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)


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, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

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.  

LeRoy S. Buffington, Patent for 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Online)

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!

Buffington, Cloudscraper, Typical Floor Plan and Section. The elevator doors opened into the corridor. There were to be two sets of firestairs within the core. At each floor, two flights (opposite of each other) went up to a common landing, and two flights (again, opposite of each other) went down to the landing. (Yes, apparently as you made your way down, you had to walk around the corridor to get to the next flight down.) (Online)

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: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)


Stephan Sauvestre, Early Design for the 300-M Tower. The two side towers contained the elevators to the tower, so that the center was left open from the ground. Fortunately, Eiffel decided the elevators should follow the curve of the legs, a technology never tried before. Fortunately, Otis Elevators were able to solve the problem. (Online)

It still took seven more months for the government and Eiffel to sign a contract on January 8, 1887.  The primary issue that took so much time in negotiating was the financing of the project.  The government was adamant about limiting its financial exposure in the project to 1,500,000 francs, and having no financial liability whatsoever (the final cost of the tower was 7,800,000 francs).  Eiffel eventually had to stake not only his reputation, but his personal financial stability by agreeing to accept sole responsibility for financing the entire project, less the government subsidy.  In return for doing so, he asked for and was granted the concession for all receipts generated by the tower (including the sale of all images of the tower!) for the next twenty years.  In typical fashion, Eiffel had the self-confidence to form a stock company to finance the project, offering 10,000 shares at 500 francs each.  Having calculated the expected return based on attendance estimates, he would keep half of the shares for himself.  He recovered his entire costs within the first year, and the following years’ profits would make him truly financially independent.


Excavation Begins, January 1887. (Online)

Once he had a signed contract, Eiffel wasted no time and began clearing the Champ de Mars and excavating for the tower’s foundations on January 28. (Four days after Adler started clearing the site for the Auditorium.)  The traditionalists at the École des Beaux-Arts, however, would not go down without at least one last-ditch attack on the metal symbol of the Republican future.  They had defeated Viollet-le-Duc when he had been appointed by Napoléon III to the École, it was time to do the same to the upstart, distasteful engineer.  Paul Planat, publisher of the conservative magazine La construction modern, hosted a dinner on December 18, 1886, for the leading alumni of the École, where champagne flowed while a variety of sarcastic skits and cynical songs roasted Eiffel and his “funnel planted on its fat butt.”  Charles Garnier, the architect of the imperial Paris Opera, who had also coined the term, “Second Empire,” to describe its imperial style, would be at the forefront of the reactionary attack on Eiffel.  A committee of 300 (one for every meter) leading artists and intellectuals who were vehemently opposed to the construction of the metal tower was formed to register their protest.  On February 14, 1887, Le Temps printed an open letter now known as the “Artists’ Protest,” to Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, stating the reasons for their opposition:

“…we, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of the threatened art and history of France, against the erection, right at the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the caustic public, often endowed with good sense and judgment, has already dubbed the “Tower of Babel.”… Without falling into an excess of chauvinism, we have the right to proclaim aloud that Paris is a city without rival in the world…

“Are we then going to allow all this to be profaned?  Is the city of Paris then going to associate herself with the grotesque, mercenary inventions of a machine builder, so as to deface and deflower her?… when foreigners come to see our exhibition, they will cry out in astonishment, “What!  This is the atrocity which the French have created to give us an idea of their boasted taste!”  And they will be right to laugh at us because the Paris of sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon,… will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre-Dame, the Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe; all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed buildings will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years, over the whole city which still trembles with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see stretching out like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”

Construction of the Foundation for One of the Legs, April 1887. (Online)

The protest was signed by 47 of Paris’ outraged leading citizens, including architects Charles Garnier and Joseph Auguste Émile Vaudremer, composer Charles Gounod, artist Ernest Meissonier, poet Francois Coppée and writers, Alexandre Dumas, Guy de Maupassant, and Sully Prudhomme.  Not surprising, missing from the list were the names of all of the well-established Impressionist painters in Paris (Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Pissarro) that were all fighting the same ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes during this period for their own medium.  In fact, Georges Seurat would use the tower as the subject of a painting he did in the year before the Fair opened. 

Georges Seurat, The Eiffel Tower, 1888. (The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)

Having a contract in hand, as well as already having started construction, Eiffel could afford to be controlled and rather understated in his replies to these onerous, desperate criticisms of his design and his abilities:

“I believe that the Tower will have its own beauty.  Because we are engineers, do people think that we do not care about the beauty of our constructions and that as well as making them strong and durable, we do not try to make them elegant?…

“Do not the laws of natural forces always conform to the secret laws of harmony?   The first principle of the aesthetics of architecture is that the essential lines of a monument should be determined by their perfect appropriateness to their end.  Now, what condition do I have to take into consideration above all others in a tower?  Wind resistance.  Well I maintain that the curves of the four arrises of the monument, as the calculations have determined them, will give an impression of beauty because they will demonstrate to the viewer the boldness of the conception.”

