Digital History

The Rise of the City

The Skyscraper Previous Next
Digital History ID 3050



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 American cities.

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 electric pumps.

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.

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