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The Birth of the Skyscraper

The Birth of the Skyscraper


An American Innovation. The skyscraper dominates todays city skyline. The most distinctive American contribution to world architecture, the skyscraper epitomizes the idealistic and material essence of the Modern metropolis. Todays tallest building in the world rises some 1,535 feet above Shanghai, China. Other structures top 900 feet in Hong Kong, Japan, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto. The high-rise has become such a visual commonplace that it is easy to forget that, prior to 1883, the word skyscraper did not even exist. During the 1890s American architects erected the first buildings ever to reach for the heavens, as they experimented with new materials and technologies that made their aspirations possible.

The Need for Height. The birth of the skyscraper represents a confluence of commercial necessity and technical innovation. At the end of the Civil War, the tallest buildings in cities such as New York and Chicago reached just four or five stories above Street level. A decade later a handful of office buildings had attained a height of nine or ten stories. More than any other factor, the invention of the passenger elevator made this first skyward shift possible. Invented in the 1850s and integrated into commercial buildings during the 1860s and 1870s, the passenger elevator (steam-driven, in its earliest incarnations) made upper-story rental space commercially viable. Electric power, incandescent lighting, and the invention of the telephoneali innovations of the late 1870s and early 1880sfurther transformed the capacity of commercial space and, not incidentally, drove up the price of urban real estate.

Solving a Structural Dilemma. The escalating cost of urban lots in the late nineteenth century made high-rise buildings an attractive option for developers. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 forced architects to develop advanced fireproofing techniques. The only obstacle remaining between earth and sky was the structural dilemma of how buildings could be designed to support the weight of additional stories. During the 1870s builders employed wall-bearing construction to erect tall buildings that inevitably featured external walls built of stone or brick; these masonry walls supported the full weight of the building. Thicker and thicker walls, particularly at ground level, permitted taller buildingsbut, beyond a certain point, this solution defeated the goal of commercial utility. Who would rent a ground-floor office with walls so thick that windowsif they existed at aliwere reduced to the size of slots? Architects of the 1880s resolved the dilemma by switching primary support from the external to the internal walls. Skyscrapers constructed from the mid 1880s onward were invariably metal-framed, or hung-masonry, buildings, freed from the constraints of gravity by the magic of skeletal construction, first with iron and later with steel.

An Aesthetically Pleasing Whole. The advent of metal-frame construction permitted the development of a tall-building aesthetic. The tenstory office buildings of the 1870s had simply been four-story structures stretched as tall as wall-bearing construction would permit: architects piled one floor on top of the next, block upon block. Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924), the architect invariably linked to the birth of the skyscraper, is remembered as a design pioneer. Sullivan essentially adapted a classical three-stage scheme to the high-rise building. His notion of a skyscraper comprised a base, a shaft, and a cap. The Wainwright Building in Saint Louis, designed by Sullivan

in 1890, is commonly identified as the first true American skyscraper (as opposed to the tall office building of the 1880s). Subsequent Sullivan designsincluding the Schiller Building in Chicago (1891), the Union Trust Building in Saint Louis (1892), the Guaranty Building in Buffalo (1894), and the Bayard Building in New York (1897)confirmed his reputation. Sullivans slogan form follows function has encouraged many later critics to misidentify him as a bleak utilitarian. Yet any examination of Sullivans work reveals that aesthetic as well as pragmatic factors affected the masters conception of the functional. The twentieth-century city dweller has Sullivan to thank for the notion that a tall building should be inspirational as well as functional.


William H. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects: Progressive and Academic Ideals at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1976);

Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism, revised edition (New York: Holt, 1988);

Robert Twombly, Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work (New York: Viking, 1986).

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