Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

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