Eiffel had simply repeated the argument in favor of a modern aesthetic whose lineage reached back to the French theoretician, Marc Antoine Laugier, who had written in his 1753 treatise, Essai sur l’architecture, that architectural beauty comes not from the man-made precedents of the past, but from the processes of Nature.  Perhaps, however, the argument was best made by Jules Simon, the Minister of Fine Arts who wrote in the official guide for the Eiffel Tower:  

“This masterpiece of the builder’s art comes at its appointed hour, on the threshold of the twentieth century, to symbolize the age of iron we are entering.  From the second platform, and, above all from the upper-most, a panorama unfolds such as never been seen by human eyes…Nature and history are unrolled side by side in their most powerful guise.  It is on the plain, stretched out beneath your feet, that the past comes to an end.  It is here that the future will be fulfilled.”

Indeed, Garnier and his co-signers were rooted in the aesthetics, as well as the politics of the imperial past; time and technology had already left the protestors’ ideas in their dust. The Republican government had ideas different from theirs; construction of the iron tower would continue unabated with its blessing. Vive la République!

Completion of the First Level, March 26, 1888. (Online)


Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

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


Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin, “Pylon 300 meters high for the city of Paris, 1889,” June 6, 1884. Note that the Statue of Liberty is still in Paris at this time. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

On June 6, 1884, Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin produced their first drawing of their ideas. Koechlin described their design as “four lattice girders standing apart at the base and coming together at the top, joined to one another by metal trusses at regular intervals.” Similar to the Garrabit publicity drawing, the tallest buildings in Paris (that at this time included the Statue of Liberty!) were stacked one on top of another to give the viewer an idea of the magnitude of the tower’s vertical scale.  They approached Eiffel with their idea, who seemed indifferent but gave his blessing to them to continue, but more than likely at this moment was still very much focused on the completion of the Garrabit Bridge.  The two engineers brought in architect Stephen Sauvestre, director of the company’s architectural department, for his assistance in making the engineered idea into an aesthetically acceptable monument, who added the decorative fake aches at the base, usable spaces at each of the three levels, and the requisite Beaux-Arts sprinkling of gratuitous monumental sculptures.

First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

A drawing of this design was exhibited at the Decorative Arts Exhibition that autumn (1884) at the Palais de l’Industrie. Around this time, the Garrabit Bridge was completed that allowed Eiffel to switch his attention from the bridge to the tower project, that by now was gaining traction within some circles.  By September, the three were ready to patent their design with the wise inclusion of their boss, that was submitted on September 18, 1884.  The Washington Monument was completed on December 6, and only six days later on December 12, Eiffel signed an agreement with his three employees to buy their patent rights and became the sole holder of the patent.  The very next day, December 13, only one week following the completion of the Washington Monument, le Genie Civil proudly published Sauvestre’s drawing.  

Above: James Buchanan Eads, Eads Bridge over the Mississippi River, St. Louis, 1867-74. (Online); Below: Gustave Eiffel, Garabit Viaduct, 1879. (Online)

Having claimed the record for the longest arch span from the Americans with the Douro and Garrabit bridges, Gustave Eiffel had now set his sights on the just completed Washington Monument:

“Without rebuilding the Tower of Babel, one can see that the idea of constructing a tower of very great height has for a long time haunted the imagination of mankind.   This kind of victory over the terrible law of gravity which attaches man to the ground always appeared to him a symbol of the forces and the difficulties to be overcome.  To speak only of our century, the thousand-feet tower which would exceed by twice the highest monuments it had been possible to hitherto construct [Washington Monument], was a problem set down to be solved in the minds of English [Trevithick, 1832 and Charles Burton, 1852] and American [Philadelphia Phoenix Tower, 1874] engineers.”

