Skyscraper Architecture (c.1850-present)
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In 1899, Montgomery Schuyler, the eminent critic of the Architectural Record, wrote an article on the subject of progressive American Architecture called "The Skyscraper Up-to-Date," in which he lamented that the element of experiment seemed to have disappeared from the design of the skyscraper. He recalled the early days, especially in the first half of the 1880s, when much "wild work" was done. But now, he said, architects seemed to have settled down to a tripartite formula involving a base, shaft, and capital composed of certain groupings of stories. This formula, he went on to say, may be clothed in a variety of historic styles. Schuyler claimed the first example for George B. Post (1837-1913), in his Union Trust Building, of 1889-90, which he described as Richardsonian Romanesque. He said this was soon followed by others in classical garb, such as the American Surety Building, of 1894-95, designed by Bruce Price (1845-1903).
Ten years later, in Scribner's Magazine, Schuyler reported again on "The Evolution of the Skyscraper." There, he commented on the towers that had recently been, and were then being, built. In the article, Schuyler explained the advances in technology that made possible the rapid rise of building heights. These included the elevator, cage and skeleton construction, fireproof protection for columns and beams, isolated footings and caisson foundations, and the rest.
Without quite realizing the significance of his insight, Schuyler was actually laying the groundwork for an approach to the history of skyscraper art that has been neglected until now. For one thing, he suggested by what he said that the evolution of the skyscraper seemed to be divided into a series of periods marked by fairly distinct architectural forms and methods of designs.
He further suggested that these changes of shape resulted from the increasing size and height of the skyscraper and were made possible by technological advances under the pressure of a strong surge for profits. He made it clear that change in form was not basically a matter of style. Once the frame was formulated, the exterior details could be borrowed from Romanesque or Baroque architecture, or neoclassical architecture, or any one of a number of other historical styles. In his 1913 article for the Architectural Record on "The Towers of Manhattan," he praised the Gothic architecture style of the Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) and kind words for the Beaux-Arts Singer Building, by Ernest Flagg, and for Napoleon Le Brun & Sons' Metropolitan Tower, which was inspired by the early Renaissance art of the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
In other words, while recognizing the impact of technology and the presence of revival styles, Schuyler was aware of an underlying set of conditions that produced a sequence of solutions. The first he identified with the "wild work" being done in the 1880s. The second was a tripartite pattern beginning about 1890. The third, in the form of a tower, evolved largely in the pre-World War I period.
In 1908, he wrote another article for the Architectural Record, called "To Curb the Skyscraper," aimed at finding some way to stop the malpractice of over-exploitation that was turning the downtown city streets into dark canyons. In this crusade, he was joined by American architects George B. Post and Ernest Flagg (1857-1947), who agreed that there was a real danger to the city in unregulated practices. He quoted a scheme of D. Knickerbocher Boyd, President of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, that suggested controlling the over-all height of a building by the width of the street. Boyd's system would give the architect the choice of stepping back the plane of a building in the form of "terraces," or setting back from the property line a given distance that would allow for a straight plane of rise.
What we have here, of course, in 1908, is a prediction of things to come in 1916, when the New York building code was revised, resulting in the creation of the "set-back" or "ziggurat" skyscraper as well as the seed idea for the "slab." Once again, Schuyler seemed aware that the size and height of buildings and their relationship to urban requirements would of necessity produce a new form or forms that could be viewed historically as distinct phases.
But Schuyler was primarily an architectural critic and not a historian, and, therefore, he apparently missed the signs of where his thoughts and remarks were leading. He saw the changes taking place but, perhaps because he was too close to the scene, he seems to have not been able to see it in historical perspective. In this article we investigate whether a new view of skyscraper history can be conceived which would take into account both the influence of technology and the role of revival and more modern modes. The approach used here is based primarily on architectural form as dictated by the ever-growing size and height of skyscrapers responding to broad cultural forces operating in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Such a view of skyscraper history might be divided into seven chapters or phases.
The first four phases can be assigned terminal dates because the compositional formulas employed rarely appear in present-day solutions. However, the last three continue in use and promise to do so for some time in the future.
Having established the order of the phases and briefly described their natures, dates, and contents, it might be best to begin a lengthier discussion with Phase 2, because it is here where we find the greatest controversy as to what a skyscraper is. Obviously, the question of a skyscraper definition would determine when and where our history starts.
Schuyler believes the Tribune Building by Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) and the Western Union Building by George B. Post were the first skyscrapers.
In his article "The Skyscraper Up-To-Date," he says they were the first business buildings in which the possibilities of the elevator were recognized. They were much more conspicuous and comment-provoking than even the St. Paul and the Park Row now are because they were alone and because lower New York then had a skyline, from which they alone, excepting the church spires, were raised and detached.
Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) takes a similar position in his monumental work Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The main guide line taken by these writers was height, with the elevator as a means of attaining that height, both physically and financially.
Carson Webster, in his article "The Skyscraper: Logical and Historical Considerations" (Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, December, 1958), considers the Tribune and Western Union "elevator buildings" or "proto-sky-scrapers." He believes the Masonic Temple Building was the first skyscraper because of its twenty usable stories, its height of 300 feet, and its skeleton construction. So Webster adds, to the element of height, usable stories and skeleton structure.
