Only seldom for ideological, political or pragmatic reasons has a society called for a new building type. Ecclesiastes asserts “There is nothing new under the sun,” and most human endeavor is characterized by building upon what we already have, going “back a bit to make [ourselves] fit for going further along the way [we] seek to explore.” Even the first Christian basilicas of the fourth century a.d., despite a desperate search for a new form, drew upon precedents. A complex network of constraints lay beneath the invention, of the tall commercial building, the modern skyscraper that originated in Chicago. The conception of this building type was an architectural feat.
By about 1870 the United States was becoming an urban industrial nation and Chicago, more than any other city, was the focus of that change. What had a few years earlier been a frontier town was transformed into an internationally significant industrial metropolis as the cattle, grain, and lumber trades flourished and manufacturing activity grew. Between 1850 and 1870 the population increased tenfold to 330,000 and the city covered 18 square miles (46 square kilometers) on the Lake Michigan shore. Redevelopment and continual rebuilding provoked Mark Twain to comment that the city was “never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.”
Most of its buildings were of timber construction. Fire was a perennial problem and there were over 600 in 1870. The unprecedented conflagration that started on 8 October 1871 within 30 hours swept through 73 miles (117 kilometers) of streets, killing about 300 people and leaving 100,000 homeless. It caused more than $192 million damage—a third of Chicago’s total property value—and many fortunes were lost. The theoretical and structural innovations applied to rebuilding the city were in the vanguard of an emerging industrial architecture, but the Great Fire was only a catalyst that enabled the compounding of elements already present.
Capitalism sired the skyscraper. The architecture that we call Chicago School sprang from the frugal pragmatism of speculative clients with an eye on the “bottom line.” Compelled by commercial interests, not least soaring land prices (a 600 percent increase from 1880 to 1890), architects were constrained to create a new building type, and within a couple of decades Chicago became the urban wunderkind of the Western world, where, as someone observed, “Old World assumptions were overthrown by New World realities as the past was discounted, the present glorified, and the future eagerly anticipated.” European visitors recognized the downtown Loop as a nucleus built around the quest for profit and a functional esthetic, and carried their discoveries to audiences at home.
The ten-story Montauk Block (1882), designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root for Brooks Brothers of Boston—who insisted that it must be “for use and not for ornament”—was the first building to be dubbed “skyscraper.” Like the Rookery (1885–1886) and Monadnock Building (1889–1891) by the same architects, it was of conventional load-bearing construction. The unsuitability of the technique is underlined by the fact that the sixteen-story Monadnock’s external brick walls were 6 feet (1.8 meters) thick at ground level, wasting valuable floor space.
The economic imperative to find a better way was matched by technological potential. What soon developed was (typically) a tall office building with a metal structural skeleton, entirely covering a relatively enclosed site and whose large windows provided adequate daylight and ventilation. Access to the upper floors was by means of an electric elevator, a wonder of the age.
William Le Baron Jenney pioneered the metal structural frame essential to the development of the skyscraper. The evolution of his ideas may be seen in the “simple, glass-enclosed cage” of the first Leiter Building (1879), followed by his nine-story Home Insurance Building (1884–1885), the first multistory iron structural frame ever erected. Earlier buildings had used frame construction internally but their external walls had been self-supporting; the Home Insurance Building carried the envelope on the frame, heralding the potential of true skeleton construction.
Iron had long been used for architectural ornament and such incidentals as hinges and door handles, but not as structure. In the Industrial Revolution, engineers, unhindered by the esthetic formalism embraced by architects, were first to turn cast and wrought iron to such applications as bridges, aqueducts, railway sheds, and conservatories. When architects did use iron, it was out of sight or in such frivolous buildings as John Nash’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton (1818–1821). Joseph Paxton’s iron-and-glass Crystal Palace (1851), although a temporary structure not regarded as “real” architecture, demonstrated the potential of prefabrication, and Henri Labrouste’s National Library in Paris (1862–1868) showed how the metal column offered both structural flexibility and a new esthetic of proportion. Eiffel and Boileau’s Bon Marché department store in Paris (1867) further underlined how iron and glass fit the articulation of commercial spaces. The lessons were taken up in the United States. Since 1854 James Bogardus had been experimenting with a metallurgical architecture; taking his lead, commercial buildings with cast-iron fronts and even cast-iron frames proliferated in American cities between 1850 and 1880.
