An American Invention

When Americans find themselves a little crowded, they simply tilt a street on end, and call it a skyscraper.

—William Archer

This reversal of building methods, this change about in the function and use of masonry walls, and the introduction of new conditions in large buildings, is a real revolution the extent of which hardly can be realized . . . A new idea is tried to a limited extent in one building; a bolder application is attempted in the next . . . Thus the evolution proceeds.

—Corydon Purdy

It was only fitting, in an age when New York City reveled in movement, when music beat a fast rhythm, industry roared, and the pace of a man’s step was as important as the cut of his suit, that the word “skyscraper” found in its name the same call for speed. Coined for the winning horse of the 1789 Epsom Derby, the word went on to refer to high-standing horses, then later to the triangular sail raised at the top of a ship’s mast to catch a strong wind. By 1889, when tall buildings were first popularly labeled skyscrapers, the way in which they were engineered was largely the same as it would be in the Roaring Twenties. To understand the brief history of who and what drove their invention was to better appreciate the height race as it heated up.

In 1867 New York, only the occasional steeple broke up the mass of four- and five-story mud-brown buildings where most people worked. Life in these offices was cramped and unpleasant. The upper floors rented for cheap, as few elevators existed at the time, and the long climb left most winded. In some buildings, a blindfolded horse was taken to the top floor and used to hoist up goods until he expired after years of thankless servitude. During wintertime, the first arrival in the office saw his breath until he lit a fire in the fireplace. To clean his hands, a washstand and a pitcher of water had to do. Many shared few bathrooms, and the “flush” of the cast-iron bowls used for toilets overstated the actual effect. Kerosene lamps lit the rooms at night, and during the summer, the office dwellers prayed for a breeze that seldom came. Such was the work environment of the unfortunate insurance clerk or lawyer.

Things needed to change. Corporations had grown with the rapidly expanding economy, and their owners wanted headquarters that suited their improved fortunes and could house their increased staff comfortably. They needed large office buildings, but given scarcity of property, large meant tall. Insurance companies, burdened by enormous administrative demands, required these offices more than most.

Growing by leaps and bounds, the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States decided to erect a seven-story, 130-foot-tall building on lower Broadway. The company’s vice president, Henry Baldwin Hyde, insisted that this tallest of office buildings have a passenger elevator, so that the top stories would rent as easily as the lower floors. New York had been acquainted with the elevator since its inventor, Elisha Graves Otis, exhibited it at the 1853 World’s Fair. Vertical hoists dated back to Nero’s Rome and Louis XIV’s Versailles, but they were crude, dangerous contraptions. Otis managed to make them safe and efficient. Since his exhibition, they had been installed in the Fifth Avenue Hotel and Haughwout Store, but never in an office building.

Hyde won its inclusion in the Equitable Building, despite the reluctance of the real-estate agents and board of directors to risk the novelty. When the building opened three years later, it was a major event. The New York Sun wrote: “Before us is spread the most exciting, wonderful, and instructive view to be had on our continent . . . East and North Rivers and the bay appear as if at our feet, with their myriad flotillas of the navigable world. Suburban Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken, Hudson City, and Harlem are all plainly before us. Certainly not elsewhere in all New York can such another unobstructed bird’s eye view be had as from the open pavilions of the Equitable Life Assurance Society’s Building.” The top floors were rented out immediately, and the building was a financial windfall for the company. Subsequently, their competitors, New York Life and Mutual, put up taller buildings, and elevators began to appear throughout the city. The Manhattan skyline was pushing heavenward.

In 1875, the Western Union Telegraph Company completed its new 230-foot-tall, ten-story office building, which dwarfed the Equitable in both height and size. In the same year, the New York Tribune moved into their new headquarters, a 260-foot-tall, nine-story building whose tower fell short of Trinity Church—long the tallest structure in New York—by a mere 26 feet. In the span of a decade, architects had begun to design buildings that stretched four times higher than they once averaged. One editorial writer commented that “one might believe that the chief end of the present crop of buildings is the observation of comets.”

For all the excitement, though, the revolution had yet to come. All of these buildings were constructed with load-bearing masonry walls. Although their architects made advances in the use of iron columns and girders for reinforcement, although they incorporated elevators for the first time and managed improvements in fireproofing, heating, plumbing, and ventilation, these buildings proved that a new method of construction was needed. In order to rise 260 feet high, the Tribune building required walls over six feet thick in the basement to support the weight of the building. The higher floors carried less weight from above, but still the walls of the Tribune’s eighth floor were over three feet wide. Not only did the thickness of the walls turn some offices into dungeons, given the amount of light that actually came through the deeply set windows, but more important for the owners, these walls ate up space that could have been used for tenants. The walls of the first floor occupied approximately half of the 376.5-square-foot site. In other words, load-bearing masonry cost money, lots of money. The answer to this problem, however, was not to be solved in the city that first dared elevators. Instead, a city reeling from disaster found the solution.

