Saturday, April 29, 2017

Are You a Skyscraper?

As you may recall, my last post began with a chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago since 1854. As with most second cities, Chicago suffers from a notorious inferiority complex, and is particularly obsessed with the size of its buildings. Look at any description of this town written by a promoter, and you will no doubt read that Chicago is "the birthplace of the skyscraper." Now that claim either is true or not, depending upon your definition of the very non-technical term, skyscraper. However, regardless of the accuracy of that claim, any serious study of the history of tall buildings, has to go through Chicago.

I originally intended to publish the list of the tallest buildings in Chicago over the years along with photographs of the buildings. But then some curious issues came up. First, I found a couple discrepancies between two published lists. Then while searching for photographs of the old Church of the Holy Name which counting its spire, both lists agreed was the tallest Chicago building between 1854 and 1869, I could not find a single photograph of it with its spire coming anywhere close to the advertised 254 feet. A little research revealed that the while the church was built in 1854, construction on its steeple was not begun until the late 1860s and was still going on when the building was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Therefore it cannot have been the tallest building in Chicago from 1854 until at least 1870, and given the state of its completion at the time of its destruction, its status as ever having been the tallest building in the city is doubtful. Another church sited on one list, St. Michael's in Old Town, may or may not have had a 290 foot spire before 1871, 36 feet taller than Holy Name's. The walls of the church survived but whatever spire existed was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1871, and not rebuilt in 1888.

Here I've taken the liberty to make my own list, slightly different from the other two, which reflects my modest research. The two caveats I have are the exact date of the topping off of the doomed Holy Name spire, and my current uncertainty about the height, and even the existence of the pre-fire St. Michael's spire, which could have been taller than Holy Name's.

BuildingDates as tallest buildingft (m)Stories
Church of the Holy Name1870(?)-1871254 (75)1
Chicago Water Tower1871–1874154 (47)1
Holy Family Church1874–1885266 (81)1
Chicago Board of Trade Building1885-1895322 (98)10
Masonic Temple Building1895–1899302 (92)21
Montgomery Ward Building1899–1922394 (120)19
Wrigley Building1922–1924398 (134)29
Chicago Temple Building1924–1930568 (173)21
Chicago Board of Trade Building1930–1965605 (184)44
Richard J. Daley Center1965–1969648 (198)31
John Hancock Center1969–19731,127 (344)100
Aon Center1973–19741,136 (346)83
Willis Tower    1974–present1,450 (442)108

One of these days I may attempt to compile an accurate list of the tallest buildings in Chicago before the Great Fire. In the last post I mentioned a photographic panorama of the city made shortly before the fire which was published in the book Chicago, Growth of a Metropolis, made from the tower of the old City Hall/Courthouse Building. The pictures do not line up perfectly as the panorama was assembled for the book from a series of photographs made at different times by different photographers. That vantage point for the photographs was most likely the highest point in the city at the time where it would be possible for a photographer to set up a camera on a tripod, Back in the day before electric fire alarm systems, that tower served as the lookout point where spotters would be posted to report fires in the city. This was how the Great Fire of October 8, 1871 was first reported to the fire department. The inefficiency of this system resulted in firefighters being originally sent to the wrong location, costing several precious minutes that could have spared much of the city from destruction.

In my book, the highest accessible floor would be the most important criterion for determining a building's height. But that's not how the big boys do it. The official arbiter of building heights, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, goes strictly by highest architectural element, meaning that the tops of church steeples and other purely decorative spires mark the official top of a building. In the photographs of the Chicago panorama, it appears that there are indeed church steeples that exceed the height of the camera, but just barely, so to accurately determine the highest point in the city at a given point in time, one would have to identify each church, and find a reputable source for the height, and the date of its steeple's construction, not as easy a task as it may seem.

Looking at the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, with the exception of one, every building on the list until the Richard J. Daley Center, was the tallest building by virtue of a decorative appendage stuck atop the structure.

As you can see in this rendering of the Board of Trade Building, the immediate predecessor of the current iteration of that venerable Chicago institution built to replace it on the same site, nearly fifty percent of its total height is represented by its tower which topped off at 322 ft:

To illustrate the confusion about building heights, the Home Federal Insurance Building, the first tall building supported entirely by an interior iron/steel skeleton, (hence in some schools of thought, the first skyscraper) was built the following year, two blocks north of the old Board of Trade. That building topped off at a mere 138 feet. The picture below was made after two additional floors were added in 1890 bringing its total height to 180 feet, still 122 ft shorter in total height than its neighbor two blocks to the south, the Old Board of Trade:

But if you go to this Wikipedia entry on the history of the world's tallest buildings, you will find a chronology of the world's tallest skyscrapers, defined strictly as buildings supported by an interior skeleton. Indeed, the Home Insurance Building tops the list of "the buildings that were the tallest skyscrapers (in the world)– but still shorter than the tallest church or cathedral" from 1884 to 1890. 

This is a strange distinction since the tallest "churches or cathedrals" would certainly have had load bearing walls, that is to say, external walls not supported by an internal skeleton, just as was the case with the Old Board of Trade, or the Rookery Building across the street, exactly one foot taller than the final height of the Home Insurance Building. 

Below is a photograph I found mistakenly residing on a website devoted to pre-fire Chicago, erroneously labeled with the date of 1870. The tower on the left dominating the skyline is clearly the old Board of Trade, and dead center in the top third of the photograph is the Rookery Building. Barely visible, the building just to the right or north of the Rookery, is the Home Insurance Building, clearly several feet shorter than the Rookery. Since Home Insurance added two stories in 1890 bringing it to within a foot of the Rookery Building, which itself was built in 1888, we can safely pin down the date of this photograph to somewhere between those two years. 

According to the Wikipedia list sited above, the Home Insurance Building, which is hardly visible in the photograph, was the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time the picture taken, even though it was not even the tallest building on its own street.

Clearly lists such as these need to be taken with a grain of salt.

About four years after this picture was taken, a Chicago building surpassed the Old Board of Trade Building in every aspect with the exception of ground to pinnacle height. It would eventually succeed the Board of Trade as unequivocally the tallest building in its city when the latter lost its tower in 1895.

The building that succeeded the Old Board of Trade as the tallest buildings in its city was one of the most magnificent buildings to have ever been built in Chicago, the late, great Masonic Temple designed by the architectural firm of Burnham and Root.

Masonic Temple

The Masonic Temple deserves its own post which will follow shortly. Stay tuned.

No comments: