Adler & Sullivan, The Auditorium. 1888 Republican National Convention, June 1888. (urbanremainschicago.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 architectural events) with the 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.  In Volume Four, I documented Chicago’s stagnation, hiatus, vacuum, stoppage (call it what you will) in new construction that stretched from the Haymarket Square bombing of May 4, 1886, into the summer of 1888. The bombing and ensuing legal proceedings and protests (four of the accused conspirators were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887) had scared financiers from investing in Chicago for the next two years.  This had only compounded the initial slowdown in construction in early 1886 caused by the flood of new office space that had hit the market on May 1, 1885, the same day that the new Board of Trade opened its doors.

Then the contractor lockout in May 1887 had only continued the lack of construction for the rest of that year.  Through the heroic efforts of Ferdinand Peck, construction of Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium had managed to push onward to completion through the city’s labor and class unrest, sufficiently enough to be able to house the 1888 Republican Presidential Convention during June 19-25, 1888.  I completed the tale of the Auditorium through to its opening night on December 4, 1889, for the sake of continuity to enable one to understand Sullivan’s evolving design abilities and theories, but by the fall of 1888, other buildings were under construction in Chicago, so we need to return to July 1, 1888, with the dust from the Convention settling in order to pick up the history of Chicago’s architecture. 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 built when the building economy began to rebound in the summer of 1888.  I am using the Republican Presidential Convention held in the Auditorium in June 1888 as the starting point for what I consider to be the second part of the Chicago School during the 1880s.  



Burnham & Root, Kansas City Board of Trade, 1886. (Online)

1. Following the spreading tracks of the railroads, investment continued to march ever westward, passing the corner of State and Madison. Kansas City began to replace Chicago as the leading meat processing center, made possible by the development of the refrigerated meat car. Burnham & Root had kept their office open with four commissions there, including the competition-winning Board of Trade. 

Cartoon published in the St. Paul Globe, December 25, 1886. Mix’s Globe Building is directly in the center of the drawing. Note the 24-story stepback skyscraper annex in the center left and the elevated train supported solely by iron framing in the foreground. I have never seen an equivalent drawing using contemporary Chicago as the background. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

2. With the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, St. Paul and Minneapolis became important regional centers, focused on the grain trade, challenging another of Chicago’s pioneering industries.  Both cities began erection of skyscrapers, first equaling and then surpassing, albeit briefly, the tallest Chicago slyscrapers. E. T. Mix’s Northwestern Guaranty’s 13-story atrium had no equivalent in Chicago when it was completed in 1889.

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

3. Minneapolis architect LeRoy Buffington fed on this “skyscraper mania” in his hometown and proposed to erect the first skyscraper over 20 stories high, his 28-story “Cloudscraper;” the first illustration of the 350’ tower was published in the July 1888 issue of Inland Architect. He was able to propose such a radical building because he had employed an all-iron skeleton-framed structure, a system for which he had submitted and was granted a patent on May 22, 1888.

4. Meanwhile, Chicago’s old nemesis, Cincinnati, held its swansong, its 1888 Centennial Exhibition, that opened on July 4, 1888. The “Queen City” was making the most of the comparison between Chicago’s sluggish economy and the robust activity generated by its “Fair.”  Its “Venetian” canal theme would inspire much of the early design for Chicago’s own World’s Fair planned for 1892. 

Above: Boat entrance. (Miller, Cincinnati’s Music Hall); Below; Venetian gondolas being poled by gondoliers. (Online)

5. Speaking of using the iron skeleton frame, on July 14, 1888, Bastille Day in Paris, the French Republican government celebrated the 99th anniversary of the Revolution by shooting fireworks from the Eiffel Tower, launched from the top of construction that had reached the second level, at a height of 380‘, already 30’ taller than Buffington’s Cloudscraper.  Construction (whose published photographic updates would simply goad American builders to solve the problem in the U.S.) would continue through to completion on March 31, 1889, that would top off at 300 M.(984′).

