Progenitor of Towers: William Le Baron Jenney and the Skyscraper

The skyline Jenney made possible: Chicago Skyline at Sunrise, by Daniel Schwen. 18 April 2009

Chicago is a city of (architectural) firsts, a city where architecture is a fount of civic pride, where it is, indeed, a spectator sport.1 We’ve got the first of the tall(est) skyscrapers designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang’s spectacular, undulating Aqua;2 we’ll soon have the second, in Gang’s building-to-come, Vista Tower.3 (I can’t even tell you how excited I am. The tallest building conceived and designed by a woman, right here in Chicago!) Before we could get to the tallest building in the world designed by a woman (a title which will, no doubt, constantly shift in the years to come, as more women climb higher in the field), somebody had to invent the skyscraper.

We don’t have Vista yet, so here’s Aqua! Photo by George Showman. From Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr.

A lot of pieces had to come together for that invention. First of all, we needed to accidentally burn a city down, because there is, quite literally, nothing like it for inspiring all sorts of architectural brilliance (and contortions). Further, we had to burn it down so we realized that it would burn down, and we could have an architect learn how to build fire-proof buildings, which gets ever more important the higher up they go.4 We had to have an economic crash, of course–what would America be without those?–that would drive people to “look to Chicago as their hope,” since we had burned ourselves down and were busily rising from our own ashes–and then we had to have housing for those folks who came to join us, and rebuild with us.We absolutely, positively had to have elevators, because who in the world wants to climb eight or ten or twelve or ninety flights of stairs? It’s more than just this, however: elevators are, in fact, one of the four essential skyscraper criteria:6

  1. Height (this varies, sometimes a lot, by source–we’ll just go with really tall)7
  2. Metal skeleton frame
  3. Vertical transit (aka elevators)
  4. Fireproof.

And, voilà. If it’s missing any one of these, it isn’t actually a skyscraper.

The Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871. Wikimedia Commons.

Okay, so we’ve got our criteria. We’ve burned down a city, leaving thousands of folks homeless (and destitute), and hundreds dead. We’re industrious, because that is kind of our thing, and so we’re already busily rebuilding–the hell with a fire, time to raise a second city, better than the first! And we’ve got tons of people coming our way, since we’re rebuilding and we must have jobs. This is clearly great, but we’ve gotta put people somewhere, hence extra apartment buildings. We’re building up, since we kinda need space–though it should be noted that we are immensely lucky: our lots are bigger by far than New York City’s, giving our skyline an entirely different vibe, and enabling all our atmospheric alleys.

Jenney, severely cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

The hero of this particular story–the first guy to build the first real skyscraper, the progenitor, as it were, of Gang’s Aqua and her Vista–is one William Le Baron Jenney, from back in the day when one had a two-word middle name just cuz. Jenney was kind of our hero (or at least one of them–we all adored Goldberg for standing up to nasty old Meis van der Rohe, and Wight for coming up with fireproofing, and a hundred others), back in architecture history. He paved the way, making it possible for us to go up, and up, and up again.

Garfield Park, 2013. By Wikipedian peterson.jon. Wikimedia Commons.

Jenney’s a pretty cool guy, actually. He wasn’t just the progenitor of skyscrapers, though one may think that is quite enough for the average mortal to take as an epitaph; instead, he was also a landscape architect, one who learned his trade at school (École Centrale  des Arts et Manufacutres, today known as the École Central de Paris) and honed it in the bloody, brutal battlefields of the American Civil War. He apparently thought our good Chicago prairie sucked (so does my mother; obviously I beg to disagree), but nonetheless created the original designs for the West Parks.9 (Unfortunately, the designs weren’t completely followed–there are always budget crises in Chicago.10) Jenney didn’t design in a vacuum: he appealed to, and got advice from, Fredrick Law Olmsted, the greatest contemporary (at the time) American  landscape architect.11

The Home Insurance Building, sometime after 1884. Photo by the Chicago Architectural Photography Company. Wikimedia Commons.

