The Home Insurance Building is by many considered the prototype of the skyscraper. At the time of its completion, however, it ranked as only the fourteenth-tallest building in the US. Why, then, did it command so much attention? Joseph J. Korom writes in The American Skyscraper:
Its altitude was not sufficiently potent to cause scuffles in the worlds of architecture and engineering. What did cause consternation was the way the building stood.
City authorities feared it would topple over, not because of its height, but because of Jenney’s trailblazing approach. It was a stunning deviation from earlier structures, which were supported by heavy masonry walls.
The Home Insurance Building. Image credit: Jason Woodhead
The building’s skeleton was composed of wrought iron, cast iron, and the first steel beams rolled in America from the Carnegie Steel Company, writes Korom. The use of steel permitted lighter masonry to be built around the frames. This meant that the building could have more windows and be taller without buckling beneath its own weight.
The structure’s creator, William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907), rose to prominence after Chicago was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1871. The Massachussets-born engineer, who had studied at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris and served as an engineering officer in the Civil War, helped rebuild the city. He subsequently began to be recognized as one of the preeminent architects of the Midwest.
William Le Baron Jenney. Image credit: Wikimedia
Jenney’s most famous accomplishment was demolished in 1931. According to Korom, real estate power brokers decided, ironically, that something ‘much taller and much more modern’ would better suit corporate clients and investors.
The Home Insurance Building never broke the height record. Nonetheless Jenney’s work paved the way for the establishment of the Chicago School, a group of architects and engineers who would, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, go on to develop the modern skyscraper.
Günel, Mehmet Halis, Hüseyin Emre Ilgin, Tall Buildings: Structural Systems and Aerodynamic Form
Korom, Joseph J., The American Skyscraper, 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height