McLaughlin, Machinery Hall, 1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition. Above: Boat entrance. (Miller, Cincinnati’s Music Hall); Below; Venetian gondolas being poled by gondoliers. Note the electric lights at the far left. (Online)

Between the two new buildings, there was more than 950,000 sq. ft. (21.5 acres) of exhibition space located within the 47 acres of landscaped grounds and this didn’t include Music Hall.  As had St. Louis done, the Cincinnati fair buildings and the grounds were lit day and night with gas and electricity, in all colors.   Fifteen states and three foreign countries presented a variety of delights for visitors.  Unfortunately for Cincinnati, neither party took the bait, and the Centennial Exposition was to be the city’s swan song, as Chicago’s Auditorium was rapidly nearing completion.


Hannaford & Proctor, Music Hall, Cincinnati, 1877. (Online)

Looking back at these two projects, Peck’s urgency to push forward with his plan to build the Auditorium makes more sense, especially before the Haymarket bombing.  When he had first posed the project in front of the audience on the last night of the 1885 Opera Festival, the St. Louis Hall was nearing completion and plans for the Cincinnati Centennial had to have been under discussion. Peck could project forward three years and see Chicago falling woefully behind the convention/music facilities of its two regional competitors.  But he could convince none of his civic-minded (and “frugal”) associates to financially back his project for over a year,  that is, until the bombing and its aftermath had brought his equals to their collective senses.

The month following the cornerstone laying saw a hardening of the positions of both the master masons and the unions following the execution of four of the Haymarket defendants on November 11, 1887, that propelled both political parties into the Presidential election of 1888.  Peck was hoping for a repeat of the 1884 nominating conventions, that both took place in Chicago’s Exposition Building, which would secure his vision for the Auditorium.  The Inter-Ocean stated Chicago’s case in its usual, “detached” manner:

“Cincinnati is bidding high for the National conventions in 1888.  This is not discreditable to Cincinnati, but it constitutes no good reason why the conventions should be held there.  Cincinnati has been tested.  The 1880 Democratic convention was a trying mouthful, and Cincinnati surely remembers the wry faces the gentlemen from the South made over it.  Courtesy would require Cincinnati to wait until she is asked for the second test; but already she is urging the Democrats to try again what they clearly enough sickened over before.  In the meantime the Democrats have been to Chicago, and are eager to come again… So far as the Republicans convention is concerned Chicago will be favored by the friends of the leading candidates, because to come to cosmopolitan Chicago is to escape from sectional or State bias and to meet under conditions fair to all… The moral to all this is that Chicago ought to have both the National conventions in 1888.

Both parties initially were favorable to such a plan, with the Republicans committing first in December, to hold their convention on June 19-25.  Peck was hoping that this would force the Democrats to return to Chicago, especially as it had been the site of the start of Cleveland’s successful campaign.  But the United Carpenters Council of Chicago would have none of it, and notified the Democratic National Committee “that the consolidated building trades of the United States would refuse to support any man who was nominated in the Auditorium Building… and a political boycott would be declared that would cost the offending party 250,000 votes.” The Democrats chose St. Louis for their convention, held first between June 5-7, and still Cleveland lost the election, but the Auditorium would never host a Democratic Presidential Convention, to the utter dismay of Peck.

St. Louis Exhibition and Music Hall. 1888 Democratic National Convention. (Online)


Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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


The construction of the foundations was well under way when Lautrup’s third and final rendering was made public in mid-April.  At this time, the exterior above the two-story granite base, including the tower, was still designed to be brick and terra cotta.  It had been a relatively quiet winter (1886-7) primarily because of the heavy-handed response to the bombing by Chicago’s business leaders, as the eight Haymarket defendants had been found guilty and their appeals were making their way through the legal system.  But as May 1, 1887, the traditional start of new leases and corresponding construction contracts, and the first anniversary of the May 4 bombing approached, Chicago’s construction unions were regaining their confidence as they were gearing up for their annual contract demands.  Among these were the eight-hour workday, a uniform minimum wage, union shops, and a Saturday payday.  The most powerful of these unions at this time was the United Order of American Bricklayers and Stonemasons of Chicago.  On Friday, April 29, the union had presented its demands to the city’s Master Masons, the local masonry contractors.  Prudently, the Master Masons waited for the anniversary of the bombing to come and go, before they rejected these demands on the following day, May 5.  The Union countered on May 10 with the demand for a strict union shop that the Master Masons not only rejected, but also instituted a lock-out throughout all of the city, that shut down all construction and idled an estimated 30,000 construction workers that lasted for two months until the union finally caved in and agreed to arbitration on July 11.