The man who solved the problem was William Le Baron Jenney, the son of a New England whaling captain. After sailing around the Cape Horn of Africa, joining the California gold rush, and serving as General William Tecumseh Sherman’s chief of engineers during his destructive sweep from Atlanta to the coast, Jenney settled in Chicago to practice architecture. He arrived in time to witness one of the most devastating conflagrations in history: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In the course of two days, a blaze swept through the city, incinerating wooden houses, mansions, barns, sheds, jerry-built tenements and warehouses, factories, grand department stores, and office buildings—old and new ones alike. The Chicago Tribune building, heralded as fireproof, collapsed on itself. The courthouse tower tumbled, its bell ringing to the last. By the end, the Board of Public Works noted that “the loss of property was greater than has ever occurred before in the history of the world, amounting to two hundreds of millions of dollars.” Roughly 18,000 buildings were razed over a stretch of 1,688 acres.

“All lost except wife, children and energy” read one sign, expressing the fight Chicagoans planned to make in the face of such devastation. Given the vast swaths of now open space and the need for thousands of structures, architects and engineers had an opportunity to construct a new, modern city, one that employed in its buildings the latest techniques, and demanded original ones as well. In the ensuing years, they ushered in advances in foundation design, so that their new, larger buildings wouldn’t settle in the loose, wet soil. They began using hollow tile floor arches instead of brick arches; these reduced the weight of the floors and also proved more fire-resistant. Steam heating made fireplaces redundant. Hydraulic elevators became standard, and electric lights looked to be on their way to adoption. The list of improvements was long, but none of them compared to Jenney’s in 1883.

That year the Home Insurance Company hired him to build an office building in the city. He was having trouble settling on the design, knowing that the ten-story structure would require fortresslike masonry walls, even with the advances that had been made in iron-framed structures. For centuries, architects had used iron for reinforcing their masonry buildings. More recently, engineers had gone to great lengths to calculate the best use of cast iron versus wrought iron. Cast iron had a composition of iron and carbon. Its high carbon count gave it the ability to bear tremendous vertical weight, but it was brittle to horizontal cross-strains. Therefore, it was applied primarily in columns to help carry the load of the building. Wrought iron had only a small measure of carbon; it was primarily iron and iron silicate, which gave it more elasticity. Therefore, it was better suited to handle the strains placed on girders and beams to support the floors. Books and treatises were published explaining how to best use these in construction. By the time Jenney received his commission, ten-story buildings with interior iron framing were common. The framing improved a building’s stability and reduced the size of the masonry walls, but its use in this manner had limits—most notably in a building’s potential height—as long as the walls were the main supporting structure.

Jenney knew all of this. He had studied engineering at Paris’s Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. He had earned his practical training while serving in the Union Army. He had traveled widely, seen curious frame structures built in the Philippines, and was aware of the development in iron structures dating back to New York’s Crystal Palace, built in 1853. Still, he was having difficulty with the Home Insurance Company design, wanting to improve on what others had done before him. Historian George Douglas described what followed as Jenney struggled on the project:

He reached a snag early one afternoon and found himself looking out his office window in frustration. Rather than continue to torture himself he went home for the day. His wife was startled to see him so early and thought he might be ill. Getting up suddenly from her chair where she was reading, she looked around for the most handy place to set down her book, and accordingly laid it on top of a bird cage . . . Jenney jumped with surprise when he noticed that this lightweight bird cage could support a heavy load without the slightest difficulty. Back to the office Jenney went with the clue to the skyscraper—“cage design.”

His idea was to build a skeleton structure, one with intersections of columns and beams bolted together with brackets that carried the entire weight of the building. The breakthrough rivaled that of the post-and-lintel or arch. Horizontal beams supported the load of each floor. This load was then transferred to the columns, which extended down to the foundation. Walls no longer had to bear the weight of the floors above; now they were simply curtains.

Although a mere ten stories tall, the Home Insurance Building managed a revolution, not only for its skeleton design—which would have been sufficient—but also because Jenney made another innovative leap: he introduced steel into the structural framework. The Carnegie-Phipps Steel Company sent Jenney a letter as the construction workers finished setting the sixth-floor frame. They wanted to know if he would replace the wrought-iron beams planned for the remaining floors with steel beams they had recently started rolling.