Francisco Mujica (1884-1954), in his History of the Skyscraper, published in 1930, is of a different mind. Basing his definition of the skyscraper on the presence of an elevator and a skeleton frame, he identifies, in the captions of his illustrations, the Home Life Insurance Company Building as the "first skyscraper" and the Tacoma Building as the "second."
Webster notes that Mujica at two points calls the Home Life Insurance Company Building an "embryo skyscraper" but prefers the term "proto-skyscraper" because he feels the ten-story building lacks sufficient height. The thirteen-story Chamber of Commerce Building is put in the same category by Webster.
In other words, Schuyler would start the history of the skyscraper in 1873-75, with the Tribune and Western Union buildings of New York. Mujica would begin in 1883-85, with the Home Life in Chicago. Webster prefers 1891-92, in Chicago, with the Masonic Temple. Involved is not only the starting date but also the place and the name of the architectural firm that erected the first skyscraper.
Our vote for the "first skyscraper" goes to the Equitable Life Assurance Company Building raised in New York during 1868-70 by Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post. The reasons: The Equitable was the first business building in which the possibilities of the elevator were realized. It rose to a height of 130 feet, which made it twice as tall as the average five-story commercial building. Admittedly, the Tribune at 260 feet and the Western Union at 230 feet were much more dramatic, being twice again as tall as the Equitable. But this jump may be viewed as proof that once the height barrier had been broken by the Equitable, others rose rapidly within a very few years.
The American historian of urban and architectural history Carl Condit (19141997) agrees. In his book American Building Art, he says of this particular form of applied art, "If any one building may be said to mark the beginning of the New York skyscraper, it was the office building of the Equitable Life Assurance Company, at 120 Broadway (1868-70). Five stories high, it rose to 130 feet at the top of its Mansard roof." If the Equitable marked the "beginning of the New York skyscraper," then it was the first of its type, because no other city can claim an earlier one.
Historically speaking, the Equitable was the first building to break with practice of the past. Its exceptional height was made possible by the introduction of the passenger elevator, which made the upper stories as rentable as the lower, and, in so doing, made the taller-than-average structure financially feasible. From it flowed all the others, such as the Tribune, the Western Union, the Home Life, and the Masonic Temple. The economic success of the Equitable even resulted in raising the height of older Italianate structures like the Mutual Life Insurance Company Building of 1863-65 and the New York Life Insurance Building of 1868-70 which added elevators and mansard roofs shortly after 1870, when the economic significance of the Equitable became clear.
What the Equitable and the remodeled Mutual Life and the New York Life buildings had in common was their link with the immediate past. Their design was based on the French mansardic mode, which was first introduced to this country in the 1850s and flourished after the Civil War until the early years of the 1870s, when it was gradually replaced by the Queen Anne mode. Typical were the Herald Building, the National Park Bank, and Lord & Taylor in New York.
The last three structures were done in the same manner as the Equitable, the Western Union, and the Tribune buildings. The only difference between the two groups was that the latter were considerably taller than the former. In both the Tribune and the Western Union, it was becoming painfully clear that these edifices had outgrown their French costumes, even though they still wore them. Apparently, the architects involved did not realize that these tall buildings required a different design solution, one that was more like that of the Home Life Insurance Company Building and the Masonic Temple. The need for change was understood by the end of the depression of the late 1870s. It can be seen in the Boreel Building of 1878-79 by Stephen Decatur Hatch (1839-94) and the Morse Building of 1879 by Silliman & Farnesworth.
As a matter of fact, the Western Union Building already heralded the change that was to take place. In the six floors below the mansard, the stories were grouped horizontally by moldings and other devices into a 2-1-3 arrangement and vertically into five bays containing windows in a 1-2-2-2-1 pattern. The facade in this area was strongly articulated to create the appearance of structure, with the piers designed so as to reflect their load-bearing function. Those supporting the pavilions on the Broadway and Dey Street fronts were wider than the others. This means the design was dictated by the demands of function and structure, not by abstract rules of regularity and symmetry.
Already, in 1874, the general formula appeared in the Evening Post Building by Charles F. Mengelson. In this case, the Broadway elevation was divided by piers into three bays and horizontally into a 2-1-3-2-2 scheme. Unlike the Western Union, the structure was topped off with a fairly flat roof interrupted by a low pavilion. What we seem to have, then, between the late 1860s and the mid-1870s is a phase in the evolution of the skyscraper wherein buildings are becoming tall enough to be considered skyscrapers by some scholars but being designed in much the same way as other commercial buildings of average five-story height. At the same time, there are signs of a changing concept of composition pointing to the future. For these reasons, this period may be considered as a transition between the earlier pre-skyscraper phase, designated as Phase 1, and Phase 3, with the transitional phase containing the first and other early skyscrapers between 1868-78 as Phase 2.
Before going on to Phase 3, a discussion of Phase 1 is, therefore, necessary. In the material presented above, three features have been stressed by scholars, namely, height, the passenger elevator, and iron-framing. It we study the commercial building prior to 1868, we note that there were a number of structures that contained these features, but in no case were all three elements assembled in one building.
The Jayne Building was a ten-story structure composed of eight loft stories and a two-story tower. To help support the floors, centrally placed iron columns ran the length of the building, carrying wooden beams that rested on the masonry side walls. It had a hoist to lift and lower raw materials and finished products, but there was no passenger elevator.
