Thursday, July 22, 2010

The birth of the skyscraper

Where was the first skyscraper built? In Chicago of course we claim it was here.

Structurally a skyscraper is often defined as a building whose floors and exterior walls are suspended by a steel skeleton, instead of the walls supporting themselves from the ground up. Tall buildings were already being built with load bearing walls. Chicago's Monadnock Building, one of the tallest, was at the practical limit of that technology. The steel skeleton provided the means by which a building's height was virtually unlimited. While there is some debate about this, William Le Baron Jenny's Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 at La Salle and Adams, is usually credited with being the first building constructed in this manner. Therefore it is considered, in Chicago anyway to be the first skyscraper.

There is however another technology without which tall buildings would have been entirely unthinkable. That of course is the elevator. It was possible to build eight and ten story buildings before the elevator's invention, but obviously few people would have relished the idea of climbing ten flights of stairs to work. The first office building to be built with a passenger elevator was the Equitable Life Building in Lower Manhattan, completed in 1870. Not surprisingly, New Yorkers consider this to be the first skyscraper.

Now thanks to Chicago Magazine's list of the "top forty words" coined in Chicago (and to Pete Andersen's great blog Pete Lit for sending me there), coming in at number two, here is the first time the word skyscraper was used in print to refer to buildings:

“The ‘sky-scrapers’ of Chicago outrival anything of their kind in the world”

as published in Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper in 1888.

So the invention of the skyscraper may or not belong to us, but the word certainly does.

Take that New York!


Pete said...

Thanks for the shout-out, James. Your blog is no less great.

James Iska said...

Many thanks Pete.