The W.A.A. and A.I.A. committees finally met in New York for three days in January 1889, to hammer out the constitution and by-laws for the new organization.  Root and Adler, now abandoned by Burnham, succeeded in getting the A.I.A. to concede the two major points of contention that had led to the formation of the W.A.A. five years earlier: a hierarchical structure of local, state and national associations, and only one rank of membership, that of Fellow.  The significant articles of the new constitution and by-laws were:


Art. III. Sec. 1.  The Institute shall consist of fellows, of corresponding and of honorary members.

Art. IV.  The officers of the Institute shall be as follows: A president, a first and a second vice-president [which the A.I.A. did not have, but the W.A.A. did], a treasurer, a secretary, and a board of directors [the W.A.A. term, instead of the A.I.A.’s Board of Trustees]…


Art. X.  The Institute shall encourage the formation and continuance of state and local associations, which shall be known within the Institute as chapters.

Art. XII.  The associates and fellows of the American Institute of Architects and the fellows of the Western Association of Architects shall become fellows of the reorganized American Institute of Architects,…

The term “reorganized American Institute of Architects,” that was used in Articles VIII, XII, XIII, and XIV of the By-laws, revealed the reality of the situation, namely that the two groups were forming a new organization that would use the name and charter of the old A.I.A., and not that the W.A.A. was rejoining or being absorbed into the old A.I.A.  Article XII, Section 2 further clarified the issue: “All property, belonging to the American Institute of Architects and to the Western Association of Architects shall upon consolidation become the property of the reorganized body.”  Article XIV stated when such consolidation would occur: “This constitution and these by-laws and the consolidation of the two organizations into the reorganized American Institute of Architects therein provided for shall not take effect until the meeting of the two organizations in joint convention.” However, Sullivan’s concern over the issue of a previously agreed-to plan to formally disband both organizations was not addressed and would come back to haunt the W.A.A. at the Consolidation Convention, for nowhere in these documents was it detailed just how the two corporate entities, each with its own charter, were to be legally merged into the new organization that would still operate under the existing charter of the old A.I.A.

The final two steps to consummate the union required the approval of the new documents through mail ballot by two-thirds of the membership of each organization, and then, finally, by the joint convention.  The ballots were counted on May 20, the A.I.A. getting just the necessary two-thirds majority, while the W.A.A. overwhelmingly approved the new constitution.  Agreeing on a time, and more importantly, a place for the convention, however, would be quite another matter altogether.  While the consolidation committees at the joint meeting in January had recommended that the consolidation convention be held in Cincinnati because of its central geographical location, no formal action was taken by the A.I.A. as it dragged its feet for the next seven months.  While the W.A.A. directors attempted to get the A.I.A. trustees to respond to the issue during this period, the A.I.A.’s secretary, A.J. Bloor, attempted to sidestep the consolidation committees’ recommendation of Cincinnati by holding out for Washington, D.C.  Out of sheer frustration, Adler took the issue to the membership with an open letter that McLean published in the August issue of Inland Architect, that chided the A.I.A.’s trustees for their reluctance to get on with the business of forming the new organization:

“By virtue of the resolutions adopted by the American Institute of Architects and Western Association of Architects, the selection of a convention city rests jointly with the board of trustees of the one and the board of directors of the other. These bodies have as yet had no joint meeting; let us hope that, when they meet, their eyes will be opened to the fact that we are at peace…  I take it for granted, however, that it is impossible to induce our ultra-conservative friends of the East to consent to a convention held at the West; and should this opinion be verified by the action of the joint meeting of the two boards, I trust our western representatives will yield readily to the selection of New York as a convention city.  For our convention and its utterances must be something more than a repetition of a certain one held once upon a time in Tooley street. [A contemporary reference to a British saying that meant a small group thinking they represent and control the consensus of a larger group of people than they in reality do.]  Nor should it be a repetition of the snug and cozy so-called conventions of the institute as held at Nashville, Albany, Newport, etc.  It must be a mass meeting of architects from every part of our country-and we’ll get that at New York almost as easily as at Chicago or at Cincinnati.”

Adler’s pressure succeeding in persuading the A.I.A. trustees to meet with their W.A.A. counterparts in New York on September 19 to plan the joint convention.  Cincinnati was reaffirmed as the location, with the date of the W.A.A.’s annual convention, November 20, chosen as the time for the event.  A joint circular was therefore issued to the memberships of both organizations, inviting them to the joint convention of the “reorganized Institute,”  with the following order of proceedings:

First, Separate action by the Western Association of Architects.