On May 6, the day after the Master Masons had rejected the initial demands of the bricklayers’ union, with only 13 months until the start of the Republican National Convention, the Executive Committee of the Auditorium Association adopted a resolution that unilaterally changed the material on the upper eight floors in the latest design from brick to Indiana limestone.  (Lautrup’s rendering of the third design had been finished only the month before!) It is obvious from the chronology of these events that the Master Masons had already decided to resort to the lockout to weaken the Bricklayers Union, and the Executive Committee was in no mood to either have the construction on the project halted during the lockout, or even show the slightest support for any union.  (Siry pointed out the local stonecutters had succeeded in having their demand for an eight-hour day agreed to by the local stoneyards, so this may have emboldened the Board to switch to stone, knowing that the supply of stone would not be threatened.) What better message could be sent to the bricklayers’ union than to strip all of the brick from the exterior of the largest construction project in the city?!  Of course, stone is denser and heavier than brick, and therefore, this decision on the part of the owners would result in the building’s significant differential settlement between the interior footings and the now heavier-loaded perimeter footings  because Adler’s carefully calculated footings, were already under construction (the settlement of the exterior is 18” more than the interior at places that slanted the floors towards the outside walls and eventually made the floor of the Main Foyer a skateboarder’s dream).

Undoubtedly, Adler had warned his betters against such a decision, but sometimes one must cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face…  And so, the most important aspect of the design of the Auditorium’s exterior, what material to use to enclose the interior, that from the beginning had been designed to be pressed brick, was changed solely by the building owners as an anti-union political statement.  (Therefore, one cannot link the Auditorium’s stone exterior to Richardson’s Field Store, as many historians have done in the past.) Unfortunately for them, they made this decision too late and it resulted in the undulating floor surfaces that at times made it quite impossible for those same owners and their wives to easily make their way to their private boxes.  


Curiously, while the 1887 lockout agreed to by all of Chicago’s owners, builders, and suppliers had completely shutdown construction throughout the city, the sounds of construction, including those of non-union bricklayers, continued to be heard at the corner of Michigan and Congress during May, June, and July… Peck was trying to walk a dangerously thin tightrope: while his ultimate goal was to create a national monument where both the Republicans and the Democrats would gather every four years to nominate their presidential candidates, he was damned if he would let his archrivals, the radical labor unions, prevent him from completing his lifetime objective: the Auditorium, as a response to the unions’ agenda and activities, would be built solely with non-union labor.   Unfortunately for Peck’s dream, his worldview was not shared by all those in the Democratic Party…

Construction on the Auditorium’s substructure continued throughout the summer of 1887 and Peck looked forward to the next opportunity for national exposure, the laying of the building’s cornerstone on October 6, 1887.  During the nineteenth century, this event, especially for large public buildings, was celebrated with Masonic rituals and the accompanying grand oratory.  Peck had personally invited Democrat President Cleveland to come to Chicago for his first official presidential visit to the city where he had been nominated three years earlier, to participate in the ceremony.  Cleveland had agreed to Peck’s proposal and all was going as planned until the carpenters’ union got wind of Peck’s plans.  There had been no love lost between the unionized carpenters and the Auditorium Association.  The carpenters had attempted to gain recognition for their union during the spring of 1887 until the bricklayers’ union’s action had forced the owners and builders to initiate the lockout, that affected all of the building trades.  With only a week before the President was scheduled to arrive, the union informed the President, in no uncertain terms, that if he participated in Peck’s ceremony, they would not only boycott it, but also view his participation as supporting Peck’s anti-union stance, with the obvious implication for the upcoming Presidential election.

While Cleveland correspondingly gave in to the union’s threat and reneged on his promise to Peck, the President tried to please both sides (as any good politician does) by agreeing to review the usual parade that accompanied such a ceremony, if it was moved up a day to October 5, 1887.  This would divorce it directly from the cornerstone ceremony, and implicitly, the Auditorium.  Peck deferred to the President’s offer, but still coyly maximized what public exposure he could by having the President’s reviewing stand constructed on the Auditorium’s site, overlooking Michigan Avenue and the lakefront.  Meanwhile, the date of the first day of the Republican Convention was scheduled for June 19, 1888.  Adler & Sullivan had eight months (with at least four of these during the winter) left to redesign and redetail the exterior, redraw the working drawings accordingly, and erect the country’s largest permanent concert hall. Fortunately, the first two floors of granite were not effected so their construction could proceed as scheduled, The rest of the city, however, was quiet. Following the end of the lock-out on July 11, owners were in no hurry to begin construction just before the traditional winter slowdown began.  Their plans could keep until spring of 1888.