Gustave Eiffel, The Eiffel Tower under Construction, Bastille Day, July 14, 1888. (Online)


James Bogardus, McCullough Shot Tower, New York, 1855. (Silver, Lost New York)

The iron framed skyscraper was not “invented” by one person or in one city, but was an incremental evolution of the development of a series of technologies. (v. 3, sec. 3.1-3.19) By July 1888, the iron-framed skyscraper was on the verge of becoming a reality, some thirty-two years after James Bogardus, who had pioneered the cast iron front prior to the Civil War, had claimed that he could build an iron tower that:

“may be raised to a height vastly greater than by any other known means, without impairing its stability in the least; … and that thereby he would be enabled to erect a tower or building many times the height of any other edifice in the world, which would be perfectly safe to visitors, in the face of storm or tempest, though they filled it throughout every story, to its utmost capacity.” 

George Post, Equitable Building, New York, 1867. Left: Banking Hall as it appeared in 1889, showing the iron columns that support the walls above. (Landau, Post); Right: Interior iron structure exposed after a fire on January 9, 1912. The cast iron column is in the center bottom. Wrought iron girders frame into both sides of the column. Above the cast iron columns stands the built-up wrought iron column that supported the exterior walls lining the lightcourt. (Landau, Rise of New York Skyscraper)

Following the end of the Civil War, George Post had begun America’s development of exterior iron skeleton framing in 1867 with the Equitable Building’s lightcourt (v. 3, sec. 2.12), and followed this with a more refined version of iron framing in the lightcourt of the New York Produce Exchange in 1881. 

George Post, New York Produce Exchange, Photo of Construction showing the iron skeleton framing in the lightcourt walls. (Landau and Condit, New York)

In March 1884, Chicago architect Frederick Baumann had published a paper documenting how one might build a tall office building solely employing iron framing (v.3, sec. 8.15). John Root brought Post’s detailing of exterior iron construction to Chicago in 1885 in the lightcourts of both the Phoenix and the Rookery Buildings. (Note that I did not include Jenney’s use of iron columns in the Home Insurance Building because I have shown (v. 3 sec. 8.17) that his iron structure in the exterior did neither employ iron beams at every floor nor supported the building’s masonry exterior.)  

Burnham & Root, Rookery. Structural detail of the light court curtain walls. Note the bearing shelf and web bracket cast with the column. (Thanks to Kevin Wilson at TGRWA, Nathaniel Parks at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Gunny Harboe for helping me to find this image!)

I then mused that Root may have incorporated iron framing in much of the exterior of the Midland Hotel in Kansas City (as an experiment far from the eyes of the press in case anything went wrong).  I am sure there are other examples of early experiments with exterior iron framing prior to July 1888 (the best potential candidate I have presented being the 1885 Bank of Minneapolis by Hodgson & Son). 

Hodgson & Son, Bank of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, 1885. (Millet, Lost Twin Cities)

Yet it seems to be a fact that no American architect had designed a tall building employing only iron framing until Buffington had been granted a patent for such a system on May 22, 1888.  I documented (v.4, chap. 4) how I believe that Buffington had been inspired by the structures of Eiffel, first in the Statue of Liberty that was erected in 1885, and then by the first published drawings in 1887 of Eiffel’s proposal to build the 300 M. tower.  

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.

But would anyone ever dare to build a real 28-story Cloudscraper, or would owners continue to “believe that such inordinately lofty structures are not likely to prove profitable to their owners.”

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

So as I pick up the history of Chicago’s iron-framed skyscrapers in July 1888, we can look at the combination of Eiffel’s successful ongoing construction of the 300 M. tower and the publicity surrounding Buffington’s 28-story “Cloudscraper” as having provided architects and engineers the motivation/challenge to finally solve the problems in designing and building the iron skeleton-famed skyscraper.    These problems can be grouped into one of two strands: first, the technical issues, and second, the architectural design issues of such a building. The technical issues needed to be solved first, after which architects had sufficient examples and time to consider the theoretical issues of just how to design the elevation of such buildings.


Larson, Gerald, “The Elevator, the Iron Skeleton Frame, and the Early Skyscrapers: Parts 1 and 2,” International Journal of High-Rise Buildings, March 2020, pp. 1-41.

Larson, Gerald, “The Iron Skeleton Frame: Interactions Between Europe and the U.S.,” Zukowski, John (ed.), Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

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

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