Second, Separate action by the American Institute of Architects.

Third, Joint and continuous action by the consolidated organization.

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


The first public discussion of the details of the consolidation took place at the 1888 A.I.A. convention, held on October 17-19, in Buffalo.  The Buffalo A.I.A. convention, however, was not going to be the political cakewalk that the previous year’s Chicago convention had been, for it was now back in the East, where the majority of attendees were old-time A.I.A. members.  Because neither Burnham nor Root, both A.I.A. Fellows, were in attendance at the convention due to business conflicts, the sole responsibility for stating the West’s case in the lion’s den of the East fell upon the able shoulders and sharp tongue of Adler (who had just returned from his tour of Europe with Ferdinand Peck), who at this time was an A.I.A. Associate member and chairman of the W.A.A. consolidation committee.  He successfully held his ground in the face of strong opposition from such A.I.A. stalwarts like Richard Morris Hunt, one of the founders of the original A.I.A.  In this chess game, the A.I.A. had been backed into a corner without any readily available escape route.  The W.A.A. now had over twice the number of members of the A.I.A., it was now moving into the old traditional territory of the A.I.A. with the formation of its Western New York State Association in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Chicago convention had put the A.I.A. on record as supporting Burnham’s resolution for the “best and speediest method of consolidating all the architectural societies of the United States.”  

Adler’s assertive eloquence eventually took the day, (for the sake of brevity I have only quoted the fierce debate that ensued from the A.I.A. transcript from the 1889 Convention, below) with the debate ending in the wee hours of the morning on a rather promising note with the unanimous passage of the following resolution:

Resolved, That it is the sense of this meeting that the amalgamation of the American Institute of Architects and the Western Association of Architects is desirable if effected under conditions satisfactory to a majority of the members of the American Institute of Architects.”

Adler ended the debate on the issue the following day with a successful motion that the consolidation committee should complete its work with its W.A.A. counterpart within the next six months.  For efficiency purposes, the size of the committee was reduced from five to three members, one of them being Burnham.

As the steadfast supporters of the A.I.A. had taken the opportunity offered by the convention to try to scuttle the consolidation scheme, it was feared that a similar attack would take place at the coming W.A.A. convention in Chicago by those Westerners who did not agree with Burnham’s apparent capitulation to use the A.I.A. name for the proposed new organization.  This was the crux of the matter from the W.A.A. viewpoint.  If the name of the organization continued to be A.I.A., the old A.I.A. would naturally appear to history not to have been reformed by the actions from the West.  The old A.I.A. could then always avoid the truth and claim later in history (which it still does!) that the W.A.A. had rejoined it, instead of the fact that the W.A.A. had, indeed, succeeded in reforming the old A.I.A. and both associations had formed a new organization in 1889 with a new constitution, based on the W.A.A.’s constitution.  No one seemed to perceive the historical significance of this subtle, but vital, difference in interpretation better than Sullivan:

“There is one little point, while this matter of details is up, that it may be well for the committee to understand, that is to say:  It is to be definitely understood by these two committees that when the new organization is formed, each of the old associations shall formally disband.  I speak in this way for I think I detect in these proceedings a disposition for absorption;  I feel the Western Association has either got to be gobbled up or the Institute;  I think it a matter to be understood by both institutions that they formally disband…”


Throughout all this debate, the voice of Burnham, who had been the most publicly-forceful proponent of consolidation, had been uncharacteristically silent.  As he was on the A.I.A. committee, Burnham was formally requested by Adler to speak to Sullivan’s concern, that turned out not only to be, very uncharacteristically, the only words spoken by Burnham during the entire three days of the W.A.A. convention, but more importantly, seemed to confirm the suspicion that he had, indeed, sold out to the A.I.A.:”

“Gentlemen, this is what I hoped would not happen.  Being on the Institute Committee on Consolidation, I feel myself bound by its views, and not at liberty to advocate here, what might seem opposed to them.  I am, however, clear in regard to the matter: that the machinery of the final body should be simple as it can be made… I would like to say, I hope this convention will not instruct its committee.  A little reflection will show everybody that no man can come to any definite conclusion today or tomorrow.  I hope the convention, then, will not attempt to instruct them definitely on any of these points we have had under discussion.  I believe this is the safest course to pursue.  Certainly, if your committee is a competent one, you will be safe to leave all these details in their hands.”