In all reality, the Eiffel engineers were also reacting to a proposal made the previous year by architect Jules Bourdais, who had also graduated from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures only two years after Eiffel, to erect a 300m masonry lighthouse in Paris.   The idea, a “Tour Soleil,” had been originally proposed by Amédée Sébillot, a young electrical engineer after he had made a trip to the U.S. in 1881, at which time the construction of the Washington Monument had been restarted.  He proposed to combine 100 electric lamps with parabolic reflectors into a 165′ high electric beacon that would sit atop the tower.  Its purpose was obvious, to use technology to overcome the limitations of the night by providing more light than was needed to read a newspaper within a radius several miles from the tower.  (Elmer Sperry would succeed in building just such a lamp in Chicago with the Board of Trade’s corona in late 1885.) Bourdais, an arch-traditionalist architect who was best known for his work on the Trocadero Palace with Gabriel Davioud in 1876, had adopted the idea and applied it to a masonry tower that was to rise from a 217′ high granite base.  The tower that ultimately would have supported the metal beacon consisted of five masonry drums, decreasing in diameter as the tower rose.  The masonry tower was to be covered with embossed copper sheets and surrounded with an arcaded screen that tapered with the reduction in diameter of the drums and supported galleries at each stepback in the tower.  Bourdais’ design was an example to the Americans who were in the process of completing the Washington Monument of how to design an “architecturally correct” monument.

Jules Bourdais, Design for a monumental lighthouse for Paris, 1883. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Even though Bourdais had sheathed his masonry tower in copper, once Eiffel’s competing design was published in le Genie Civil, Bourdais began to lash out at Eiffel’s “vulgar” use of exposed iron.  Thus began the next battle in France’s ongoing Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns) that I had first discussed in Vol. 2, Sec. 1.7 with its start in 1687. In this latest debate to win the hearts and minds of Parisians, the issue was the merits of “traditional” architecture in stone versus “innovative” or modern scientifically-based buildings that actually revealed their industrially-produced metal structure.  Eiffel attacked the feasibility of constructing a stone edifice to the height projected by Bourdais from five important, fundamental issues: the ability of stone and its mortar to resist the magnitude of the weight of the tower, Bourdais’s lack of understanding of the actual wind forces on such a tower, Bourdais’ seemingly cavalier attitude towards a foundation for such a massive weight (there was none, it was to simply sit of the ground), the actual cost of such a structure, and finally, the time required to construct such a monumental tower in masonry.  Bourdais’ offhanded, third-person response was meant to end all discussion:

“As regards stability, and, more particularly, with respect to wind resistance, Monsieur Bourdais used a formula which he says he has tested in practice more than once, and whose results, according to him, agree with dimensions used in the tallest buildings in the world.  We shall accept his results without questioning them… the dimensions of the tower give no ground for fear, since the height of the tower does not exceed the maximum height permitted by theory…Thus there is no cause for anxiety here.”

Bourdais was clearly out of his league with such a structure, but his ego could not admit this fact.  Eiffel was quick to prove the point:

“It goes without saying that iron will never entirely replace stone and wood…but in recent years there has been a constant battle, and iron increasingly invaded the field of major construction, and today it is one of the principal materials.  What are the advantages of metal?  Primarily, its elasticity [strength].  From the point of view of the loads which one can safely support with one or other of the materials we know, for equal area, iron is ten times more elastic than wood and twenty times more elastic than stone.  It is in large constructions especially that metal elasticity reveals its superiority over other materials.  The actual weight of the work plays a considerable role; it limits the height and distance which one can reach.   At the same time, the relative lightness of steel constructions makes it possible to decrease the importance of supports and foundations.”


Eiffel and Bourdais continued to promote their designs and to throw barbs at their opponent’s design throughout 1885, but in truth, there was no real consensus over whether there should even be a fair in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of the 1789 revolution.  After all, there was no consensus among the general French population about what was the best form of national government: communist, republican, imperial, or monarchy.  They had tried them all at one time or another during the past 100 years, and all four were still very much in play in 1885, for not every Frenchmen viewed either the Revolution or the Second Empire as a positive event.  To the benefit of Eiffel’s long-term reputation, the general election of 1885 in the fall would return the incumbent Republican government to office that finally settled the issue.  The celebration of the revolution’s centennial was assured, and it would need an iconic, central point of interest.  Eiffel had been very active in promoting his design during the intervening year, and at least among the Republican ministers who were going to be in charge of the fair, his design was unanimously viewed as being the most symbolic of the progressive political ideas of the revolution they wished to promote through the fair.  As usual, no one was more articulate about the political symbolism of his design, than Eiffel himself:

“The tower would seem to be worthy of personifying the art of the modern engineer and the century and science, for which the road was prepared by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be erected as testimony of the gratitude of France.”

The effectiveness of Eiffel’s campaign was such that the Minister of Trade, Édouard Lockroy formally announced on May 1, 1886, that the period for proposing designs, which had been ongoing since the first official prospectus on the fair was issued in March 1885, would end on May 18 and that all designs: 

“must investigate the possibility of erecting a square-based iron tower, 125 meters square at the base and 300 meters high, on the Champ de Mars.  They must draw out this tower on the plan of the Champ de Mars, and if they deem it fitting, they may submit another plan without the said tower.”

