Chicago is considered home to the first skyscraper in the United States. The Home Insurance Building was supported by a revolutionary steel frame in 1885 after the Great Chicago Fire destroyed parts of our city.
It didn’t take Manhattan long to claim the steel-framed high-rise as its own, but the skyscraper boom began in the greatest city in the world: Chicago.
Legend has it that William LeBaron Jenney first suspected that an iron skeleton could hold up a building when he saw his wife place a heavy book above a small birdcage, which easily supported its weight.
The Home Insurance Building rose to its then-impressive height of 10 storeys on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets in Chicago.
The Home Insurance Building weighed only a third as much as it would have in stone. Photograph: Corbis
Unlike its predecessors – the generations of large buildings supported by nothing but their own masonry walls – the Home Insurance Building didn’t have to get thicker, darker, stuffier and heavier to get taller. It weighed only a third as much in iron and steel as it would have in stone.
American architect Andrew Nicholas Rebori and colleagues examine the structure of the Home Insurance Building on its demolition in 1931. Photograph: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty
Not everybody immediately accepted the soundness of Jenney’s design. After construction got underway, the Home Insurance Company and the City of Chicago temporarily halted the project in order to investigate further whether the building could really stand up on its own.
But in the event, not only did the Home Insurance Building stand up, it came to stand for an entire architectural movement, loosely termed the Chicago School, which gave built form to the proud, square-shouldered, technologically forward American ambition that drove the country forward in the late 19th and early 20th century.
An artist’s impression of LaSalle Street, Chicago in 1890, five years into the Home Insurance Building’s life. Photograph: Glasshouse Images/Rex
Jenney believed in designing buildings for the long term, so future generations could
“read the feelings and aspirations of those who erected them”
His masterpiece fell to the wrecking ball in 1931 to make way for another skyscraper, the Field Building (now the LaSalle Bank Building).
But its legacy lives on in every major city, places we simply cannot imagine without the far taller, sleeker skyscrapers built over the past 130 years, each and every one of which owes something to the Home Insurance Building.
Source: 100 Resilient Cities