The distrust of the A.I.A. among the W.A.A. was not limited to just Sullivan, however, for it became even more apparent on the third day of the convention with the election of officers for the coming year.  Apparently, according to a plan agreed upon by the W.A.A. directors, Burnham had been nominated by both nominating committees as the official candidate to be the last president of the W.A.A., a suspicious coincidence to say the least, but a fitting tribute to his efforts.  Such was not to be his destiny, however, for somehow, professional envy of his success or perhaps a revolt by “true westerners,” who may have viewed Burnham as a traitor, triggered opposition to his uncontested nomination.  William W. Clay, a fellow A.I.A. member from Chicago and the current president of the Illinois State Architectural Association, objected to the lack of an alternative candidate and nominated William Carlin, the leader of the Buffalo group who had been responsible for the successful formation of the Western New York Society.  The opposition to Burnham must have been deep-seated, for he lost the election 26-22, in his own town no less. At the same time that Burnham was rejected, LeRoy Buffington was elected Vice President. (He was still basking in the publicity surrounding his recent patent and his “Cloudscraper.”)

Humbled, and no doubt embittered, Burnham could reconcile himself inwardly only with the fact that he and Root still were on the two committees that would ultimately decide the shape of the new A. I. A.  Even so, following such public humiliation at the hands of his colleagues in his hometown, nonetheless, Burnham completely withdrew from all involvement in professional organizations for the next three years, leaving Root alone to see the consolidation process through to its natural conclusion and to reap the corresponding accolades for its success.  (Yes, this contradicts the “conventional wisdom” that it was Burnham, and not Root, who was the “business-oriented” glad-handed partner.)

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


I have consciously avoided events in Chicago following the Haymarket Square bombing, with the exception of the construction of the Auditorium (there were few other notable events) with a purpose: to create a psychological sense in my readers similar to how this two-plus year hiatus in construction in Chicago was actually experienced by the local architectural community.  There was a “great divide” in Chicago’s architecture during this decade: what was built prior to May 4, 1886, was different in many ways from what was to be built when the local building economy began to rebound in the summer of 1888.  I have used the 1888 Republican Convention, June 19-25, as the temporal pivot between these two periods.  We have seen that Root took advantage of the slowdown to take a European tour to catch-up with events in Britain and on the continent. (No itinerary of his trip has survived, but based on his interests, I assume that it included Britain, Paris, Albi Cathedral, and Venice.)

When he returned, he found the construction of the office’s four projects in Kansas City, including the Board of Trade, under the firm control of Burnham, who also had a bevy of construction sites in Chicago, including the Rookery, to deal with.  The contest of over the design of the Auditorium was just beginning to heat up but would not peak until December-January 1887 that resulted in the loss of his chance to design Chicago’s largest building. (The loss of the Board of Trade that had robbed him of the design of Chicago’s tallest building I’m sure still sat in the back of his memory…) With little else to design in Chicago at the time, he seems to have directed his energies once again to reforming his chosen profession. (As far as I have been able to research, the story of the consolidation of the WAA and the AIA has never been published. The event has been shrouded in misleading assumptions and broad generalizations, until now. I have read all of the transcripts of the meetings that took place over this event and have summarized the 1887 and 1888 AIA and WAA conventions that led up to the 1889 Consolidation Convention in Cincinnati, that I have transcribed in great detail so you can make your own decision about what actually had transpired. Enjoy!)


On the evening of Nov. 15. 1886, two nights before the first day of the W.A.A. Annual Convention, to be held in Chicago, the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club (founded only one and a half earlier; see: Vol. 3, Sec. 9.6)) held its first Annual Banquet.  Root was honored not only by the appearance of his name at the top of the guest list, but also by giving the first toast after dinner, one of the highest privileges at this time, for it set the mood of the evening, that could easily go until 5 in the morning.  It was reported that “Mr. Root’s response was an unusually fine address to the draftsmen.  It will long be remembered, and merited the enthusiastic manner in which it was received.”  To top off what could be considered to have been a rather successful evening, Root was also voted as the Club’s first honorary member.  (Three days later he would be voted President of the W.A.A.)

