Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2289:
THE TOWER BUILDING

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the skyscraper arrives. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Read most histories of architecture and we learn that the first skyscraper was the 138-foot Chicago Home Insurance Building, built in 1885. But like all priority claims, that one carries baggage. If we reserve the word skyscraper for buildings filled in with occupiable floors, it well might qualify.

Six years later, the stone Monadnock Building was much taller than the steel-framed Home Insurance Building. It was a skyscraper, but it was also the end of a line. For masonry buildings could go no higher and still carry their own vast weight. Real height would need the tough lightness of steel frames.

The British, by the way, had built an iron-framed building as early as 1797 -- the Ditherington Flaxmill near Shrewsbury. It looked like other mills of the Industrial Revolution with its brick exterior. Nor was it very tall. Some people have hailed it the grand-daddy of modern skyscrapers because of its metal frame. Yet it was largely forgotten when steel-framed buildings surfaced in Chicago in the wake of the great fire.

The Tower Building Skyscrapers appeared first in Chicago, but almost immediately took root back in New York as well. And I've wondered just how soon New York began building skyscrapers; which was first? Anyone who's spent time in New York knows the Flatiron -- that striking 22-story triangular building, designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. It's a truly lovely piece of history. But, when it was finished in 1902, New York had already seen several skyscrapers.

Now I find an article in the 1909 Scribner's Magazine by a noted architect of the time, Montgomery Schuyler. The article is a mess. Schuyler writes as though he's being paid by the length of his Byzantine sentences. (I won't even try to read a sample on air, but I'll post a snippet of it on the web.)

He begins by lamenting the demolition of what does appears to be the first New York skyscraper -- the Tower Building. Four years after Chicago erected its ten-story Home Insurance Building, architect Bradford Gilbert faced the problem of placing an eleven-story building on a lot 21-and-a-half feet wide. He too turned to a steel frame. And, when he did, New York began reaching for the sky.

When Schuyler wrote, a century ago, the Tower Building was already an old curiosity, taking up valuable land -- already being torn down to make room for some 38-story behemoth. Still, here stands the spirit of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. It was actually a thin slab, but the narrow tower in front dominated the view from the street. The rest of the building hardly showed.

And the impression is one of pure aggressive upwardness. If King Kong had been filmed 24 years earlier, here's where he would've stood to fight off the attacking dirigibles. Here is where history was written -- even if it was soon to be forgotten.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


M. Schuyler, The Evolution of the Skyscraper. Scribner's Magazine, Vol. XLVI, Sept. 1909, pp. 257-271. For more on Schuyler, see his two-volume set on American Architecture -- Studies. This has been edited by W. H. Jordy and R. Coe and reprinted (Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, Harvard, 1961)

For more on the Tower Building, see: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GON/GON008.htm

For more on the Ditherington Flax Mill, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ditherington_Flax_Mill

I promised a snippet of Schuyler's prose. His first sentence is typical, and we must wear our cryptographer's hat to read it:
The Occasion of these ensuing remarks is the demolition, -- no doubt, when they come to publications, accomplished or plainly impending, already, even while they are making, irrevocably determined, -- of "the earliest ecample of the skeleton construction, in which the entire weight of the walls and floors is borne, and trasnsmitted to the foundations, by a framework of metallic posts and beams."
Ditherington Flaxmill The first iron-framed building, the Ditherington Flaxmill (1797) as it appears today. (Image courtesy of the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council.)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.