[a] First Skyscraper

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats’ “First Skyscrapers/Skyscraper Firsts” symposium takes place all day today at the (still shiny new) Chicago Architecture Center, where a dozen or so skyscraper historians will ‘debate’ the question of which building, exactly, qualifies as “the first skyscraper?”

That question is one that goes back to the 1890s, when William Le Baron Jenney and a handful of his former employees conspired to have the Home Insurance sanctioned–by the Bessemer Steamship Company, of all things–as the primeval ‘skyscraper.’ But, as I’ve pointed out in more than one of these debates previously, the answer depends entirely on what you mean by “skyscraper,” or “first,” or, probably, even “the.” Like anything that emerges out of an evolutionary process–fish, say, or sandwiches–we only recognize species like ‘skyscrapers’ in hindsight, and trying to unweave the complicated forces that went into shaping them makes it necessarily impossible to point to a single ancestral structure that set the genetics for all members of the species to follow.

But, if I’m asked to name the “first,” I’d go back to a set of criteria elucidated by a team of experts assembled by the Western Society of Engineers in 1932 to examine the Home Insurance as it was being demolished to determine, once and for all, whether it was in fact the original high-rise. They were the second of two investigative teams–the first, led by historian Thomas Tallmadge, was a ringer, assembled by the Marshall Field Estate to rubber-stamp the Home Insurance, which they were in the process of replacing with the 600-foot tall Field Building. The engineers came to a different conclusion. The Home Insurance, they said, failed to meet what had become, in the almost fifty years since its construction, the formula for the ‘modern skyscraper:’

1. We find the steel [sic] skeleton was self-supporting.

2. Structural members were provided for supporting the masonry, but on account of the size of the piers it is probable the load was divided between the columns and the piers.

3. The wind load was carried by the masonry as the steelwork was not designed to take wind bending.

4. The masonry work could not be started at an upper floor without providing temporary support for the eight inches of masonry in front of the cast iron columns.

5. The walls were not of the curtain type but were, as previously described of the ordinary bearing type.  It is apparent that the designer of this building was reluctant to give up the known strength and security of heavy masonry walls and piers for the untried curtain walls and steel wind bracing of the modern skeleton building.”

It’s that last bit that I find most interesting–that the “modern skeleton building” consists of “curtain walls and steel wind bracing.” I’d argue that’s as good a formula as any for the “modern skyscraper,” and if you had to pick a building that exemplified this combination first, you’d look at several possibilities.

(Yes, I know, all of these are in Chicago.)

The Tacoma, by Holabird and Roche and finished in 1889, was a first proto-curtain wall, made possible by the very clever rotation of the structure’s masonry wind-bracing walls inward from the facades. The four heavy brick walls stayed the building against wind in any of the four cardinal directions, but left the exterior free for large, daylight-gathering windows. The Tribune noted the appearance and the hidden nature of these walls in its coverage of the structure:

as now standing, there is no masonry whatever on either front of the structure, where space is most valuable…take away their glass and steel beams and terra cotta, and nothing would be left except the iron columns…[but] The structure is not without heavy masonry.  In the centre is a strong buttress of solid brick, and from this heavy walls run to the four sides, giving the structure a solidity not suspected by those who examine only the shell-like exterior.

“Chicago’s Sky-scrapers:   They Are Not Beautiful, But Are Wonderfully Solid and Convenient, and Are Absolutely Fireproof.”  
Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 13, 1889.  2.

The problem of space-gobbling masonry shear walls was solved when steel became commercially viable around the time of the Tacoma’s opening. Its ductility allowed for precise drilling–not possible with brittle cast iron–and riveted connections that could match the tight joints of expensive wrought-iron railway bridges that had been built throughout the West in the 1880s. Jenney himself described the vertical cantilever trusses of his 1891 Manhattan Building in exactly this way–they were “built like bridges,” he said, comparing the Manhattan’s wind bracing scheme to a giant truss bridge set on its end.

