Today’s Useless Fact: The History of Skyscrapers
When you enjoy useless information as much as I do (See: History of Indoor Plumbing), you realize that telling people about one pointless thing just isn’t enough.
After all, the world is filled with cool knowledge! Why keep it all to yourself?
For today’s topic that probably won’t actually help anyone get ahead in life (but that’s fun to know about regardless), I’d like to talk about the history of skyscrapers.
Now first of all, full disclosure: I love skyscrapers! I’m trapped in the delta flatlands here. If it weren’t for tall buildings, I’d never get to see the world from a vantage point that’s higher than five feet off the ground. Realistically, planes and high-rises are pretty much my only opportunity do anything other than stand eye-level with rice fields.
However, as some of you are probably too aware, skyscrapers are pretty complicated to build.
Creating a regular building is a complicated feat that involves teams of architects, engineers, and multiple construction crews, as well as months (if not years) of time and millions of dollars. A skyscraper involves all of those things, times a zillion.
As such, there’s a reason that these massive structures are a pretty new innovation–if you would have told your great great great grandparents that people would live in 20 story buildings, they would have thought you were insane!
It turns out, the world’s first skyscraper was erected in 1884.
Built in Chicago’s business district, the Home Insurance Building stood ten stories tall, towering over the midwestern skyline. Next to the two and three story wood-frame buildings nearby, the Home Insurance Building had to have looked like something from a science fiction movie…had movies existed at the time.
To support the structure, architects had to design a steel frame to support the incredible weight of the building. We take this for granted today, but at the time, nobody had ever imagined using anything but wood to frame a structure. Implementing this new frame had to have been an incredible feat for both the engineers and the construction crews on that ground; the weight and magnitude surpassing anything they’d ever worked with before.
Now, by today’s standards, this was ultimately an unimpressive building. My old college dorm was seven stories…and that was in the middle of the southern delta, surrounded by cotton fields just a couple of miles away. Ten story brick buildings are a dime a dozen, housing everything from college kids playing beer pong to call centers and doctors offices. In 1884, however, this was the tallest building in the world; a proud testament to the wonders of American innovation and midwestern work ethic.
Unfortunately for historic preservation nerds like myself, the innovation of this building was indeed soon forgotten. Within a few years, bigger, better buildings popped up all over the country, towering even closer to the heavens. Less than 50 years later, in 1931, the building was demolished by people who no longer saw much grandeur in a building that only stood 10 stories tall.
The work by architects like William LeBaron Jenney (the architect behind this structure), however, still lives on. Those same engineering and construction methods that made the Home Insurance Building possible would later pave the way for the way for all of the gleaming, thirty floor glass towers we take for granted today.