Iron had disadvantages: in fire, it failed at relatively low temperatures, and it had very low tensile strength. The former was easily addressed, and well-established techniques existed: columns and beams were simply encased in a fire-resistant material. The use of steel, readily available in large quantities of predictable strength since the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process had been developed in 1875, overcame the second problem.
Burnham and Root’s Rand McNally Building (1889–1890), a complete steel-framed commercial building, freed the skyscraper from its dependence on masonry walls and created “the plan and structure of the [modern] urban office block.” They followed it closely with the fourteen-story Reliance Building (1890–1894). Its initial four-story stage, designed by Charles Atwood and the structural engineer E. C. Shankland, is claimed to be the first example of the comprehensive system known as Chicago construction. It consisted of a riveted steel frame with plaster fireproofing, carrying hollow-tile flooring on steel joists. The bay windows (dubbed “Chicago windows”) had a central pane of fixed plate glass with opening lights at the sides and spandrel panels of terra-cotta. The concrete foundations extended 125 feet (37.5 meters) beneath the ground. That fact points to another important technological necessity that literally underpinned the skyscraper: the development of an appropriate foundation design method that dealt with the concentrated loads imposed by tall, framed buildings.
Efficient and safe systems of vertical transportation were also necessary. Steam-powered traction elevators had been used in Britain since 1835, and the German Werner von Siemens first applied an electric motor to a rack-and-pinion elevator in 1880. Motor technology and safe control methods evolved rapidly, and seven years later an elevator was built in Baltimore that moved the cage by means of a cable wound on a drum. The Otis direct-connected geared electric elevator was first used commercially in New York City in 1889. The technology of the skyscraper had been established. But what of an esthetic appropriate to the new architecture?
Although Jenney had pioneered structural innovation, he had less success with the architectural expression of the framed building. He began to address the esthetic questions in his second Leiter Building (1889–1891), Fair Store Building (1890–1891), and Manhattan Building (1889–1891) but better answers were provided by others. Some sources cite the Marshall Field Wholesale Store (1885–1887) by Henry Hobson Richardson as the stylistic model for the Chicago School. The skyscraper was a distinctly American building. The Industrial Revolution was a source of significant change in Western social structure but many nineteenth-century architects were slow to accommodate that change, wallowing in a morass of historical revival styles. Not so the French theorist E. E. Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879), who recognized that new materials were essential as a means to a modern architectural end, and be insisted that they be used in accordance with their properties and honestly expressed in the form of the building. His widely published theories had a marked influence on the Chicago School architects just when the United States was beginning to realize that it was different from the Old World. That revelation was expressed by Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough, who in 1852 had called for a home-grown American architecture in terms that would be echoed (albeit in a French accent) in the theories of Viollet-le-Duc.
The Borden Block (1879–1880) by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan was one of the first buildings to repudiate solid wall or heavy pier construction. Its narrow vertical piers allowed the maximum penetration of natural light to the interior. Ornament, while never completely rejected, gradually freed itself from historical precedent and became integrated with the making of the architecture, subordinated to frank structural expression, the needs of the building’s users, and the nature of materials. The economy of form of the mature skyscraper can be seen in the Marquette Building (1894–1895) by Holabird and Roche, in which narrow piers and recessed spandrels frame large rectangular windows. It is a little ironic in an essay about Chicago architecture that Adler and Sullivan’s Wainwright Building (1890–1891) in St. Louis, Missouri—their first work that exclusively used metal framing—is probably the best example of the skyscraper esthetic. Sullivan clearly expressed the external elements according to the idea set out in his tract The Tall Building Artistically Considered. He insisted that there should be a base (the public floors), a shaft (any number of identical upper floors), and a capital (the pronounced cornice crowning the composition). He denied that this articulation of die tall building form reflected the classical column, but the connection is inescapable. As noted, all human endeavor is characterized by building upon what we already have.