jenney, final thoughts

January 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Some final thoughts on the Jenney symposium in Paris last month…both Gerald Larson and David van Zanten pointed out that it has been a long time since any historians took claims of the Home Insurance to be the “first skyscraper” seriously, to the point that our panel ended up pointing out that it might be time for a re-revisionist history.  Jenney may not have invented the skyscraper (you can’t point to a first skyscraper any more than you can point to a first fish in evolution), but he certainly contributed.  Part of the problem with assessing his legacy is that his buildings, like most of the era, represented small steps toward what we recognize today as a “modern” skyscraper.  In some cases–the Manhattan building’s very early iron wind bracing, e.g.–the steps were big, and noticeable.  In others–the Home Insurance’s very hybrid construction of brick and masonry–it’s difficult to say what, exactly, the innovation is.  This is one of the points I’m trying to make in the book–that the skyscraper emerged from a long chain of small innovations, experiments, and improvements.

Both Michael Fus and Julia Bachrach of the Chicago Park District made the case that Jenney’s contributions in landscape architecture were as significant to the city as his buildings, and it was refreshing to see his work for the West Side Parks get the attention it deserves.  These three parks are all in neighborhoods that are well off the beaten tourist path, but they’re spectacular and very obviously influenced by Olmsted, who played a murky role in their development.

Finally, the concluding session focused on the French influence on Chicago outside of the Beaux-Arts.  Jenney, here, was a leading figure, and there was a general consensus that the professional standards imbued by the Ecole Centrale could well have been the model for a very specific attitude toward practice that marked Chicago as different from New York or Boston.  My paper wasn’t the only one to pull this quote, from an 1889 talk to the Architectural Sketch Club, and it speaks to the way he organized his own office.  That professional organization influenced those who “grew up” within it, not least of them Burnham, Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, and Howard van Doren Shaw.  While the Beaux-Arts may have influenced a later generation of towers, the Ecole Centrale may well have influenced the entire profession through the 1880s and 1890s, via Jenney’s office:

“…the best detail drawings I have seen are those of French architects.  I do not mean those from students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, who have had little or no practice.  Far from it, for that is essentially an art school….I refer to details from the offices of French architects in successful practice.  Everything is thereon shown or explained, by elevations, sections, bits of perspective, or by written explanations…”[i]


[i] W. L. B. Jenney.  “A Few Practical Hints [Paper read before the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club, January 28, 1889].”  The Inland Architect and News Record.  Vol. XIII, no. 1.  February, 1889.  9.

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