3.17. THE TRAGIC HISTORY OF BUFFINGTON’S PATENT

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

I have attempted in this blog to maintain as strict a chronology of events as makes sense, in order to reveal a more accurate picture of events and personalities as they occurred in real time.  Sometimes this is done in order to debunk myths and legends, some being long-held ones.  In the case of Buffington, however, I felt compelled to break out of the chronology and address head on the controversy that developed around his patent later in his life and after his death in 1931, rather than wait until the end.  History has treated him extremely unfairly, at times verging on cruelty.  As we will see, some of his actions later in his life will be regrettable, but these would allow historians to deride his true achievements earlier in his career with the broad brush of ignorance or worse, cynicism.

As I have stated earlier, 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” in mid-1888: nowhere did any author mention the precedent of an existing building in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, or any other city that had been constructed with an iron skeleton frame, including Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, that at this time did not enjoy the reputation of having been “the first skyscraper” or “the first iron skeleton-framed tall building.”  Appropriately, there was no mention of the Home Insurance Building in terms of being a precedent for Buffington’s design for he had made a number of important departures from Jenney’s structure.  

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

As opposed to the Home Insurance Building, in which Jenney employed bolted, hollow rectangular cast iron columns that were filled with concrete, did not have spandrel beams running between the columns at each floor, and did not have any diagonal bracing, Buffington’s patent employed columns made of riveted wrought-iron plates, spandrel beams connecting each column at every floor, and diagonal lattice bracing.   These techniques were much more in line with Eiffel’s structures than with Jenney’s structure in the Home Insurance Building.   Buffington may also have been influenced by Frederick Baumann’s article on iron framing in February 1884, for Boyington’s patent is much closer in concept to Baumann’s ideas than to anything Jenney did in the Home Insurance Building.

Jenney, Home Insurance Building. Reconstruction of the structural detailing of the exterior piers. (Drawing by Deborah Cohen and Maxwell Merriman)

Nonetheless, it took over a year from when Buffington was granted the patent, for anyone to put two-pus-two together vis-à-vis the potential threat that Buffington’s patent represented.  Curiously, the Inter-Ocean reported in an article dated July 7, 1889, describing the new Leiter Department store designed by Jenney and being erected on South State St., that Jenney’s iron frame was like “the system of construction first used in this extensive way by Mr. Jenney in the Home Insurance Building, and which has since become so popular for commercial and office buildings.”  This was the first published mention of the use of iron in the Home Insurance Building since its completion in May 1885 that I have uncovered (and it was grossly inaccurate that we will understand when I review the Second Leiter Building). Over four years had passed without any interest or mention of Jenney’s experiment with exterior iron columns.  Had this article been a couched attempt to negate Buffington’s patent?  To say it in a different way, after studying the Home Insurance Building and Chicago’s architecture for over 40 years, I believe the legend of the Home Insurance Building and its iron structure was fabricated to negate Buffington’s legal patent.  And with all lies, once started, it had a life of its own, meaning that the “Big Lie” of the Home Insurance Building was eventually rebranded by the “Windy City” to claim priority over New York in the invention of the skyscraper.

No one seemed to have wanted to “open the can of worms” by an outright challenge to the granting of or the validity of Buffington’s patent for over four years.  Following the granting of his patent in May 1888, Buffington curiously seems to have been too busy with his practice to have given the patent a second thought, until 1892.  On the eve of the Chicago’s World Fair, Buffington formed a company, “Buffington’s Iron Building Company,” with his brother, A.L. Buffington and E. H. Steele on November 12, 1892.   While the company’s literature stated that it was ready to manufacture the structural parts for a building using Buffington’s system, in reality the three had formed the company in order to collect a 5% royalty for the use of his patent, and to finance a series of legal suits based on patent infringement.  Buffington was quoted as such in the December 4, 1892, Chicago Tribune:

“I do not expect to have much trouble to get my just dues in this respect.  I compute that those who have used this plan have made a saving of not less than 15% on the total cost of construction, and I believe that having profited so greatly through my ideas they will gladly make the proper amends.  I am confident that I can easily convince them of the justice of my claims, and if they refuse to do the right thing I am equally certain that any court in the land will see that I get my just dues.”

It took the Buffingtons less than a week later to file their first patent infringement suit on December 10, 1892, against William E. Eustis who had constructed an iron and masonry building in Minneapolis. The New York Tribune may have originally mocked his design when it was first made public in 1888, but four years later it seems to have best identified Buffington’s intention: “Mr. Buffington is on the warpath… It is plain that [he] has taken a large contract, but in his survey of the future he is courting damages amounting to hundreds of millions.”  I believe that this fact scared the pants off of architects and owners alike, forcing them to scurry through prior patents and published articles in search of “Prior Art,” legal proof that others had used or invented the idea of an iron skeletal-framed skyscraper before Buffington had applied for his patent in November 1887.  If found, this would negate his patent and put a halt to his litigation, and most important, prevent them from having to pay 5% of their existing and future buildings’ total construction costs to Buffington. Indeed, if his patent was upheld in court, it would have cost American architects and owners “hundreds of millions.”  Whether it was, indeed, the money, or just his ego, that made him initiate the patent suits, he had overplayed his hand to the eventual detriment of his professional reputation.

Eustis’ defense, needing to find examples of “Prior Art” that would negate the validity of Buffington’s patent, reviewed prior patents on similar modes of iron construction and found 22 patents that were granted before Buffington’s.   In deciding in favor of the defendant on May 1, 1894, the court quoted four of these prior patents, as evidence that “Buildings composed entirely of metal, or composed of iron frames encased in concrete, had been described in letters of patent before this patent issued to complainant; and these buildings were tied to and bound with the girts connected with the posts by angle pieces riveted thereto, so as to make a complete and durable structure.”  The court had made a very strict interpretation of the patent, solely based on the exact detailing used in Buffington’s patent and found that Eustis had used related, but different detailing in all parts of his building’s structure.  In other words, Buffington’s patent was only for a column made by laminating iron plates with an offset spacing, that decreased in thickness as the building’s height increased.  Neither the issue of the invention of the iron skeleton frame was addressed nor was the precedent of the Home Insurance Building ever addressed in the court’s 1894 decision.

FURTHER READING:

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)

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