Burnham and Root’s 1892 Masonic Temple Building, at Randolph and Washington, was the most dramatic example of such a wind truss–it was for a short while arguably the world’s tallest building, and its wind bracing system made it, for some historians, a prime contender for a “first.” But Root’s preference for a heavy, Richardsonian Romanesque meant that it was clad in a brick and stone exterior–a “veneer,” in the words of the New York Times, which argued that such a combination was a typically Chicagoan effort at throwing up a cheap, flimsy structure that only pretended to be sturdy and monumental.

Root’s successor, Charles Atwood, took a different approach to the exterior of the three skyscrapers he designed as Burnham’s partner. With a new material–enameled terra cotta–and a glut of cheap plate glass from factories in central Indiana, Atwood designed the Reliance Building in a vertical Gothic style, detailing tight terra cotta cladding around a moment frame designed by engineer E.C. Shankland that eliminated the diagonals of earlier wind trusses, replacing them with stiff, riveted connections between oversized columns and girders that spread wind loads throughout a network of steel elements. The Reliance was certainly remarkable in its light, transparent appearance–New York critic Barr Ferree wrote, horrified, that the Reliance was:

…scarcely more than a huge house of glass divided by horizontal and vertical lines of white enameled brick…

The Reliance could make a good claim, therefore, on the Society of Western Engineers’ formula, certainly a better stylistic choice than the ponderous Masonic Temple. But if you’re a nit-picker, it’s worth pointing out that this ‘huge house of glass’ was almost half brick on its exterior. The two party walls of its corner lot had to be clad in an absolutely fireproof material to meet the city’s code, and while they’re curtain walls, the Reliance’s south and west elevations are, quite visibly, made of heavy, fireproof brick.

Atwood’s last building for Burnham before his death from opium addiction (seriously!) in 1895 was the Fisher, at the corner of Dearborn and Van Buren. The Fisher had just one party wall because of its narrow lot, and its client, Lucius Fisher, fully intended to buy out his neighbor and expand. The party wall was thus made of lightweight, enameled terra cotta instead of brick.

Shankland again relied on the ‘table leg’ principle to support and steady the Fisher, using Gray columns in two-story lengths connected around the building perimeter by deep edge girders.  The Fisher’s exterior was rendered in a bright orange enameled terra cotta, detailed, like the Reliance, with vertically-piped neo-Gothic ornament “rich as the tower of St. Jacques itself,” according to the Inter-Ocean, while its interior was laid out in a more rigorously ordered structural grid than the Reliance. 

The Fisher also featured high-speed elevators, ‘automatic temperature control’ for its advanced steam heating, pneumatic clocks, and chilled drinking water in each office.  Its agents claimed it to be the “finest finished building in America.” But it was the Fisher’s curtain wall that brought remarkable insight from Inland Architect’s editors, who noted that Atwood’s choice of Gothic style matched that era’s dissolution of mass into spare, light-filled skeletal structures:

“The fronts are covered with cellular terra cotta on the outside, not in imitation of a wall, but following upward the steel supporting members, and closing in the transoms between the windows, leaving two-thirds of the exterior to be inclosed with glass.”

 “Technical Review, The Fisher Building, Chicago–A Building without Walls.” Inland Architect and News Record
. Special Supplement. Vol. XXVII, no. 4. May 1896. 

The skeletal appearance of the Fisher impressed Inland as the culmination of advances that had appeared over the previous generation: steel framing, wind bracing, and curtain walls.  With its self-braced, skeletal steel structure and its transparent cladding, the Fisher represented the first comprehensive collection of modern skyscraper techniques that had been deployed piecemeal in earlier buildings.  “If they have dispensed with front walls, they have retained often rear walls and those adjacent to other property,” Inland noted of previous skyscrapers, a direct reference to the Reliance.  

“They have had division walls [the Tacoma, e.g.] or stacks of vaults rising like towers within [the Rookery, Burnham & Root, 1885], and even in the fronts have had encasements of heavy bricks, outside of the frames, and stone basements set as if for ballast at the lower stories.”

 “Technical Review, The Fisher Building, Chicago–A Building without Walls.” Inland Architect and News Record. Special Supplement. Vol. XXVII, no. 4. May 1896. 

This last description was a particularly neat summary of the Home Insurance’s hybrid conception.

For Inland’s editors, however, what separated the Fisher from its predecessors was that Shankland, Burnham, and Atwood had eliminated masonry almost entirely in its structure and cladding. 