The architectural and political conservatives, led by Paul Planat and his magazine La construction moderne, attempted to derail Eiffel’s design that same day with an editorial that denounced it as “an inartistic…scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron.”  Only a few hours later, across the Atlantic, over 350,000 workers began a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday in the U.S.  Four days later, a bomb was thrown into a group of Chicago policemen in the Haymarket Square.  While American business leaders reacted with overwhelming force to thwart America’s labor reformers from achieving their goal in the summer of 1886, the French Republicans, who had first overthrown Napoléon III’s Second Empire, and then had to defeat the Paris Commune, were still in control of the national government and would succeed in fighting off the efforts of Second Empire reactionaries to stifle the ultimate expression of the centennial of their revolution in the modern form of Eiffel’s iron tower.

Suspicions were aroused by the unreasonably short period of only eighteen days allowed to design, refine, and render a plan for what would be the tallest structure ever constructed, but still, over one hundred submissions were recorded by the deadline.  On May 12 a committee was formed, chaired by Lockroy and Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, Paris’ Director of Works, to review the designs.  It identified a list of nine semi-finalists, that included Bourdais’ (who had to obviously revise his masonry design using iron) and Eiffel’s designs, and after much discussion and review by the Republican committee, on June 12, 1886, it announced:

“the tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition should clearly have a distinctive character, and should be an original masterpiece of work in metal, and that only the Eiffel Tower seemed to satisfy these requirements fully.”

The Modernes had won this round of the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes Vive la République!

The Eiffel Tower and the Highest Monuments in the World.” The French now can acknowledge the Washington Monument, albeit in perspective, it appears shorter in relation to the Eiffel Tower than in reality. (Revue illustrée, 1889; Loyrette, Eiffel)


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.

Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

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


First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Let’s review the 300-meter tower in order to get a better appreciation for the measure of Eiffel’s accomplishment.  Why was it built in the first place?  Perhaps the first published image of the Eiffel Tower in the American press may have said it best.  On it were listed the tallest structures in the world at this moment:

                  Strasbourg Cathedral             142m/469′

                  Rouen Cathedral                     150m/495′

                  Cologne Cathedral                 159m/515′

                  “Projected” Tower                    300m/986′

Curiously, the Washington Monument, completed to a height of 555′, making it the tallest structure in the world, on December 6, 1884, only a week earlier than when this drawing was first published in France, was not included in this list.  Neither was the German St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, completed in 1874 at 483.’ There may have been just a “slight amount of national prestige” involved in the final decision to build Eiffel’s Tower.  Le Genie Civil proudly announced Eiffel’s design on December 13, 1884:

“For a long time it seemed as if the Americans were to remain the leaders in these daring experiments that characterize the investigations of a special genius that enjoys pushing… the strength of materials to their extreme limits.  (But now France could finally be proud of Eiffel and his engineers, who were had mastered) the colossal aspects of the problem… they seem to have considered these aspects as a natural extension of the enormous metal structures that they executed earlier, and in fact they do not feel that these aspects represent the maximum achievement possible in the erection and superimposition of metal.”

Johann Sonntag, The Duke of Lorraine and Imperial Troops Crossing the Rhine before Strasbourg, 1744. Strasbourg Cathedral, 1015-1439. At 469’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1647-1874. (Online)

It is a little-appreciated fact that even before the Prussian’s crushing defeat of the Second Empire in 1871, the French and the Germans had been engaged in a very serious game of nationalistic one-upmanship in terms of who had the tallest building in the world.  The spire of 469’ Strasbourg Cathedral (the city had been a Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman (German) Empire since 1262) was thought to have been the tallest structure in the Western world since 1647, when a lightning strike had destroyed the 495′ spire of St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany.  (The Great Pyramid of Cheops, originally built to 481’ but over time its veneer had been stripped reducing its height to 450’ was but a legend at this time. Its height wasn’t truly measured until 1882.)  This was the record-holding position the Strasbourg tower held in 1681 when Louis XIV annexed the city into the Kingdom of France.  This “temporary” ownership by the French, however, had not prevented Goethe from reminding one and all that it been a German who had originally designed it (in 1015, completed in 1439) in his 1772 essay, On German Architecture:

“thank God that [we Germans] can proclaim that this is German architecture, our architecture.  For the Italian has none he can call his own, still less the Frenchman.”

