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.
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!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)