About the same time, Calvin Pollard (1797-1850) designed an eight-story building for a Dr. Brandreth for 241 Broadway, judging from a rendering in The New York Historical Society. There is no evidence that it was actually built or whether Pollard was planning to use structural iron or a passenger elevator. What the rendering signifies is that a much-taller-than-average structure was conceived by the architect for a particular site.
On the other hand, there were two edifices, the Haughwout Store and the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which were about the same size as hundreds of other commercial buildings, that is to say, five stories and about sixty feet, but which had passenger elevators.
Into Phase 1 might also be put structures that had a construction system closely related to later skyscraper framing. An example that springs to mind is the Harper Brothers Building, designed by James Bogardus (1800-74). His McCullough Shot Tower of 1856 had a metal frame that supported a curtain wall of brick between iron columns and girders. Thus, during the nine-year period just before the Civil War, it is possible to find such features as well-above-average height, the passenger elevator, the employment of cage and curtain-wall construction, but - and this is the significant point - not in the same building. The ingredients were present, but up to that time no one had thought to put them together. This first occurred in the Equitable Life Building, which was more than twice the height of the average office building, thanks to the planned use of a passenger elevator and iron construction. One could, therefore, refer to a pre-skyscraper phase dating from 1849 to 1870, which paved the way for the first skyscraper period of 1870-78, with its transitional characteristics.
The third phase may be said to have begun about 1878 when the economic depression of 1873-79 lifted and a resumption of building activities ensued. Stephen Hatch's Boreel Building of that year reflected the change that had taken place in the design of tall commercial structures. The mansard roof is replaced by a flat one, because the latter provided better and more rental space at less cost. The ostentatious and expensive French "Empire" decorative system is dropped for a more austere type that subordinates ornament to structure and substitutes brick and terra cotta for marble and cast iron. See also: Nineteenth Century architecture (1800-1900).
Most characteristic, however, is the method of grouping the stories as a means of achieving a sense of order in a facade involving so many windows, piers, spandrels, mullions, and so on. Two methods appear to prevail. The first grouped the stories in what appears a capricious fashion with each architect doing what seemed to him most attractive. This tendency resulted in what Schuyler referred to as the "wild work" of the period prior to 1890 and produced many solutions that were interesting and some that were bewildering. The second method was not quite so personal and subjective, being based on a mathematical progression that dictated the number of floors to be grouped and the size and number of the elements to be contained in each.
In the Boreel Building, of 1878-79, Stephen Hatch follows Mengelson's lead in dividing his elevation vertically and horizontally. The piers create a composition of five bays with the windows arranged in a 3-2-2-2-3 pattern, while broad-banded moldings and cornice group the stories in a 2-3-3-1 scheme. As in the Evening Post, decoration is minimized, with a central accent provided by a two-story entrance and a Queen Anne pediment over the attic story.
The ten-story Morse Building is a variation on this theme. The roof-line is fiat. The piers make for a three-bay, 4-2-4 solution. And the stories are grouped 2-1-2-1-2-1 by double-string courses running past the piers. The tenth story is in the form of a corbeled arcade topped off by a modest cornice.
The Mills Building is larger in size but follows the same principle of design. Here, two wings flank a central entrance and light court. These are subdivided on the Broad Street facade into four bays each, two windows wide. The horizontal division is 1-1-2-3-2-1. Of interest is an earlier solution of 1880, which presented an unbroken facade of eight bays, each three windows wide, with the stories grouped in a 1-1-3-1-1-2 pattern. The terminating stories are in the form of a mansard with colossal dormers. The formula shown in the rendering reflects the transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3, with a flat-roofed scheme replacing the mansard.
The Produce Exchange introduces the other way of achieving unity during this time. In this instance, horizontal grouping is 1-4-2-1-1. But the four-story arcade, the two-story arcade above it, and a single floor below the cornice and the attic story are arranged in a vertical geometric progression of 1-2-4 windows. The architect must have felt the need of a solution of this sort to attain a sense of order in a structure of so many parts and of such massive size. By employing this progression, he managed to avoid monotony and to relate the elements in a most agreeable way.
This system also was used later by Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), one of the greatest architects of his day, when he was commissioned to do a building of similar size, the Marshall Field Warehouse. Richardson prefers the Romanesque vocabulary to the classic but his progression is of the same character. The openings are arranged in a 1-2-4 horizontal system that is accompanied by a three-story, two-story, and one-story grouping of the floors.
In the Auditorium building, Sullivan again makes use of this solution in the upper seven floors but varies the vertical composition to a 4-2-1 and the horizontal into a 1-2-3 progression.
The more typical design system, however, during this period was the one described earlier, namely, an arbitrary and seemingly capricious grouping of stories designed to produce the most attractive composition. The Rookery by Burnham & Root uses a 1-2-3-3-1 pattern. Cobb & Frost in the Chicago Opera House prefer a 2-2-4-2. Baumann & Huehl employ a 2-3-3-4-1 formula in the Chamber of Commerce Building, and Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge favour a 1-2-5-3-1-1 for the Ames Building, of 1889-91, in Boston.