Root returned to the front of the Sketch Club six weeks later to give the first lecture of the new year, the subject of which was “Style:”  

“The paper was listened to with the deepest attention by the largest attendance of members ever assembled at a meeting of this club, there being over sixty present.  The paper was probably the best ever written upon the subject, and the deep silence of the listeners was only broken at the close of the reading, when it was most enthusiastically applauded.  Remarks were made… and a vote of thanks was responded to by Mr. Root, in a manner that will always be remembered by the members of the Club, and add to the esteem in which the speaker is already held by them.”

Over the next four years, Root would emerge as the most revered personality by the group’s members.  An example of this was that he was the subject of one the group’s favorite drinking songs, “The Jovial Crew,” that contained “many personal allusions in the verses that were complimentary to Mr. Root,” that were always followed with the chorus, “When John Root Gets Through My Boys, When John Root Gets Through.”


Once having succeeded in seceding from the A.I.A. in 1884 with the formation the W.A.A., Burnham and Root had then set their sights on merging the two organizations, under the W.A.A.’s new constitution.  Their campaign, together with R.C. McLean, the editor of Inland Architect, was designed as thoroughly as any Burnham & Root building, and at its start, unfolded like clockwork.  Root had been elected at the 1886 W.A.A. convention held Nov. 17-9, 1886, in Chicago as its president, a position we will see, Burnham would never attain.  Root had then been named as the official W.A.A. representative to the A.I.A. convention to be held the following month in New York City.  As only Richard Nixon could open the door to China, Root as President and one of the founders of the W.A.A., was the Western leader who alone could start the ticklish process of reunification with the East.  He, therefore, took the liberty, undoubtedly pre-meditated, to first extend the olive branch of peace: “Do not understand that the Western Association is in any way a rival of yours, but is established to carry forward the work you are engaged in in the ‘Wild West.'” Then he revealed the purpose of his attendance, by extending an opportunity for the A.I.A. to continue the reconciliation process by inviting its leaders to hold the 1887 convention in Chicago.  He slyly gave no hint of the ultimate agenda, however.  The trap had been set.

After months of avoiding the invitation, the A.I.A. eventually accepted Root’s invitation and scheduled its 1887 convention for Chicago, taking the bait.  Thus, the West had launched its campaign to unite the two organizations, and in good old Chicago political fashion, the opening round was to take place in a convention in Chicago, where the voting membership could easily be stacked.  In order to be able to vote in the upcoming convention, W.A.A. members individually began to apply for and were granted A.I.A. membership.  Burnham and Root had already decided that while Root would manage the campaign from within the W.A.A., Burnham would play the Trojan Horse and manage the politics from within the A.I.A.  He had already begun distancing himself from the W.A.A. in order to be able to more openly approach the A.I.A.  


Burnham and Root, Art Institute, Chicago, 1884. (Larson, Richardson)

Thus, the stage was set for the A.I.A. to come to Chicago on October 19, 1887, to meet for three days in Burnham & Root’s newly completed Art Institute.  Of the 58 A.I.A. members who attended the convention, only 25 were old-line Easterners.  The W.A.A. had stacked the membership roll effectively, for of the 33 members from the W.A.A., 26, one more than the entire Eastern contingent, were from Chicago alone.  Any item of business the Westerners wanted to pass, including consolidation of the two organizations, would be assured of a majority vote.  In addition, the interests of the W.A.A. would be well-managed, for the Board of Directors had appointed President Root and Dankmar Adler, to be the W.A.A.’s official representatives at the A.I.A. convention.

The convention schedule listed Burnham as the A.I.A. member who had volunteered to introduce the issue of consolidation on the floor.  This was a clever maneuver on the part of the Chicagoans, for rather than officially broaching the issue of consolidation in a W.A.A. forum, the idea would, therefore, be formally presented as an A.I.A. idea.  This was evidently a tactic employed not only to placate the ego of the A.I.A. members, but also to allow the W.A.A. to say in later debates that consolidation was an A.I.A. idea to which the W.A.A had graciously consented.  

On the second day of the A.I.A. convention, Burnham and Root launched into their characteristic Damon and Pythias routine.  While Root, the president of the W.A.A., played the great diplomat and succeeded in being elected to the A.I.A. Board of Trustees, the first Westerner to be so honored, Burnham was the point man on the third day in giving an inspirational speech that laid out Chicago’s plan for a truly national, newly-formed organization of the country’s architects, that included a new constitution based upon the W.A.A.’s, and the controversial proposal to reuse the name, American Institute of Architects, (this was not in the W.A.A.’s original proposal but a politically necessary compromise to move the project forward).  He concluded with a motion that a committee of five members be appointed to meet with an equivalent committee from the W.A.A. to work out the final details of consolidation.  The motion was approved, and Burnham was one of the five named to the A.I.A. committee. 