Notwithstanding the building’s German heritage, French cultural chauvinism had grown accustomed over the last 190 years to having the tallest building in the world.  (Even though in April 1794 following the revolution, its tower had been slated for demolition by anticleric radicals  who argued that the church was counter to the idea of equality.  Fortunately, within a month a group of townspeople stopped the plan by constructing a huge, metal Phrygian cap over the top of the tower. On the other hand, France’s largest and arguably, most historic church, the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny was not so fortunate.) But like so many other embarrassments that resulted from the 1870-1 war with the Prussians, Strasbourg, as part of Alsace, was lost by the French (or returned to Germany) when it was annexed into the new German Empire.  

George Gilbert Scott, St. Nikolai Kirche, Hamburg, 1846-74. At 483’, it was the tallest building in the world, 1874-76. (Online)

In 1874, the spire of St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, newly designed in 1846 from the ground up by British architect George Gilbert Scott (Midland Hotel in front of St. Pancras Station), was completed to a new record of 483,’ that only poured salt into the French post-war psyche.  The French reclaimed the record within two years in 1876 when Rouen Cathedral, whose lantern spire had been destroyed by lightning in 1822, received a new cast iron spire that was completed to the purposeful height of 495′ in order to be taller than the final projected height of the spires of Cologne Cathedral, then nearing completion. 

Rouen Cathedral and its Lantern Tower, 1876. At 495’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1876-1880. The right tower, known as the “Butter Tower,” was the precedent used by Raymond Hood in the design of the Chicago Tribune building. (Online)

But this record held for only a short four years, however, for the finials on Cologne’s spires were simply made even taller. Kaiser Wilhelm I, who had been crowned at Versailles only nine years earlier, once again was happy to deliver the coup de grace to the French by dedicating the 515′ high twin towers of Cologne Cathedral on August 14, 1880.

Cologne Cathedral, completed 1880. At 515’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1880-1884. (Online)


The resumption of construction of the Cologne Cathedral seems to have provided the final impetus for the U.S. Government to complete the Washington Monument.  Construction on the monument had been abandoned since 1854, where it had reached only 170′ of Robert Mills original height of 600′ in his 1846 design.  Its current condition stood as a testament to the state of the national will of the time: while the original ambition was to build the tallest structure in the world, the American government and its people could not deliver the goods.  The revival of nationalistic pride that accompanied the centennial in 1876 had finally pressured Congress to address the project.  In August 1876, it passed a joint resolution in which Congress “in the name of the people of the United States, at the beginning of the Second Century of the National Existence, do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument in the city of Washington.”  The privately funded Monument Society ceded its property, including the half-constructed obelisk, to the Federal Government, and the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a review of the structure’s foundation.

Partially Completed Washington Monument, photographed by Matthew Brady, ca. 1860. (Online)

The problem was that architectural tastes had greatly changed since 1846, when Mills’ Classical simplicity of the obelisk was then in vogue.  Almost everyone thought it would be best to demolish the existing work and start over, including with a different, more fashionable design.  Drawings and suggestions had flooded the committee charged with completing the project, and gridlock, so typical of Congress, resulted.  Meanwhile, Rouen Cathedral had been topped off at 495′ in 1876 with the appropriate fanfare.  

The Washington National Monument Society, Revised Plan, after 1873. Note Strasbourg Cathedral on the left. At this time, the projected height of the monument was 501.’ (Library of Congress, Freeman, Columbia Historical Society)

One of the first steps that led to the final design of the Washington Monument was a paper presented to the Monument Society in 1876 by J. Goldsborough Bruff.  In it he pointed out that great strides in Egyptian archeology had been made since Mills’ original design, and that it should be revised to be more historically accurate.  He had, therefore, redesigned the obelisk, setting its final height at 501′ one foot higher than the recent-announced revised height of 500′ of Cologne, that had been increased in order to be taller than Rouen.  In October 1877, the Army Corps of Engineers issued its report on the foundation, stating that it could be reinforced to support the original Mills design if so desired.  More than two years of deadlock continued while the Germans pushed ahead with the completion of Cologne, the final height of which had again been increased this time by fifteen feet to 515′ to be taller than the proposed American monument.   Cologne was completed in 1880.   