It should be noted at this point that the introduction of a new formula of design does not necessarily mean the end of the older one. Thus, the Park Row Building, for some years the tallest office structure in the world, followed the Phase 3 formula, even though the Phase 4 system had been in practice for about eight years. Vertically, the facade of the Park Row Building was divided into three parts, the central section slightly recessed and composed of piers of a colossal order rising three and four stories. These did not always coincide with the flanking elements that were three windows wide and topped by four-story towers with cupola. Horizontally, the composition could be read two ways, depending on whether one was using the center or side sections as marking means. But whichever system was employed, the number of groupings produced an elevation that was confusing, monotonous, and awkward. Architect Robert H. Robertson (1849-1919) did not seem to be aware that the height of his structure was such that he could no longer make use of the old formula, and that a new one was required.
Actually, a new system already had been worked out, namely, the tripartite division associated with the classic column, which Schuyler noted in 1899. This can be considered Phase 4. As stated earlier, Schuyler felt that an early example of this formula was George B. Post's Union Trust Building. The facade not only has the base, shaft, and capital but also a transitional story between the base and the shaft and a similar one between the shaft and the capital. An equally early instance is George H. Edbrooke's Hammond Building, Detroit's first skyscraper, which features the three-part system.
A more successful solution, because of its height, can be seen in the Havemeyer Building. Here, the shaft is given greater emphasis by being seven stories tall rather than five. The base is three stories, as is the capital, while the transitional stories are one each. To give the capital greater elegance, an elaborate balcony supported by caryatids is added at the start of the capital. This was considered highly desirable by Schuyler, who believed the capital needed to be more decorative than the base following the treatment generally accorded the Ionic and Corinthian orders in Greek art and architecture.
Substantially the same method was employed in Robert Maynicke's building at 715-727 Broadway. The two-story base carries the transitional story leading to a six-story shaft surmounted by another transitional story with heavy cornice and topped by a two-story capital. The difference between this solution and that of the Havemeyer Building is that in the former, the shaft is composed of a colonnade instead of an arcade.
A Chicago version of the Phase 4 formula without the upper transitional story is to be seen in a building for the New York Life Insurance Company. A St. Louis variant is the Union Trust Company Building, where the arcade is used in the shaft and where there are no transitional stories, merely a base and capital elegantly articulated.
Into this category one should also put Adler & Sullivan's Wainwright Building. In his book on Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), Hugh Morrison says that Sullivan's composition was dictated by function and the desire to achieve a "soaring" effect in a building of such height. Apparently, the tripartite concept played little or no part in determining the design of the elevation. A rental plan of the Wainwright Building discovered recently in the St. Louis Free Library shows, however, that the second floor was identical with the floors above, excepting the top story, so that the heavy molding that appears to separate the second story from the third was introduced not for a functional but an aesthetic purpose. The ten-story facade obviously looked better with a two-story base, a seven-story shaft, and a taller-than-average capital housing various services.
The tripartite pattern is repeated in the Schiller Building, where there is little indication on the facade that the structure houses a theatre. It occurs in the Marquette Building, which has a two-story base, a transitional story, an eleven-story shaft, and a one-story transition and capital. One building that is questionably tripartite in the same sense as the examples cited so far is the Guaranty Building of Buffalo, where the base and shaft are distinct entities but where the one-story terminating element is hardly big enough to be considered a capital or separate section.
A final aspect of the tripartite phase needs noting. This is well illustrated by the American Surety Building. Here we have a three-story base with Ionic order and a caryatid story, an eleven-story shaft, and then an extremely elaborate and tall capital. The major difference between the American Surety Building and the others discussed is that the shaft is not formed by a vertical system of well-articulated piers but by a treatment that emphasizes wall and window. The wall plane is flat or textured to produce a rich ornamental effect, while the windows are primarily openings in the surface.
Just when this practice began it is difficult to say. But it appears to have been popular in the late 1890s and was used well into the twentieth century. A good example, with highly decorated base, capital, and transitional stories, is the Washington Life Building, where the simple eight-story shaft offers an effective foil for the ornament above and below.
At the very end of the nineteenth century, Cass Gilbert designed the Broadway-Chambers Building, which offers one of the best examples of this shaft treatment of the tripartite formula. Not only do we have a decorous capital with base and transitional stories but the three essential parts are distinguished by a difference in material and colour. The shaft is dark-brown brick, the capital a warm marble, and the base a gray granite. When Daniel H. Burnham & Company was commissioned to do the Flatiron Building in New York between 1901-3, the firm's design proved that the tripartite arrangement was still fashionable. It was without question the most widely used solution for the design of a skyscraper in the United States at that time, being practiced in all regions of the country.
But it was not the only formula used. Ever since the early days of its history, the concept of a tower had been associated with the skyscraper. We have seen it used by Hunt in the Tribune Building. Earlier, in pre-skyscraper days, William L. Johnston (181149) had used a two-story Gothic version in the Jayne Building. In both examples, the towers were mere appendages, essentially expressive symbols. Height had an economic value, and a tower atop a business building was the cheapest way to achieve it.
When Bradford Gilbert (1853-1911) was commissioned to do an office structure in 1887 for a narrow site at 50 Broadway, he was successful in having the building code revised to permit the use of skeleton construction. The 21-foot-6-inch-wide facade was designed as a Romanesque tower, and it was thought appropriate to call it the Tower Building. But, in fact, it was not a tower. The structure was about 108 feet deep and when seen from the side its form was actually slab-like.
Philadelphia had an earlier version of this form in the Tower Building by Samuel Sloan (1815-84) of 1855. Thus, it appears that a reference to towers had an appeal that was aesthetic and expressive. How widespread was its use may be realized by its employment in religious, civic, domestic, and exhibition architecture, railway stations, and the like. Its appearance, in commercial buildings, is, therefore, to be expected.
