August 23, 2018

Don't Look Down!

As you can see below, the panorama of downtown Chicago from our balcony is impressive, and even if it doesn’t quite have the sheer number of buildings as the Manhattan skyline, it also doesn’t have the obscene property prices, and besides, we in the 312 can still claim credit for both the birth of the skyscraper! The thing about Chicago is super young compared to most of the East Coast, so when the population boomed in the 19th century, all of the country’s most interesting architects and engineers basically has free license to experiment with all the new design and technology they could come up with. This is one of the reasons that Chicago is interesting—you can really tell a lot about history through architecture.

First of all, what exactly is a skyscraper? Turns out there’s a group of folks called the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. They’re based right here in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and they define a skyscraper as basically any building that’s more than 150 meters tall. So even though Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 on South LaSalle Street and demolished in 1930, was only about 45 meters, it’s often considered the world’s first real skyscraper for several reasons.

First of all, it was ten stories high, and in 1885, any building that tall was bound to dominate the skyline. They just didn’t build them that tall back then, so when the Home Insurance Building went up, people got excited. It was a big deal! But it wasn’t just the height that might it special enough to receive the “first skyscraper” hoopla: it was a landmark in architectural innovation, too. One of the basic, common sense principles of building is that the taller a building is, the thicker and stronger the base and walls need to be, because the added weight on top puts more pressure on the building’s foundations. Brick in mortar is only so strong, so at a certain point, architects reached the limit of how tall they could build things without making the walls so thick that it kind of defeated the purpose. Enter Henry Bessemer! When he developed a method for the cheap mass-production of industrial steel in the 1850s, there was enough of it to start using it to construct buildings. Since steel is a lot stronger than brick, architects and engineers soon figured out that they could use steel framework to make buildings a lot taller than they’d ever been before, and without ridiculously thick walls and foundations to compensate.

The first building ever constructed using this design method was the Home Insurance Building, and thus, the skyscraper was born. As they say, the rest is history. The Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1930, but what’s still standing today just down the street on Jackson and Dearborn is the Monadnock Building, which dates back to 1891, and is still to this the biggest building ever made using bricks and load-bearing walls. It’s only about 15 stories tall, puny by the steel skyscraper standards, but as far the old methods go, they don’t come any bigger than this one. It’s fitting: not only can we stake a claim to the birth of the skyscraper, but to the death of its predecessor, too. Funny how these things work—only in Chicago!