Chicago’s Home Insurance Building may no longer be standing, but it utterly changed the way we design cities, in ways that were previously unthinkable
It won’t surprise anybody to learn that the very first skyscraper went up in the United States, but it will surprise some to learn that it went up in Chicago. While it didn’t take Manhattan long to claim the steel-framed high-rise as its own, the skyscraper boom began in the capital of the American Midwest in 1885 with William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, which rose to its then-impressive height of 10 storeys (and, after an 1890 addition, 12) by means of metal, rather than just masonry.
Legend has it that Jenney, an engineer by training and an École Centrale Paris classmate of Gustave Eiffel (designer of the eponymous tower), first suspected that an iron skeleton could hold up a building when he saw his wife place a heavy book atop a small birdcage, which easily supported its weight. This opened a new chapter in the history of towers, helped by the Great Chicago Fire (in which more than three square miles of the mostly wooden central city burned to the ground in 1871), and by Chicago’s surging 1880s economy.
For obvious reasons, when the New York Home Insurance Company wanted a new Chicago headquarters in the city’s cleared-out downtown, they wanted it fireproofed – but they also wanted it tall, accommodating “a maximum number of small offices above the bank floor”. Jenney’s metal-framed design won their open contest, not only thanks to the relative fire-resistance of its materials, but to the additional protection offered by its outer iron columns, covered in stone.
Unlike its predecessors – the generations of large buildings supported by nothing but their own masonry walls – the Home Insurance Building wouldn’t have to get thicker, darker, stuffier and heavier to get taller. It weighed only a third as much in iron and steel as it would have in stone.
Not everybody immediately accepted the soundness of Jenney’s design. “Where is there such a building?” the committee asked when presented with the plan. “Your building at Chicago will be the first,” Jenney replied.
After construction got underway, the Home Insurance Company and the City of Chicago temporarily halted the project in order to investigate further whether the building could really stand up on its own. Soon after, Jenney got the idea to switch from an iron frame to an exotic new material, steel, using a supply offered to him by the Carnegie-Phipps Steel Company of Pittsburgh. This aroused yet more skepticism. A 1962 Life magazine retrospective on the origins of skyscraper recalls how “an aroused critic terrified his fellows at a protest meeting by impersonating the writhings of a steel beam exposed to a sudden change of temperature”.
But in the event, not only did the Home Insurance Building stand up, it came to stand for an entire architectural movement, loosely termed the Chicago School, which gave built form to the proud, square-shouldered, technologically forward American ambition that drove the country forward in the late 19th and early 20th century….[ ]