Nearly thirty years had passed since Sir Henry Bessemer had refined the process of steel making to the point that it was commercially viable. Bessemer discovered a way to reduce the carbon content and impurities from cast iron by pushing cold air through the metal in its molten state. The resulting composition, which included small portions of several other ferrous metals, had greater compression and tension strength than both cast and wrought iron, plus it was more immune to fatigue or corrosion. Given these qualities, steel’s use would allow architects to design taller, more stable structures. The stronger the columns and beams in a building’s frame, the more weight it could bear. Yet until the Home Insurance Building, steel companies hadn’t rolled members specifically for building construction, focusing their efforts on bridges instead. Jenney was the maverick willing to include them first (although their presence was more symbolic than structurally important because of their use only in floor beams above the sixth floor).

With the breakthrough of the steel skeleton-frame, height quickly became a question of will and money, rather than engineering. As for Jenney, neither fame nor fortune was to be his; others claimed they deserved credit for originating the idea, most notably architect Leroy Buffington, who applied for a patent in 1882 that detailed a skeleton structure, but who never won a commission to see it built. Regardless of the dispute, the architectural advance was quickly adopted. In 1888, the firm Holabird & Roche improved the design with Chicago’s Tacoma Building, constructed by George Fuller. For the first time, pedestrians saw workers setting bricks into a wall halfway up the building while there were none below. This was the essence of the curtain wall. Then Daniel Burnham designed the Rand-McNally Building, the first building to be completely made of steel beams and columns. Before its completion, however, the impetus to brave the sky had shifted back to New York.

In 1888, silk merchant John Noble Stearns commissioned architect Bradford Gilbert to design an office building on a sliver of land on lower Broadway. With dimensions of 211⁄2 feet by 391⁄2 feet, the site provided no room for thick masonry walls, yet Stearns needed a tall building with ample rentable space to offset the land cost. Gilbert decided he would be the first in New York to borrow on Jenney’s innovation, simply stating that he meant to stand “a steel bridge structure on end” to meet the height demand without the cumbersome load-bearing walls. The city considered the proposition foolhardy at best. Architects, engineers, and editorial writers set out to discredit him. After the Building Department refused him a permit, Gilbert appealed to the Board of Examiners. Months passed before they granted him approval for the eleven-story structure.

As construction began, a close colleague of Gilbert’s wrote directly to Stearns, stating that the idea of putting up a 160-foot-tall structure on such a narrow street front was madness. It would topple. Stearns stormed in on Gilbert, holding the letter. If the building collapsed, the owner—not the architect—would be responsible for the damages. To convince Stearns of the plan’s soundness, Gilbert showed him how the diagonal braces between floor beams would counteract the strains of gale force winds. He had incorporated the insights of engineers like Gustave Eiffel into the Tower Building’s steel-frame structure. Finally Gilbert volunteered to move his office to the top two floors. “If the building goes down I will go with it,” he said. This appeased Stearns. Meanwhile, the proprietor next door put his property on the market and scooted to safety.

When construction neared completion, the Weather Bureau warned of hurricane gales on their way to hit the city. Gawkers crowded Broadway on Sunday morning to watch the building tumble. After all, many had read and seen photographs of bridges buckling and crumbling apart in such storms. Confident of his wind-strain calculations, Gilbert pressed past the crowd as the eighty-mile-an-hour winds blew:

I secured a plumb-line and began to climb the ladders that the workmen had left in place when they quit work the previous evening . . . When I reached the [top] story, the gale was so fierce I could not stand upright. I crawled on my hands and knees along the scaffolding and dropped the plumb-line. There was not the slightest vibration. The building stood as steady as a rock in the sea.

After the building survived the storm, Gilbert was showered with praise and credited with advancing the cause of the skeleton frame. Now convinced of the soundness of this structure, New York’s architects entered the last decade of the nineteenth century inspired to build higher. They were on their way to mastering the steel frame as well as making further strides in lighting, plumbing, and elevators. Their eagerness to reshape the skyline with this new building form was palpable. In 1899 they stripped Chicago of its height crown with the Park Row Building and never looked back.

Designing and building a skyscraper was akin to God creating the human form, and this kind of power was alluring. It took the removed perspective of a British architect, Alfred Bossom, to state this obvious connection. A skyscraper was “like a human being in its organizations . . . [it] has its skeleton of steel, its arteries through which courses heat; its soil pipes for the elimination of wastes; its veins which supply its water; its tingling electric nerves of sensation and communication . . . which make possible the stream of pulsing life. It has in its outer walls of masonry . . . its clothes, on which are its details of decoration and adornment.” Skyscrapers symbolized what a man unburdened by history and tradition, but with unbounded energy, resources, and freedom, could create. Architects, and the owners who financed them, invested their lives in these buildings, knowing their creations would stand long after the builders had gone. In twenties’ parlance, skyscrapers were great advertising with staying power.

Nobody knew that better than Walter Chrysler.

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