The Washington Monument as the tallest structure in the world, 1884. To the left of the Washington Monument, #34 is Cologne Cathedral. To the right, #42 is the spire of Lincoln Cathedral, destroyed in 1549. (Online)

The extra height, however, was simply not sufficient to hold back the Americans, who had reproportioned the obelisk to a truer ratio of the height equals ten times the base.  This made the final height of the obelisk to be 555′ and 51/8“.  By this time, the work on the foundation by the Army Corps of Engineers had been finished and they were recommending that the project be completed.  On August 7, 1880, only the week before Kaiser Wilhelm would dedicate the completed Cologne Cathedral, President Rutherford B. Hayes placed a new cornerstone and construction finally resumed.  An aluminum pyramid was set at the top of the obelisk on December 6, 1884, completing the tallest structure in the world.  Was it simply a coincidence or naked French chauvinism that found two of Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin, discussing and doing preliminary calculations on their own for a 300-m iron tower in May 1884, as the Washington Monument neared completion?

Washington Monument. Setting the Aluminum Capstone, December 6, 1884. (Online)

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


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)

Buffington’s patent bore an uncanny resemblance to the iron structure that had been designed for the Statue of Liberty and erected in New York harbor only two years before the granting of his patent.  We last discussed Eiffel’s progress with the Statue in Vol. 3 Sec. 8.8 where he had completed its trial erection in Paris during January 1884.  Eiffel had designed a 92′ tall central wrought iron spine or pylon similar to the 200’ tall pylons he had recently designed for the Garrabit bridge, to be inserted into Bartholdi’s hollow copper sculpture, the individual copper plates of which would be independently hung from the pylon. 

Eiffel, Garrabit Viaduct under construction, 1883. (Loyrete, Eiffel)

The iron pylon consisted of four columns made of riveted (laminated) wrought iron plates.  These were connected with diagonal bracing that gave the pylon its stiffness against the wind.  A secondary system of wrought iron braces was built from the pylon that roughly estimated the actual shape of the sculpture.  This system’s role was to support each copper plate independent of the others, primarily to avoid the accumulation of the weight from the plates above, and to permit thermal movement in the copper to freely occur so that the statue would not tear itself apart as the seasons changed from summer expansion to winter contraction. (In concept, the copper plates comprised a “curtain wall” hung from the iron spine.)  Each copper plate was, therefore, joined to the secondary braces by a system of custom-fitted iron straps, that were not directly attached to the copper plates, but were slotted into copper sheathes that were riveted to the copper plates, again to allow each metal to move independent of the other.

Gustave Eiffel, Iron Structure of the Statue of Liberty, Paris, 1883. (Trachtenberg, Statue of Liberty)

Typical of Eiffel’s precision, the statue had been first erected piece by piece to make sure everything fit like a glove, at the Monduit workshop in Paris where the copper plates were being fabricated.  Erection of the iron pier began in October 1881, and by January 1884, Lady Liberty could be seen from all over Paris.  We know that Buffington had made a trip to Europe in September 1884 and that the statue wasn’t dismantled until January 1, 1885.  Any American architect traveling to Europe in the 1880s would have wanted to visit Paris to see its architecture, so it may have been by sheer coincidence that Buffington stumbled across the Statue of Liberty for the first time.  If so, it would not be his last visit. 

Gustave Eiffel, The Statue of Liberty erected in Paris, 1884. (Online)

As American architects were gingerly experimenting in the summer of 1885 with the iron frame as a potential structural system for the skyscraper, the French were exporting Eiffel’s advanced iron technology in 214 wooden crates aboard the French frigate Isère directly to New York.  Eiffel’s structure arrived in the U.S. on June 17, 1885, but its erection had to wait until the pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt was ever so slowly completed.   Erection of Eiffel’s iron tower in all its naked glory did not begin until April 1886, just weeks before the Haymarket Square bombing, and the statue was finally in place by October 1886, for its dedication on October 28, 1886.

Construction of Statue of Liberty, Summer of 1886. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)


Scientific American, June 13, 1885. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)

So when did Buffington actually “find” Eiffel’s work?  His documents reveal that he worked on his patent application from the summer of 1886 until November 14, 1887, when he submitted his application.  The first illustration of Eiffel’s structure for the Statue of Liberty in an American journal was in the September 1883 issue of American Architect, a year before Buffington’s trip to Europe in September 1884. Meanwhile, Daniel Badger died in November 1884.  In his obituary, American Architect reviewed Badger’s pioneering work with iron construction and credited his “many buildings with cast-iron fronts erected by him… which, although presenting no difficult engineering problems, are remarkable for the ingenuity with which a complete structure of iron is substituted for the masonry.” Is this phrase not exactly what Buffington had set out to do with his patent?  On the eve of the statue’s arrival in New York harbor, the American Press had flooded the country with images and articles on it.  The erection of Eiffel’s pylon in plain view for all to see began in April 1886 and the start of Buffington’s patent work that summer obviously coincide, but if this was all the “evidence” one had, it would be somewhat difficult to prove Buffington’s dependence upon Eiffel’s work. 

