3.18. THE FABRICATION OF THE BIG LIE: THE HOME INSURANCE BUILDING

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Note the five-story continuous piers in the arcade at the middle of the façade; Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

The year following Buffington’s initial filing of the suit, New York architect Bradford Gilbert, and not Jenney, was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, “for a new type of American architecture” based upon his structural design of the Tower Building that was constructed solely with an iron frame.(See Chap. 5.) Apparently, there was no disagreement recorded in Chicago’s professional press in 1893 about Gilbert vs. Jenney being honored with this award.  If the Home Insurance Building had been indeed, the first of its kind, one would have thought either Jenney would have been awarded this honor, or that the injustice of this decision certainly should have resulted in an uproar in Jenney’s hometown, especially as Jenney was still alive at the time?  

Historian E. M. Upjohn in his 1935 essay in The Art Bulletin on Buffington stated that Eustis’ defense had also cited a seven-year old article they had discovered by William Le Baron Jenney, “The Construction of a Heavy Building on a Compressible Soil,” that was published in the December 1885 issue of Sanitary Engineer.  I have previously reviewed this article and found no mention of the concept of the iron skeleton frame in it.  Upjohn does not quote his source for this statement, and I cannot find any mention of the Home Insurance Building by the defense in the trial record. As noted above, the judge in the 1894 decision made no mention of Jenney or the Home Insurance Building in his decision.  Somehow, the legend of the Home Insurance Building would take on a life of its own after the 1894 court battle.

The issue over Buffington’s patent seems to have subsided until 1905, when American Architect published an article on Jenney’s retirement that stirred the pot once more by surmising whether or not he had been the father of the skyscraper?  In 1907, American Architect reported on Jenney’s death, stating that a committee of the A.I.A. had determined Jenney’s primacy over Gilbert and Buffington.  Although Chicago had invented “the big lie” of the Home Insurance Building in order to blunt any further litigation by Buffington, to Jenney’s credit, his former partner, William Mundie had always been puzzled by the fact that Jenney had never made a claim to have invented the iron skeleton frame.

3.19. THE END: BUFFINGTON CHANGES THE DATES ON HIS DOCUMENTS

Once again, the issue seems to have died down, except with Buffington.  He appeared to have been so desperate to secure his legacy as having had invented the iron-framed skyscraper, that he began to write his memoirs sometimes after 1920 (he died in 1931), with the objective of reworking the chronology of his efforts to show that he had conceived of the idea BEFORE Jenney began to design the Home Insurance Building.  This was simply untrue.  It was also completely unnecessary.  All Buffington simply had to do was to point out that there was nothing technically similar between the two projects.  (I wish he had only done so…)

Left: LeRoy Buffington. Details for the Cloudscraper, 1888; Right: William Le Baron Jenney, Details for the Home Insurance Building, 1884.

The two projects were completely different in every detail: Jenney had used hollow cast iron columns that were filled with concrete and bolted to one another, Buffington had used riveted wrought iron plates so joined that they formed one monolithic, multistoried column; Jenney did not place spandrel beams in every floor to connect the columns to one another, Buffington not only had beams at each floor, but also cantilevered lintels upon which he could build the masonry curtain walls; nowhere in the Home Insurance Building did Jenney employ diagonal wind bracing; it was integral to Buffington’s patent.  Once again, it was Eiffel, and not Jenney, that Buffington had copied.

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)

Unfortunately, towards the end of his life Buffington was so desperate to gain credit for what he believed he had accomplished, that he even went back to his old drawings in the preparation of the patent and the cloudscraper and purposefully falsified the dates on many of these so as to be in alignment with the dates in his memoirs, in which he tried to show that he had developed his ideas prior to Jenney’s design of the Home Insurance Building that was patently untrue.  Just before his death, he began to tell anyone who would listen about his saga, and a few of these folks opened up the sad case of Buffington one more time in January 1929, when the Minneapolis Journal published a letter supporting Buffington’s claim.

Buffington’s forgery of the dates on his drawings was first uncovered in 1935 after his death by E. J. Upjohn, and then confirmed by two other historians, one who referred the drawings to an FBI handwriting expert who easily confirmed Buffington’s fraud.  At this point, quite understandably, Buffington’s credibility was completely ruined, that also cast doubt on the historic importance of the actual accomplishment of his patent and the publication of his Cloudscraper.  While Buffington had never erected a building based on this system, his patent and corresponding project were historically significant. For even though it was scoffed at by some at the time of its publication, especially on the East Coast, it set the minds of a number of architects and engineers to working on the eventual resolution of the iron skeleton frame.  The Home Insurance Building had generated no comparable exposure or influence, that one would have expected it would have done so, if, indeed, it had been built with the same revolutionary concepts or details.  LeRoy Buffington’s patent and 28-storied Cloudscraper, and not the Home Insurance Building, had sparked the imagination of America’s architects and engineers to solve the problems with the iron skeleton-framed skyscraper that they had been battling since the holocausts of 1871-74 in Chicago and Boston had forced Bogardus’ cast iron front back into the interior of a building for the protection of the masonry exterior wall.

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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