The following month when President Root opened the 1887 W.A.A. convention in Cincinnati, Burnham was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently, he had indeed withdrawn from visual participation in the W.A.A. to work from within the A.I.A.  It was Adler, as Chairman of the Board of Directors, who introduced the issue of consolidation with the A.I.A. and moved that a committee of five be named by Pres. Root to meet with Burnham and the A.I.A. committee.  Louis Sullivan quickly responded with an amendment that Root should appoint himself to the committee.  While Sidney Smith was elected president of the W.A.A. for the coming year, Root was promoted to Chairman of the W.A.A. Board of Directors at the same time that he was also sitting of the Board of Trustees of the A.I.A.  So much for conflict of interests.  The campaign was well under way.

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


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.


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.


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)


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.


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)


E. Townsend Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building. Atrium viewed from the Second Floor, showing the solid panels of translucent glass used to floor the balconies. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

Nonetheless, the award for the best atrium of the Chicago School goes to… E. Townsend Mix for the 12-story atrium in the Northwestern Guaranty Building in Minneapolis.   Mix’s age, however, would reveal itself in the building’s exterior design when it is compared to Beman’s.  Whereas Beman had already moved on to the more simple, straightforward massing of the palazzo with smooth surfaces, that would mark the second half of the 1880s and the 1890s, Mix produced a design that was still picturesque in its silhouette and rough in its surface texture.  

E. Townsend Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building, Minneapolis, 1888. (Online)

The owner, Louis F. Menage had given Mix almost a blank check and he made the most of it.  A three-story, four-feet thick base of rusticated green New Hampshire granite supported the nine floors of red Lake Superior sandstone above.  This was articulated into a seven-story middle and two-story top that resulted in a tripartite elevation.  The middle elevation comprised of alternating eight-story bay windows and seven-story arched bays.  The truly unfortunate aspect of Mix’s facade, however, was his decision to extend the primary piers past the cornice to reinforce the building’s dominant verticality, that resulted in an overly busy roofline that distracted a viewer’s eyes from the otherwise well-detailed facades.  

Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building. (Online)

Following Twin Cities convention, he placed a 40′ tall lookout tower at the main corner of the 12-story building, that increased its final height of the building to 220,’ that also purposely made it taller than St. Paul’s 13-story Pioneer Press‘ building (and also taller than any building in Chicago except the tower of the Board of Trade, including the planned 16-story, 213’ tower of the Auditorium, that would force its owners to add a 17th floor to increase its height, and unfortunately, its weight).

Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building. Entrance. (Online)

A visitor walked through the two-story entry arch that was truly Mix’s finest design with terra cotta ornament.  Most unusual and notable was the softly-draped fabric, modeled in terra cotta, that was the background for the building’s name.  

Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building. Main Entrance.  Note the exquisite detailing of the terra cotta in the hanging drapery (including the tassel at its corner) in back of the building’s name.  (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

A visitor coming through the doors was greeted by the 12-story high interior atrium, that could be considered to have been Mix’s swansong.  The dimensions of the site were such that after Mix had lined the perimeter with single-loaded offices, a huge, 50′ by 80′ atrium (the Rookery’s is 62’ by 71’) extended up all twelve floors to the skylight at the roof.   

Mix cantilevered the floors of each story around the atrium so that no column would tie these hovering planes to the ground.  What really gave the space its ethereal character was his substitution of Hyatt lights in favor of 1″ thick translucent glass as the flooring material for each gallery.  Six open cage elevators in two banks of three completed his symphony of light and movement.  

Chicago simply had nothing that was comparable to this 12-story high space when it was completed.  The twelfth floor contained Jasper Gibb’s Restaurant, renowned as “the largest, finest restaurant west of Chicago.” An open-air rooftop garden, together with the observation tower, completed this urban palace.

Mix, Northwestern Guaranty Building. Rooftop with skylight, observatory, (Online)

Two years later, Burnham & Root’s 20-story Masonic Temple with its 302’ tall atrium (see later chapter to come) would eclipse its height record, but the Masonic Temple’s 30’ by 70’ atrium was not nearly as spacious. Unfortunately, both buildings were demolished, so if you want to experience the tallest surviving atrium built during the Chicago School, my research identifies it would be the 13-story (now 16-story with the addition) space in the Pioneer Press. 

