Cities grew upward as well as outward. In 1889, the tallest
building in the United States was New York's Trinity Church, near
Wall Street. The next year, it was overtaken by the 26-story New
York World Building. Fueled by an intense demand for office space
in downtown areas, the skyscraper transformed the appearance of
Brick could not bear the weight of buildings higher than five
or six stories. But beginning in Chicago in 1884, steel frame
construction allowed architects to design buildings
of unprecedented height.
William LeBaron Jenney, a Chicago architect, designed the first
skyscraper in 1884. Nine stories high, the Home Life Insurance
Building was the first structure whose entire weight, including
the exterior walls, was supported on an iron frame. But it would
not be for another 14 years, when the Equitable Life Assurance
Building was constructed in Manhattan that a skyscraper contained
all the characteristics of a modern skyscraper, including central
heating, elevators, and pressurized plumbing.
The arrival of several new technologies permitted the construction
of buildings taller than ever before. Foremost among the new technologies
was the metal frame, a method pioneered by architect William Jenney
in Chicago. Although it was possible to construct buildings more
than 16 stories high using masonry walls, the buildings had to
have such thick walls and small windows that they were unappealing
to landlords. The falling price of steel during the 1880s meant
that tall buildings with steel frames became cheaper to build.
The metal skeleton not only supported the roof and floors, but
also the external walls. Meanwhile, understanding of fireproofing
advanced rapidly after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and construction
of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 taught architects how to brace a metal
frame against the winds.
To transport people within the building, skyscraper needed
elevators. During the 1870s, some five and six story buildings
had steam-powered elevators, which had cables wound around a huge
rotating drum; but these were not suitable for taller buildings,
since the drum would have to be impractically large. The Eiffel
Tower used hydraulic-powered elevators, which required a huge
power source. During the 1880s, the electric elevator offered
a more practical solution.
Tall buildings also needed ventilation systems to heat them
in the winter and cool them in the summer. The early ventilation
systems, introduced in the 1860s, used steam-powered fans to move
air through ducts. After 1890, fans were driven by electricity.
Steam heating using radiators was widely used by 1885. Plumbing
to circulate water through the building relied on pressure using
The early 20th century skyscraper culminated with New
York City's Empire State Building formally opened on May 1, 1931.
President Herbert Hoover and New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt
attended the dedication of the 102-story, 1,250 high building.
Erected in just 13 months, the building grew at a rate of more
than a story a day, while constructed workers toiled on girders
a fifth of a mile above the ground. The building would remain
the world's tallest for forty years, before it was overtaken by
the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center.
When the Empire State Building opened in the midst of the Depression,
only 28 percent of the office space was rented. Revenue generated
by thousands of visitors who stood on the building's observation
deck helped keep the building from going bankrupt. A symbol of
the modern city, the Empire State Building was where King Kong
made his last stand in the 1931 movie.
Copyright 2021 Digital History