Nevertheless, toward the end of the nineteenth century, a more practical reason was added to the others. The ever-increasing height of buildings from five to ten and then to twenty and thirty stories forced the architects to search for an appropriate compositional solution. The tripartite system seemed ideal for a twenty-story structure, because a five-story base, a ten-story shaft, and a five-story capital produced a well-proportioned scheme. Entrance details and a colossally ordered colonnade above contributed to a harmonious combination of elements. However, at thirty stories or beyond, this formula worked less well, and as building height increased, the problem of attractively relating the parts to the whole became more difficult.
It is no coincidence that one of the first of the projects for a free-standing tower office building, namely, Leroy Burlington's scheme of 1888, was for a 28-story structure in the Richardsonian Romanesque manner. Adler & Sullivan's Odd Fellows' Temple project of 1891 was planned with 35 stories. In 1890, Bruce Price (1845-1903) suggested a 30-story isolated tower, inspired by the early Renaissance campanile of San Marco in Venice, for the Sun Building. Sometime in the late 1890s, George B. Post designed an addition to the Prudential Life Insurance Building that was intended to be about 40 stories high. At approximately the same time, but surely before 1898, Post proposed a 500-foot tower as an addition to the Equitable Life Assurance Company. Glover and Carrel submitted a 25-story polygonal tower to a competition for the New York Herald Building; their scheme appeared in the American Architect & Building News for August 6, 1898.
What all this proves is that towers were on the minds of many American architects during the 1890s as possible solutions for the design of the new tall and ever-taller skyscrapers. The earliest tower designs meant to be more than symbols were associated with immense structures, such as the tower of the Produce Exchange, which was used for elevators and offices. The one at the Auditorium served the same purpose, with the upper part of the tower housing the offices of the architects.
It is thought that the first free-standing tower to be erected was the American Surety Building by Bruce Price, because the architect expressed his preoccupation with the tower concept verbally. Whether this was, in fact, the first free-standing tower building actually built depends on an acceptable definition. Russell Sturgis (1836-1909), prominent as architect and critic in the period under discussion, defines the "tower" in his Dictionary of Architecture and Building (1905) as "A structure of any form in plan which is high in proportion to its lateral dimensions, or which is an isolated building with vertical sides and simple character. The general rule is that towers stand upon the ground and rise from it without serious break in their verticality." The 22-story, 312-foot American Surety would, therefore, certainly qualify as a tower according to Sturgis's definition. But would this apply as well to the 13-story Guaranty Building and the 10-story Wainwright Building? Here, lateral dimensions come into play. While the Guaranty might be considered a possible entry, the Wainwright would not qualify.
This, of course, is really beside the main point, which is trying to estimate when the tower phase, or Phase 5, of skyscraper development begins. Though the projected schemes start about 1888 and continue throughout the 1890s, it would seem that the first towers were erected about 1895. Within a few years, the use of the concept spread, and the buildings continued to grow even taller. The Spreckles Building was 20 stories high to the top of its cupola. The Bankers' Trust Building in New York was 39 stories, 540 feet; the Singer Building 53 stories and 612 feet; and the Metropolitan Tower was 52 stories and 700 feet.
Of the towers mentioned, the Metropolitan had the finest appearance, not especially because of its style or proportions but because it had the best site. The Singer and Bankers' Trust towers were hardly visible in the congestion of construction on Wall Street and off Broadway. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Tower had before it the expanse of Madison Square, making it possible for observers to enjoy the sight of the building from bottom to top. It could be seen as an aesthetic entity, despite its considerable size. So successful was the composition and its location that, when it became known recently that plans were afoot for its demolition along with the older headquarters erected in 1890 along Twenty-third Street, public opposition was sufficiently strong to save the building.
Isolated towers continued to be built after World War I. Examples are the Tribune Tower of 1923-25 by Howells & Hood in Chicago; Detroit's Book Tower of 1926 and Eaton Tower of 1927, both by Louis Kamper (1861-1953); and the 32-story Foshay Tower of 1927-29 in Minneapolis. But design problems created by the ever increasing height of business buildings and economic factors combined to introduce a variant, in the form of a tower mounted on a base. One of the earliest of these was the much admired Woolworth Building of New York, erected by Cass Gilbert in 1911-13. This structure was 750 feet tall and consisted of a 30-story tower on a 25-story base. An isolated tower like the Foshay could serve as a prestige symbol, a memorial to an individual, but it was not economically sound. Relatively little rental space could be developed in such a slender shape. The Tribune Tower was essentially a monument to an important newspaper. But those by Kamper follow the pattern established by Bruce Price, having sufficient girth to be financially feasible.
The 36-story Book Tower points up some of the design problems that such a tall structure poses. Like the American Surety, the Book Tower appears to be composed on a tripartite formula. The shaft is so long that the architect has sought to relieve its monotony by the addition of an ornament at its middle. The 10-story capital is made of two blocks, with a colonnade of piers below and an arcade of addorsed columns above. The ensemble is not a happy one, being awkward in proportion and confused in the relationship of its parts. In comparison, the Woolworth Building, though 19 stories higher than the Book Tower, by having its tower set on a broad base provides for an abundance of first-rate office space and yields a most attractive design.