Frank E. Edbrooke, Brown Palace Hotel, Denver, 1893. Atrium. (Author’s collection)

 If you want to experience what I consider to be the “grandest” surviving atrium of this period, I think this is the 7-story Browne Palace Hotel in Denver designed by Frank Edbrooke (no relation to Chicago’s George Edbrooke) in 1893.  (A personal aside: I remember when the first Hyatt House with an atrium, designed by John Portman for Atlanta opened in 1967.  It was deemed to be “futuristic” because it had a 22-story interior space called an “atrium”…) 

John Portman, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Atlanta, 1965. The atrium of the future. (Online)

There is a video of the demolition of the Northwestern Guaranty Building that includes a brief shot of taking the elevator up, thorough the space: https://www.archantiques.com/metropolitan


Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

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


While Chicago continued to struggle to restart its real estate market during 1887 and the first half of 1888, Minneapolis and St. Paul were erecting skyscrapers that were beginning to overtake what Chicago had built prior to its economic slowdown.  Even as early as April 1886, it was reported that the twelve-story Palisades Hotel (never built, however) was being planned for downtown Minneapolis (Chicago had only completed the 12-story Maller Building a year earlier, and the 11-story Rookery was just coming out of the ground).  In March 1888, announcements were made in both cities that a twelve-story office building was being planned for each city.  The race between the Twin Cities was on again.  St. Paul appears to have been the first out the gate with the announcement that the Pioneer Press had commissioned Chicago’s S.S. Beman to design a building taller than what its competitor, the St. Paul Globe, designed the previous year by E. Townsend Mix had just completed.  Within weeks of this announcement, Minneapolis real estate mogul Louis F. Menage released the news that he had hired Mix to design a twelve-story building for his company, the Northwestern Guaranty Loan Company, for the western corner of S. 3rd Street and Second Avenue S.

E. Townsend Mix, St. Paul Daily Globe, St. Paul, 1887. (Millet, AIA Guide to the Twin Cities)


S. S. Beman, Pioneer Press Building, St. Paul, 1888. (Minnesota Historical Society)

This news made the Pioneer Press increase its building to 13 stories.  While Chicago had no 13-story buildings in early 1888, it did have a large collection of 10-story skyscrapers and the corresponding construction experience to design such a building, so the newspaper had gone to Chicago and hired Beman to design their record-breaking skyscraper for the north corner of Fourth and Robert Streets.  Not surprisingly, Beman still conservatively chose to use load-bearing masonry on all four exterior walls.  

Beman, Pioneer Press Building. Entrance. (Online)

Beman produced a well-proportioned box that had a two-story stone base, upon which he placed an 11-story body encased in a light brown brick, that was articulated in layers with a 1:6:1:2:1 rhythm.  He had capped the six-story middle layer with a series of arches that were supported on five-story piers.  One unfortunate detail he could have eliminated was a superfluous sill course at the ninth floor that randomly interrupted these piers at this point.  Beman detailed floors eleven and twelve with windows that were half the width of those in the layer below it, with arches spanning the openings in floor eleven, while the windows in floor twelve were spanned with a lintel.  Floor thirteen was solid except for small vertical strips located above each window below, which betrayed the mechanical equipment located on this level.  A bracketed cornice gave the box a crisp profile.  

Beman, Pioneer Press Building. Atrium. The stairway has been glazed over in a later renovation that also added three floors. (And you thought the stair in the Rookery’s atrium was scary…) (Online)

The dimensions of the site allowed Beman to line all four sides with single-loaded offices that left a 30′ by 40′ rectangular atrium in the center that extended for the entire height of the building’s 13 stories, the tallest atrium in the country.  Beman detailed the conventional Hyatt glass prisms in the floors of each gallery to permit as much daylight to penetrate down into the lower floors.

Beman, Pioneer Press Building. Atrium. Note the glass prisms inserted in the balcony floors. (Author image)


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

Hess, Jeffrey A. and Paul Clifford Larson. St. Paul’s Architecture: A History, Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Larson, Paul Clifford. The Spirit of H.H. Richardson on the Midland Prairies. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

Millett, Larry. Lost Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1992.

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