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, June 13, 1885. (Sutherland, Statue of Liberty)


First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

However, the American architectural community had already been shocked beyond belief earlier in 1885 by the first articles on Eiffel’s proposed 300-meter iron tower for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.   The first illustration of it was published in the U.S. in February 1885, prior to the Statue of Liberty’s arrival in New York, and therefore, it may have been the Eiffel Tower’s freestanding iron skeleton that first caught Buffington’s attention as a potential solution to building taller skyscrapers.  

There is an actual drawing by Buffington that reveals his study of Eiffel during this period.  The sleek, parabolic profile of his entry for the Indiana State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument competition in November 1887, bore a striking resemblance to the profile of the Eiffel Tower, by then under construction and attracting the attention of the world’s building community.  

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.

The parabolic profile of Eiffel’s Tower had been generated by a strict engineering formula that calculates the result of the wind’s pressure (its bending moment) on the structure as if it was a cantilever out of the ground.  As Buffington may have read in early 1885:

“The skeleton of the [Eiffel] tower is composed essentially of four uprights which form the arrises of the pyramid, whose faces are disposed according to a curved surface determined by the theoretical consideration of the effect of wind strains.”

No American building prior to Buffington’s competition entry had ever reflected such a strict adherence to a scientifically generated shape as his did.  


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.

Loyrette, Henri. Gustave Eiffel. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

Morrison, Hugh, “Buffington and the Invention of the Skyscraper,” Art Bulletin, vol. XXVI, No. 1, March 1944, p.1.

Trachtenburg, Marvin. The Statue of Liberty. New York: Penguin, 1977.

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)


Imagine it’s March 1888, and you are either John Root trying to crank out the punchlist to finish the Rookery (while his 13-story Monadnock Block had been sitting in hybernation), or that you are Louis Sullivan feverishly trying to complete the interior of the Auditorium’s hall by June 1. You open the latest issue of Northwestern Architect and, to your utter amazement, there is an article detailing a proposal to erect a 28-story, 350′ high ‘‘Cloudscraper’’ designed by Minneapolis’ LeRoy Buffington.  At this moment, the 12-storied Washington Building at 258′ was the tallest building in New York, and the Maller Building stood at twelve stories in Chicago (with the Rookery’s eleven stories nearing completion). How would you react?

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


Buffington’s ‘‘Cloudscraper’’ contained more than twice the number of floors in any American building!  He was able to design such a tall building because he had developed a system of iron framing that enabled the erection of buildings to almost unlimited heights, for which he was granted a patent two months later on May 22, 1888.  News of the patent and the rendering of the ‘Cloudscraper’ had to have greeted Chicago’s architectural community like a cold shower when it was first published in the July 1888 issue of Inland Architect.  Buffington had finally succeeded in giving physical form to James Bogardus’ claim in 1856 that with the iron skeleton frame, it was possible “to erect a tower or building many times the height of any other edifice in the world.”

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


Although George Post would soon prove that masonry bearing walls could be used to erect skyscrapers to heights over 300’ (i.e., the 309’ high Pulitzer/New York World Building completed in 1890: note that the 215’ tall Monadnock Block WAS NOT THE TALLEST BEARING WALL STRUCTURE), the immense thickness of these walls ate up valuable rental area and reduced the amount of daylight penetrating into a building’s interior.  The weight of these thick walls posed a special problem in Chicago, as we have seen, simply because the strength of its soil wasn’t sufficient to support such pressure without excessive settlement.  While American architects and engineers had been using iron framing in the interiors of multistoried buildings for decades, these had always relied upon the rigidity of the masonry exterior walls to stabilize the building against lateral wind loads (i.e., “box” construction). In addition, the masonry exteriors provided a fireproof construction.  In order to erect a building solely with an iron frame (i.e., “frame” construction) meant that the function these walls had provided (i.e., lateral stability and fire resistance) would have to be provided in a different manner.  

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

James Bogardus was the first to erect such an iron-framed tower with the McCullough Shot Tower in 1856, in which he had supported 12” brick panels on each story of iron beams.  His bolted connection of the beams to the columns, in combination with the rigidity provided of the brick walls at the intersection of the columns and beams was sufficient to ensure the tower’s stability. Bogardus had claimed that his cast iron structures were fireproof.  Unfortunately, as the 1871 Chicago fire had proved, Bogardus’ cast iron was not fireproof has he had stated, and the iron frame was forced back into its masonry protective coating.  Peter Wight had eventually solved this problem, following the 1874 Chicago fire with his terra cotta tile fireproofing casings.  As I have documented, George Post was first to detail the exterior walls in the lightcourts of the Equitable Building and Produce Exchange in New York as an iron frame upon which he supported the enclosure’s masonry exterior panels at each level.  John Root had followed Post’s precedents a few years later in the Phoenix Building and Rookery.  The final problem facing builders who wanted to completely free the iron frame from its masonry bondage in 1888 was how to make the iron frame sufficiently rigid to resist wind loads.  As I will describe, Buffington employed a combination of rigid connections at the beam/column intersections and diagonal bracing.