In the evolution of the modern office building there is nothing more wonderful than that the fact should have been accomplished of erecting a building literally without walls….here, for what we believe to be the first time in human experience, one of the highest commercial buildings in the world has been erected almost without any bricks.

 “Technical Review, The Fisher Building, Chicago–A Building without Walls.” Inland Architect and News Record. Special Supplement. Vol. XXVII, no. 4. May 1896. 

Just two bricklayers had been employed during construction, to build stub walls to back up terra cotta sills.  The Fisher thus marked a fundamental break.  Eliminating brick in a tall building had distinct advantages: it reduced the building’s weight, easing pressure on the supporting structure and foundations; it made for more efficient floor plans by replacing walls and piers with thinner columns; and it saved time and reduced reliance on expensive and strike-prone bricklayers.  The Fisher was assembled rather than laid.  Its steel, terra cotta, and glass were all factory produced rather than crafted by hand.  It took advantage of machine production and assembly at every scale, allowing the structure to be erected and clad in just three months, from October to December, 1895.

The Fisher was, therefore, the first structure to meet the criteria imposed by the Western Society of Engineers in their critique of the Home Insurance.  It has a self-supporting skeleton that carries both gravity and wind loads. Its exterior ‘walls’ are cladding carried entirely by the building frame.  These are thin, lightweight, and they were assembled ‘in the air,’ leaving the ground floor to be enclosed last.  Unlike the Home Insurance, the Fisher’s ‘walls’ do not assist in any aspect of the building’s structure.  Unlike the Reliance, they do not rely on brick for structure or enclosure.  Combined, these present us with a departure from buildings of just a year or two prior; the Fisher is more like the self-supported steel frames and thin curtain walls of the twentieth century than the iron and masonry hybrids and thick piers and masonry walls of the nineteenth.  Modern skyscraper construction is distinct from that of previous eras’ tall buildings in that it is skeletal rather than massive, that it divorces the structural frame from the cladding, and that it relies on assemblies of specialized components for its skins, rather than on the skill of masons in laying identical units into various forms.  The Fisher Building was the first to realize these criteria together—to be wholly composed of an enclosed frame rather than of ‘walls.’

Legitimate arguments can, of course, be made against the Fisher as a true ‘first.’  Its foundations represented a failed experiment in short friction piles by Shankland.  The building settled unevenly—it leans toward the east—and a 1907 extension was built in part to install stabilizing caissons under its northern end.  Shankland’s was one of several efforts to improve on the imprecise grillage foundations that underlay most of the city’s skyscrapers, but  Dankmar Adler’ successful use of caissons under the Stock Exchange in 1895 meant that these, and not friction piles, became the preferred method of supporting tall buildings in the city.  It is also true that enameled terra cotta was short-lived as a cladding material, replaced by metals such as bronze, stainless steel, and aluminum, all of which proved to be more exacting and durable.  Finally, brick did see a re-emergence as a cladding material in tall buildings. The Chrysler in New York (1929) used white enameled brick to achieve its Reliance-like reflectivity, as did any number of apartment and commercial towers by postwar architects such as Emery Roth in New York and Al Shaw in Chicago.  These suggest the complexity of the evolutionary process, which in architecture as in nature is full of false starts, reversions, accidental discoveries and missed opportunities.  We recognize complex types such as the “skyscraper” only in hindsight, after enough examples have come into being with similar enough qualities that, on reflection, they seem a single, nameable species.  Working backwards to determine the ‘first’ of these applies narrative logic to processes that, in the skyscraper, are far more diffuse and complex.  While the Fisher’s claim to being a “first” is debatable, the criteria that it does meet are informative, showing how quickly advances in materials and techniques were marshalled toward meeting the functional and economic impulses of light weight, transparent skins, efficient planning, and rapid construction.

3 thoughts on “[a] First Skyscraper

  1. The 1st iron framed building in the world is in Shrewsbury England The 5 storey flax mill was built in 1797 by Charles Bage. It’s the fore father of the skyscraper. It is only 17 miles from the 1st Ironbridge in the world built over the river severn at Ironbridge built between 1777 & 1779 by Abraham Darby. The start of the industrial revolution.

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