Adler and Sullivan, The Auditorium. (Cannon, Sullivan)


Cannon, Patrick F. Louis Sullivan: Creating a New American Architecture. Petaluma, CA: Pomegranate, 2011.

Historic American Buildings Survey-The Auditorium: https://loc.gov/pictures/item/il0091/

Morrison, Hugh, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. 1935. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Twombly, Robert and Narciso Menocal. Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture. New York: Norton, 2000.

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


Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Photograph showing the stepped stone foundations. (Historic American Building Survey IL-1007)

During the four-month period between mid-December 1886 and mid-April 1887, in which Sullivan was thoroughly immersed in revising the overall design of the building’s exterior to gain the approval of a majority of the Board, Adler was hard at work planning its engineering and construction.  As we have seen during this period, many of Chicago’s architects were still providing the services of what we now call the general contractor/construction manager, that is, responsible for the building’s actual construction.  While Adler would be responsible for overseeing the contracts and construction of the building’s structure and exterior enclosure, Sullivan would serve the same role for the building’s interior fittings.

Adler & Sullivan, Auditorium Building. Construction photo. Looking from the NW corner on Wabash towards the lake. (Inland Architect, March 1888)

Peck and his supporters were in a hurry to get the project under construction if for no other reason than to send a message to the rest of the country that things had quieted down since the Haymarket Square bombing and the ongoing court case, and that business was getting back to normal so it was now quite safe to renew investment in the city’s real estate.  Today, starting construction before the design of a building is completed is standard practice, but for such a large building as the Auditorium, to start construction before the design was finalized, however, at that time in history presented those responsible with a series of great risks.  Adler knew he had a few months to play with as it would take that long to clear and excavate the site to the depth required for the building’s foundation that had begun on January 28, 1887. Nonetheless, at some point, if he was going to keep the project moving forward, the building’s final design and size would have to be frozen soon so that he could accurately design its footings so that their construction could start as soon as the excavation had been completed.  This occurred immediately following Sullivan’s trip to New York to consult with Ware on February 12, with the entire office going into full production mode to produce the final design, layout, dimensions, and the over 200 hand-drawn drawings needed to assist the construction workers in their efforts.

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Section. Note the depth of the stage basement and the thickness of its slab/foundation. (Siry, The Auditorium)

Adler used these drawings to calculate the loads in every wall and column so that he could accurately size the required bearing area of each footing.  Among the issues that Adler had to contend with were, 1.) the proximity to the lake and the corresponding high watertable and its hydrostatic pressure; 2.) the foundations of adjacent buildings, especially those of the Studebaker Building adjacent to the north (excavation had to be done in such a manner that the foundations of existing buildings didn’t move); and 3.) the desire to locate a basement below the stage as deep as possible to permit the usage of the latest stage equipment (that posed its own problem as the building’s own foundations immediately surrounding the stage would be at a much shallower elevation, and thereby, potentially could exert pressure on the stage’s foundation walls. Another unique foundation problem that Adler faced was the construction of the water-tight basement under the stage to house the stage’s hydraulic equipment. This required a space that was 18’ below the floor of the stage, a depth of 22’ below grade, which put this floor at an elevation that was seven feet below the mean level of Lake Michigan.  The hydrostatic pressure of the ground water at such a level required a great amount of sheer weight to resist its potential uplift.  Adler designed a three-foot thick “laminated floor built up of several layers of concrete, Trinidad asphalt, and asphalt-saturated felt, counterweighted by concrete and steel rails.”  Wanting to keep the Ground Floor level with the sidewalk for commercial reasons and still have a basement under it with a ceiling height of ten to fourteen feet for “a boiler and machinery plant of nearly 2000 horse power, incidental to the lighting, heating, cooling, ventilating, elevator, kitchen and laundry apparatus of the building required for its suitable accommodation an area equal to fully two-thirds that of the entire building,” Adler was forced to push the foundations to a level seventeen feet below street grade, a depth heretofore never attempted as it was thought to be of questionable strength (thirteen feet had been the traditional limit up to this time).