This solution was not entirely new. The fact is that both the Singer and Metropolitan towers, though conceived as separate units, were nevertheless attached to low, broad blocks of about ten stories, which were built earlier. These provided the requisite space.
Architects were well aware of the aesthetics problem created by the ever growing skyscraper, and there was much thought and discussion concerning a solution. On December 30, 1894, an article appeared in the New York Tribune in connection with the American Surety competition, which had been won by Bruce Price. The winner was quoted as saying that "when a skyscraper can be constructed on a square lot and it is possible to have four fronts it might be a fine addition to the city. Construction of this sort of skyscraper should be encouraged."
In the same piece, the architect Thomas Hastings (1860-1929) was less certain that a 20th century skyscraper could be transformed into a piece of visual art. He said:
Before leaving this subject, it is necessary to note one other factor that played a part in producing the tower-with-base formula. This was the revision of the N.Y. building code in 1916. Brought on by the ill effects these gigantic buildings were having on the city and the public, the code introduced a zoning ordinance that necessitated a set-back system based on the width of the street. However, once 25 per cent of the site had been reached, it was then legally possible to go up indefinitely. A drawing by Harvey Wiley Corbett and Hugh Ferriss illustrated in Mujica's History shows how the following code would result in a tower with base. Most dramatic examples are the Art Deco skyscrapers the Chrysler Building by William Van Alen (1883-1954), of 1929-32, that rose 67 stories and 808 feet, and the Empire State Building by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, of 1930-31, which tops all others at 102 stories and 1,250 feet.
The introduction of zoning codes in New York and other cities produced a new form of skyscraper, constituting Phase 6. The period began in 1916 and continues to the present, though its heyday was in the 1920s, between the end of World War I and the depression of 1929.
The zoning code in New York resulted from the clamour and criticism, raised by civic leaders and architects alike, of the irresponsible exploitation of office-building space. Examples of this practice are illustrated by such gigantic schemes as the twin office building at 111-115 Broadway by Francis H. Kimball (1845-1919): the Trinity Building and the U.S. Realty Building. Together, these 308-foot-high structures produced 552,873 square feet of floor area. The Hudson Terminal was another twin office building of 275 feet and 22 stories that developed 18,150,000 cubic feet of space. The Equitable Life Assurance Building by E. R. Graham, of 1913-15, is typical of the kind of scheme that had made the revision of the zoning code imperative.
In the Fisk Rubber Company Building, one can see an early effort to comply with the code. A comparison between the Paramount Building and the Daily News Building shows the difference between an insensitive solution and an inspired one. More representative are the Indemnity Building and the Lincoln Building.
While the zoning code tended to restrain the size and height of skyscrapers, it was not always successful, as witness the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings. Developments of such magnitude present difficult economic and aesthetic problems. In prosperous times, when they were planned, it might well have been possible to operate both structures profitably. But in the event of a depression, the loss of tenants, the reduction in revenue, and the cost of maintenance could prove disastrous. This is precisely what did happen in the 1930s to the Empire State Building, which was ridiculed for some years as the "Empty" State Building.
Equally troublesome was the aesthetic problem. The project's architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon first recommended to the syndicate a scheme that would not exceed 30 stories. Such a solution, it was believed, would be more attractive and far less hazardous. Despite the architects' objections, the syndicate voted in favour of the conception as we see it today. Aesthetically, the main fault with the present structure is that, because of its enormous height (1,250 feet) and its crowded site, the 102-story base and tower cannot be properly seen. What is needed is an open parklike area of sufficient size to provide a vista.
The objection to the Empire State and Chrysler schemes was overcome at the Rockefeller Center, in what may be considered the beginning of Phase 7. Its characteristic feature is a limited exploitation of space rights in a parklike setting often involving a multiblock site.
The conception of a skyscraper city probably grew out of the heated debates of the mid-1890s, when unregulated development began to be noticeable and when some visionaries, like George Post and Bruce Price, could see the need for some kind of ordered control.
In the first decade of this century, picture books by Moses King featured a New York of the future, coordinating in a fanciful way the architectural and transportation needs of the city. After World War I, Norman Bel Geddes, Hugh Ferriss, and Francisco Mujica became interested in the problem. The latter's thoughts were visualized in his book of 1930. Europeans like Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), Ludwig Hilberseimer (18851967), and Le Corbusier (1887-1965), tried their hands at planning on a large scale, as did Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
As far as the skyscraper is concerned, the realization of such a scheme occurred at Rockefeller Center. There, an unexpected series of circumstances transformed what started out to be a cultural center into a commercial center (see "The Genesis of the Rockefeller Center Plan," The Architectural Review, December, 1950).
The precedent set by Rockefeller Center was followed later by many groups of architects and planners, with not always happy results. The developments at Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, Philadelphia's Civic Center, and Chicago's Civic Center indicate that the potentialities of multi-block planning can be negated by excessive exploitation of space rights. The windy canyons of Philadelphia's Civic Center are not a great improvement over those created in the Wall Street area of New York at the turn of the century.
Current examples of the multiblock formula include the pre-9/11 World Trade Center in New York by Yamasaki & Associates and Emery Roth & Sons, with its two gigantic towers placed in an open plaza and surrounded by far smaller structures. Another is John Portman & Associates' Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, which is composed of a series of thin slab towers of various heights, set in an irregularly shaped green belt studded with low units.