In Chapter 1, we had seen that Buffington had become the Twin Cities’ leading architect during the first half of the 1880s.  By 1885, his office staff had grown to over 30, and it was responsible for buildings from New Hampshire to Wyoming, and from Kentucky to Canada.  In addition to the major buildings in the Twin Cities area, including the Minnesota State Capitol, he had also designed the state Capitols for North Dakota and West Virginia.  A reporter from the Chicago Times probably summed it up best in 1884, stating that:

“the one architect who more than any other has stamped the impress of his artistic personality upon the finest and most costly structures…[and that] his own abilities… have pushed him to the front in the wild race of competition which is characteristic of the great Northwest, particularly so in Minneapolis, the city whose fortunes and those of a few of her enterprising, hard working citizens, of which number Mr. Buffington is one, are so inseparably connected.”

But following the completion of the lavish West Hotel, potential clients had the perception that Buffington had expensive tastes and commercial developers tended to shy away from him.   Hence, the skyscrapers in the Twin Cities constructed in 1885 and 1886 were designed by architects other than Buffington.  This initially had little impact on his practice, as he had aligned himself over the years with the rich and powerful in the area and was kept busy designing mansions for these folks during the second half of the 1880s.  As we have seen in his Boston Block and the West Hotel, Buffington had always shown a keen and informed interest in using iron framing and Wight’s fireproofing systems, but why and how he developed his patent for iron-framed skyscrapers has always been shrouded in mystery and litigation.  

In the years that followed his patent, Buffington would state that he had initially been inspired to develop his system while reading the second volume of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Discourses on Architecture.  While the second volume had been published in France in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, although Henry Van Brunt had published the first English translation of the first volume in 1876, the first English translation of Volume II wasn’t published in the U.S. until late 1881.  Buffington credited these lines from Volume Two as his inspiration:

“A practical architect might not unnaturally conceive the idea of erecting a vast edifice whose frame should be entirely of iron, and clothing that frame, preserving it by means of a casing of stone…But it cannot be too often repeated, Iron should be left independent.  It cannot be allied to masonry.”

The first reports in 1888 of Buffington’s proposal had stressed the uniqueness of the building’s patented construction and described it in detail for those who could not travel to Washington to view the patent drawings:

“It consists of a continuous skeleton of iron, commencing on the iron footings and continuing of iron and steel to the full height.  The framework consists of a series of continuous laminated, riveted iron posts, diminishing in size as they ascend; braced diagonally, after the manner of lattice bridge girders, and horizontally braced by the iron beams of each floor, which form an integral portion of the building…[an] important consideration in the iron construction is the reduced thickness of the walls, as those on the exterior of the building do not in any part exceed 22 inches, thereby giving more light and air to the offices… The exterior is formed of stone and copper.  The stone is carried at each story, of oftener when necessary, by means of horizontal shelves of iron – the shelves themselves being hidden by the stone.”

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

Buffington’s patented system incorporated continuous columns that were built-up by riveting together (also known at the time as “laminated”) plates of wrought iron that overlapped the joints of adjacent plates.  These would be assembled into a rigid rectilinear grid by iron C-section spandrel beams that were riveted to the columns via iron angles.  This created a rigid connection, and thereby, imparted a stiffness to the frame that would be needed to resist the pressure of the wind, if the exterior masonry wall’s structural stiffness was to be eliminated.  Wrought iron floor girders sat on these spandrels and were also riveted to the face of the columns.  

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

Similar to Root’s earlier detailing in the lightcourts in the Phoenix and Rookery, Buffington detailed an iron lintel at the exterior face of each column, at each floor, providing a ledge upon which the building’s lightweight exterior enclosure of masonry and windows could be constructed.  With the exception of the solid section, built-up columns that had never been used in an American building by 1888, Buffington’s system had simply utilized the best contemporary details in use.  The one significant improvement he had made in construction technology was his use of diagonal bracing, one of earliest in an iron-framed skyscraper to increase the frame’s resistance to wind loads.  He had specified double-diagonal bracing per each floor, in the form of thin iron plates that were riveted to the columns and to each other where they crossed.

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


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)