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Above: Cut-away isometric showing the foundations; Below: Close-up of the tower’s foundations. (Historic American Building Survey IL-1007)

Of particular concern to him was to get the foundation for the 16-story tower right.  By this time the Board of Trade’s 303’ tower was beginning to show signs of distress as a direct result of Boyington’s naïve attempt to spread the tower’s concentrated weight over the entire building’s foundation raft, rather than isolating it on its own footing. The result of this decision was that the tower was settling at a greater rate than the rest of the building simply because it weighed much more than the body of the building.  Even the six-foot thick raft foundation of stone, concrete, and timber that Boyington had placed under the entire building was not strong enough to resist this.  Therefore, as the tower was settling at a faster rate, it was pulling the immediate material of the adjacent body with it, creating some very large cracks. (Eventually this would force the building owners to remove the tower completely, in order to preserve the rest of the building.) This Adler, obviously, was committed to avoiding, and so, he dedicated a foundation just for the tower that he knew would be more heavily loaded than the rest of the foundation.  He sized it employing Baumann’s theory of isolated footings in an attempt to equalize the settlement of the tower and that of the rest of the building, and in so doing, hoped to eliminate the differential settlement that was tearing the Board of Trade apart. 

Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. Section of the tower foundations. The 5’ thick raft foundation consisted of, from the bottom: two layers of 12” x 12” timbers, laid perpendicular to one another. The wood was presoaked anticipating its being wet from the groundwater; a 12” layer of concrete; three to four layers of steel rails or beams (depending upon the loads) crisscrossed to each other; these were embedded in a 3’ thick concrete slab. Note the continuous 15” steel beams used to join the tower’s footings to the adjacent footing. (Online)

Adler designed the tower’s foundation to be a five-foot thick raft or mat comprised of a series of layered materials.  First, Adler placed two layers of water-saturated heavy timbers directly on the ground (they were saturated as a response to the presence of the ground water to minimize any chance of dry rot caused by an alternating cycle of being dry, then wet).  On top of this were laid “three layers of criss-crossed steel rails and three layers of iron I-beams.”  The whole was surrounded into a monolithic slab with concrete.

Because he was still going to use masonry stepped pyramidal foundations under the entire building (Root had only used the first rail-reinforced footings the previous winter and the jury was still out on how well these would perform over time), the tower’s foundation would be even more heavily-loaded, requiring a greater area of bearing to spread their loads at the same pressure as the other footings, with a corresponding increase in their height.  This meant that the footings for the tower would have to be taller than those of the rest of the building, and therefore, would need to be even deeper than those of the rest of the building so that the extra height of these foundations didn’t extend into the floor of the tower’s vestibule.  Adler placed these at eighteen feet below grade.  Nonetheless, Adler still “hedged his bet” somewhat, in that he tied the tower’s foundation to the footings that were immediate adjacent to those of the tower with 15” deep steel beams that ran continuously through the tower’s entire foundation, hoping that any extra settlement of the tower would be resisted by and spread to the adjacent footings via these beams. Adler also understood that the tower would take longer to construct than the lower body of the building. This may seem obvious to you, but it presented a significant problem: because the tower weighed more, he had to make the tower footings so much larger than those of the rest of the building in order to have the same bearing pressure and resulting settlement, once construction had been completed. So far, so good… However, this meant that because the tower’s footings were larger, during the erection of the first ten stories, the pressure under the larger tower footings (and its settlement) would be less than that of the rest of the building (i.e., both the tower walls and the body walls were 10 stories high, thereby weighing the same; but the footings were larger under the tower, spreading the load over a greater area resulting in less settlement than the walls). When construction of the tower above the body began to impose more weight on its footings, the tower would continue to settle while the body did not and would tear apart the tower from the body, much like wha was happening in the Board of Trade.  Adler, therefore, “preloaded” the tower footing with bricks and pig iron that equalled the weight of the six extra stories of the tower before the construction of the main block began, and then once construction of the tower above the body began, removed, floor by floor, an amount of dead wright from the footing that corresponding to the weight of the floor that was being constructed.


Historic American Buildings Survey-The Auditorium: https://loc.gov/pictures/item/il0091/

Morrison, Hugh, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. 1935. Reprint, New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Twombly, Robert. Louis Sullivan: His Life & Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Twombly, Robert and Narciso Menocal. Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture. New York: Norton, 2000.

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