Less spectacular, but a part of Phase 7, is the kind of solution, represented by Lever House, where a more limited site is involved, often of block size or less. What relates these projects to Rockefeller Center is the interest in creating an attractive environment by a limited development of space rights and the introduction of fountains, shrubs, trees and flowers in the resulting open areas. This category would include the Seagram Building, of 1956-57, by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (1906-2005), with plaza and reflecting pools. It would also include Pittsburgh's U.S. Steel Corporation Building, of 1967, by Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe, which features a triangular tower on stilts set on a terrace flanked by shrubs and a pool, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Hartford Plaza, completed in 1967 in San Francisco.
In summary then, what is being suggested here is a new approach to skyscraper history. Advances in technology can, in large part, explain the growing height of the skyscraper up to about 1900, when the skeleton frame was widely accepted, but it cannot account for the dramatic changes that took place afterwards. New construction methods, such as bolted, riveted, then welded frames had virtually no effect on skyscraper appearance. Faster, smoother, and, finally, automatic elevators improved service but did not influence form. The electric light, better plumbing, more dependable heating systems and the telephone made life more comfortable and business easier to conduct, but these had virtually no effect on the shape of the structure.
It is interesting to note that in the case of air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, where one could have expected a change in building form, at least in the cladding of the structure, we do not find this to be the case to any great extent. Rather than encase the building in an opaque curtain to prevent the cool air from escaping to the outside and to control light, many architects and clients appear willing to suffer the resulting expense of leakage in favour of glass for the sake of appearance and the psychological effect upon employees. Even the substitution of reinforced concrete for steel in Cincinnati's Ingalls Building by Elzner & Anderson, of 1902-4, produced no appreciable change. The first major change brought on by a new material and structural system was in the Price Tower by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), where reinforced concrete and a core system of cantilevering made possible a more flexible ordering of the floor spaces and an exterior that broke away from the square or rectangular box. But this still leaves fifty years, or half of the skyscraper's history, unaccounted for.
Nor does the technological approach shed any light on why the Home Insurance Company Building of William Le Baron Jenney, which had a skeleton frame, for all practical purposes, looked so much like E. L. Roberts's Standard Oil Building in New York, of the same date, which did not have skeleton construction. The resemblance springs from the fact that both structures were designed in the same manner, despite the difference in their construction system.
A history of the skyscraper based on style is no more helpful and can be extremely confusing. Many scholars believe it incorrect to use the word "style" in connection with the use of historical architectural revivals. They prefer the term "mode" or "manner," because forms were borrowed from the past and had no deep organic associations with the modern era.
To talk about the revival of Egyptian, Greek or Roman art as it relates to the skyscraper makes little sense, although one may see occasionally a temple or pyramid terminating such a structure. The "French Empire" mode was quickly dispensed with during the early days of the tall business building, as was the "Queen Anne." The "Richardsonian Romanesque" was practiced for only a few years during the last half of the nineteenth century, because it proved so burdensome, although it did seem suitable for the tower phase. The "Chinese" and "Saracenic" revivals apparently played no part in skyscraper evolution. Only Gothic art offered some solution to the design problems presented by the growing skyscraper.
By the 1920s a skyscraper style seemed to have evolved. It appears to have been an amalgam of the early efforts to create a vertical system contributed to by the Jayne Building, the Wainwright and Guaranty buildings, the Woolworth Building and such others by Cass Gilbert as the West Street Building and the New York Life Insurance Building, with a simple system that lined up the windows perpendicularly by means of a slight recession from the wall plane or by the use of a specific material or colour. Good examples are the American Insurance Union Citadel, the Chanin Building, and Rockefeller Center.
The vast majority of these buildings in this period display no evidences of the revival modes and are an obvious prelude to the emphatic verticalism of many present-day skyscrapers, such as the CBS Building in New York and the First National Bank in Chicago.
From a stylistic point of view, then, the history of the skyscraper appears to consist thus far of two periods: one composed primarily of historically inspired structures erected prior to World War I; and a second group of buildings, largely of post-World War I vintage, that are characterized by their vertical articulation. The objection to such an approach is that, while the selection of a revival mode certainly reflects the taste of its time and the vertically accented trend was suggested by the fact that the building was essentially tall rather than long, in neither case are the deeper forces within American culture taken into account. The surface treatment of the later period mirrors neither the steel or reinforced-concrete frame nor the economic, sociological, or municipal factors involved in the project.
One other view of skyscraper history that suggests itself is a method based on "schools" or regional difference. This system has been used in connection with Romanesque architecture in Italy and France. There has been much written about a "Chicago School of Architecture" and a "New York School." There has even been reference to three "Chicago" schools dating from the 1870s to the present. While there is good reason to argue in favour of a regional system based on differences that did exist between various geographical areas in the mid-nineteenth century, such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, these differences were no longer noticeable by 1890, when much the same formula was being used widely throughout the East and Middle West. By the turn of the century, Montgomery Schuyler was lamenting the uniformity, and Louis Sullivan was predicting that the classical style of the World's Fair of 1893 would dominate skyscraper design for the next half century.
The rejection of a historical concept founded primarily on technology, style, or school leaves little else to choose from, unless it be a chronological account dealing with the skyscraper's development year by year. While this probably would be desirable in the future, it is doubtful whether it could be done at present, when we are still unable to see the basic patterns, their variations, and the reasons and dates of their appearances. By 1900, so many kinds of skyscrapers were being erected that it was difficult to distinguish the trees, so dense was the forest. Often the lag between what was happening in the East and West made matters more confusing, chronologically considered.
