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)

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