Can Chicago still claim to be skyscraper's birthplace?

Number 82 in Chicago By the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image (2018) is Carl W. Condit’s The Chicago School of Architecture, first published in 1964. A comment that UIC architectural historian Robert Bruegmann makes in his essay about the book dumbfounded me: Condit’s claim that Chicago was the birthplace of the skyscraper has been discredited.

What?

Have I been telling a lie for the nearly dozen years I’ve been a Chicago Greeter? Scores, probably hundreds, of visitors have heard me say that Chicago was where a steel frame was first used to support a building, William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building of 1885, and that the steel frame (a skeletal structure in archi-lingo) distinguished skyscrapers from buildings held up by their walls. 

My sources were Condit and countless other books about this city and its world-famous architecture.

The many websites that still award Chicago the birthplace title apparently are not up on the latest research. “A number of authors have demonstrated that not only was the Home Insurance not a completely skeletal structure,” Bruegmann says in a footnote, “but New York City could boast taller buildings in the previous decade, and the development of skeletal construction was the result of important contributions by many individuals in several European and American cities.” 

This called for research into what is arguably Chicago’s greatest claim to fame. 

In his Skynomics blog Rutgers University–Newark professor Jason M. Barr says that identifying the first skyscraper is impossible because people define skyscraper differently — some by height, some by materials and technology, some even by the label skyscraper.

Barr acknowledges that Jenney’s Home Insurance Building is “the most popular answer” to the earliest skyscraper question, but he thinks the building was “a prototype” because metal beams were embedded in masonry walls that carried some of the load. 

Moreover, a metal skeleton is not the only technological requirement, Barr notes. Wind bracing, fireproofing, and foundations to anchor the building had to be developed. The elevator and adequate heating, cooling, ventilation, plumbing, and lighting and electrical systems were needed to make tall buildings inhabitable. 

As early as 1870, the seven-story Equitable Life Assurance Building in lower Manhattan boasted two steam-powered elevators, extensive iron framing, and fireproof construction. In 1875 the New York Tribune Building at nine stories rose taller than any other Manhattan office building. In 1882 the New York Sun referred to the Mutual Life Insurance Building under construction in lower Manhattan as “another sky scraper.” It was completed in 1884.

Barr’s opinion is that the first true skyscrapers did not arrive until the 1890s. The 10-story Lancashire Insurance Building in New York (1890) and the 16-story Manhattan Building in Chicago (1891) meet his criteria for a skyscraper — full steel skeleton, significantly taller than typical buildings around it, and satisfying an economic need. 

Like Barr, architectural historian Carol Willis, founding director of the Skyscraper Museum in New York, says that “identifying the first true skyscraper is not straightforward, and various candidates exist depending on the criteria applied.”  

Carl Condit himself came to the same conclusion. 

“In my view, we can no longer argue that the Home Insurance Building was the first skyscraper,” he said at the Second Century of the Skyscraper conference, held in Chicago in 1986. “The claim rests on an unacceptably narrow idea of what constitutes a high-rise commercial building.” 

Do I have to stop telling visitors not to listen to the boasts of New Yorkers that their city invented the skyscraper? 

If challenged on my claims for Chicago, here’s what I could say: The Home Insurance Building became the template for skyscraper design going forward. Jenney began construction with an iron frame but switched to steel partway through. By taking the weight of the floors and helping to support the weight of the external walls, the frame was a significant advance toward the nonstructural walls of later skyscrapers. With its thin walls and large windows, the Home Insurance weighed one-third of what a stone building would have. Skyscrapers after it used steel framing until 2008, when Trump Tower in Chicago was built with an all-concrete core.

I could add that Chicago is an architectural showcase regardless of which skyscraper was first. The buildings of the Loop are a museum of the history of commercial architecture, from early steel-framed skyscrapers through Beaux Arts, Art Deco, the International Style of Mies Van der Rohe, postmodernism, and contemporary styles. And with Frank Lloyd Wright doing his greatest work here, we can’t overlook the residential arena either.

Not long after reading Bruegmann’s essay, I noticed that Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin continues to call Chicago the birthplace of the skyscraper (February 5, 2019). If Kamin, much more informed and expert than I, still says so, I feel safe. 

*****

RECOMMENDED READING

I recommend Chicago By the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image to anyone interested in Chicago. The book was compiled by the Caxton Club of Chicago and funded by last year’s ARTDesign Chicago initiative of the Terra Foundation. The publications are arranged chronologically, with a 600-word expert commentary on each.

There are the expected titles in fiction like Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and unexpected like Sara Paretsky’s last V. I. Warshawski mystery novel. Nonfiction ranges from the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs to the 1909 Plan of Chicago to Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Journalism is well represented by Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner, Ben Hecht, Mike Royko, Lois Wille, cartoonist Chris Ware, and the magazines Ebony and Playboy. 

Though editor Susan Rossen says the book wasn’t intended to be a history of Chicago, each essay puts a publication in context, thus backgrounding important topics in Chicago history. 

*****

ANTI-TRUMP COMMENTS: 60TH IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“I am exhausted from my rage and opposition to all things Donald Trump. I could write you every single day on a different issue.”

Chicago Tribune letter-to-the-editor writer Mary F. Warren of Wheaton

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