The advantage of the system suggested here is that it not only takes into account the other approaches just discussed, but it also transforms the broad and deep cultural factors in American life into architectural terms. It establishes within each phase or category the criterion that would permit an understanding of the significant structures within each category. Thus, the Washington Building, though erected after Phase III got under way, is really a late example of Phase 2, because of its colossal mansard, numerous dormers, oriels, and other features which belong to the French mansard mode. This is to be expected when it is remembered that Kendall helped design the Equitable Life Assurance Building of 1868-70.
It also helps us understand the historical and aesthetic significance of the Wainwright Building. This structure should not be evaluated in a general way as "one of the ten best skyscrapers in the world." It should not be made to compete with tower forms or multiblock solutions, because it is different in nature, having been created in different times and under different conditions. What makes the Wainwright important is that it is the finest solution to the problem facing architects during the 1880s, or during Phase 3. Once Sullivan's statement was made, the "grouped-story" formula was outmoded.
It not only helped establish the solution for Phase 4 but was one of its best examples. The Guaranty Building of 1894-95 was but a taller version of the Wainwright and led logically to the tower form of Phase 5. In many ways, the Guaranty was superior to Bruce Price's American Surety Building, being less fussy and more sure and clear in its intentions.
Similarly, Sullivan's Odd Fellows' Temple project takes on new meaning when seen in the historical context recommended here. Sullivan's scheme was not unusual from a stylistic or technological point of view. But as a concept suggesting a solution for architectural problems of the future, it was brilliant. It pointed a way around the economically hazardous isolated towers being considered in its day and proposed a viable design that took into account the financial, functional, expressive and aesthetic needs of the time. It was the forerunner of the Woolworth and other great towers. With its major tower and subordinate elements, its large site and limited development, it contained the seed for Rockefeller Center.
If the First Chicago School is associated with the earliest types of skyscraper towers, the Second Chicago School of architecture is closely linked to the minimalist International Style, championed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Thanks to Chicago-born firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and C.F.Murphy & Associates, later 20th century architects have adopted a series of new construction techniques for supertall buildings. Although non-load-bearing curtain walls are used in all skyscraper towers, tubular designs have been introduced for the supporting steel frame, in order to reduce the amount of steel used. The 108-story Willis Tower (1970-4), for instance, uses one third less steel than the 102-story Empire state building. Tube-frame structures were first used by Fazlur Khan (1929-82), a partner in Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, in the building of the DeWitt-Chestnut Apartment Building, Chicago (1963). Thereafter it was employed for the 100-story John Hancock Center and the World Trade Center. Variants of the tube frame include the "framed tube", "trussed tube" and "bundled tube" systems. The bundled tube system, for instance, in which a number of interconnected tube frames are used, was used in the Willis Tower in Chicago (still commonly referred to as the Sears Tower) used this design. The bundle tube design also permitted a more flexible formulation of architectural space. Skyscraper towers were no longer obliged to be box-like; the tube-units could form different shapes. The trussed tube system was employed by Khan in the Onterie Center, Chicago (1986). For more about contemporary trends, see: Postmodernist Art (1970 onwards).
Despite all this, skyscraper construction remains an energy-intensive process: the large glass facades lead to significant heat-loss and thus high energy consumption, while the constant use of elevators and lack of natural light, as well as ventilation and air conditioning power plants to maintain normal working conditions, is a further drain on resources.
On the other hand, supertall buildings traditionally have a long life-span, and provide an essential basis for urban development in densely populated cities and commercial centers. They provide architects, engineers and investors, with huge amounts of real estate space on small plots of land.
The biggest issue remains safety. In particular the feasibility of rescuing occupants of upper stories. The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, for instance, which severed the buildings around the 80th floor, doomed all top-floor occupants as no mass evacuation procedures existed to cope with disasters at that height. Earthquakes are another major hazard, notably on America's west coast.
Traditionally, New York City and Chicago compete for the title of tallest building in America. For example, the eight tallest buildings in the United States are either in New York or Chicago, and out of America's top 25 supertall buildings, eight are in Chicago and seven are in New York City. Here is a chronological list of the tallest buildings in the United States, including all ten structures that held the title of tallest building in America, during the 20th and 21st centuries.
Park Row Building (15 Park Row),
New York City (18991901)
Philadelphia City Hall, Philadelphia
Metropolitan Life Insurance Company
Tower, New York City (1909-13)
Woolworth Building, New York
Trump Building (40 Wall Street),
New York City (1930)
Chrysler Building, New York City
Empire State Building, New York
One World Trade Center (North
tower), NYC (destroyed 2001) (1972-74)
Willis Tower (formerly the Sears
Tower), Chicago (1974-present)
By 2011, only four of the 25 highest buildings in the world are located in America. Prior to 1990, the United States was home to all of the world's top ten tallest buildings.
For comparative purposes, the highest buildings in the world are:
Taipei 101 Taipei Taiwan
This is a complete list of buildings currently standing in the United States, whose architectural height exceeds 860 feet (approx 260 metres).
(1) Willis Tower, Chicago (1970-74)
For more about 20th century and 21st century architecture, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and DESIGN