But, as nice as Central Park (aka Garfield Park, because we are NOT New York, just fyi) is, there’s a reason Jenney is the skyscraper guy. It’s a bittersweet title: we’ve torn down so many of his buildings, destroying our legacy faster even than it goes up. Jenney’s first real skyscraper (well, okay, it wasn’t very tall by today’s standards–merely a highrise, according to Emporis) was the Home Insurance Building, which once stood “at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams” and was not only the first building to meet all our criteria but was, indeed, the first to be called a skyscraper, anywhere.12 It has, as my notes remind me, a metal skeleton; a terracotta exoskeleton, making it fireproof; (at the time) fabulous height, rising 10 and soon after 12 stories; and vertical transit–all coming together to form the world’s first skyscraper. Nearly everything, from the elevators to the metal skeleton, was new technology. It was a brave new building for a city rising from its own ashes…and we tore it down in 1931.

Leiter I Building, 1963. (Demolished 1972.) Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey, by Cervin Robinson. Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously I have strong feelings about historic preservation. However, as exciting as the Home Insurance Building was, it fell between historic cracks, with elements of load-bearing walls as well as an iron skeleton. Indeed, he would build skyscrapers later that would fall more truly into the iron-skeletoned buildings of the future, helping to forge what we all know today as the Chicago School of Architecture. (It’s the best and only school of architecture, clearly.)

Leiter II Building, by Zol87Wikimedia Commons.

The Second Leiter Building marks what Gerald Larson calls “the beginning of the true high point of Jenney’s practice,” an era in which Jenney, fully at the helm of his architecture firm, was both constructing a lot of buildings and innovating with each one.13 The Chicago School, in which form always follows function, was born, and reaching higher with each day. One simple example of Jenney’s evolution as an architect lies in the buildings above, Leiters I and II. Leiter I is almost a skyscraper…but not quite. It had, amazingly, wooden floors, and, as my notes tell me, was “only half fireproofed,” and thus “only three and a half parts skyscraper.”14 While you can’t visit the wood-floored Leiter I, Leiter II is still there, a part of Robert Morris College. It’s all the way fireproof, state of the art nineteenth-century technology which influences us to this day. (I resent the absence of Leiter I, but that is another issue, for another day.)

Ludington Building, 2007. Photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My KenWikimedia Commons.

A number of Jenney’s surviving buildings are now, perhaps appropriately, home to colleges and universities, many of them fundamentally arts-focused. (I have no idea what a guy who is sometimes considered more engineer than architect would think of this, but I guess I don’t particularly care.) The Ludington Building, above, is now one of a multitude of buildings which comprise Columbia College Chicago. Unlike so many of Jenney’s Chicago buildings, the Ludington has had pretty good luck in surviving, perhaps because the original family owned it until the ’60s. Columbia College is, rightfully, very proud of the building. I could point out a lot of things I like about it, and a lot of revolutionary things–it’s all terracotta wrapped! it’s beautiful! look at the atmospheric fire escapes! look at those amazing Chicago School windows!–but I feel like it can rather well speak for itself.

39 South LaSalle (aka New York Life Insurance Buliding–he had a thing for insurance I guess). photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My Ken, and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The building above is another tenacious survivor. The New York Life Insurance Building was, at the time of its construction, super-duper techy and new-fangled, the first of its kind entirely “supported by an internal skeleton of metal” in place of those thick load-bearing walls of the past. It, like so many others, has come in danger of the wrecking ball, but, for now, it’s safe: following a well-reviewed renovation, bringing out the inherent beauty of the structure itself, it is now the Gray Hotel. You, too, can go for a drink in an old Jenney building, and look at the structure while you do. (If you have the moolah you can also go for a stay in the hotel.)

The Manhattan Building, on the corner. 2006 photo by JeremyAWikimedia Commons.

Both City of the Century and The Great Builders point to the building in the photo above, the Manhattan, at the corner of Congress and Dearborn, as Jenney’s definitive crowning glory, the moment all the pieces he’d been putting into place came resoundingly together.15 I will confess that the evidently revolutionary Manhattan Building has been a part of the backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember–there used to be instrument shops in one of the buildings next to it, and it’s quite near the Harold Washington Library. Like many of the old Chicago School buildings, it holds its age elegantly, and continues to serve its public, a gracious, light-filled old highrise that once was a skyscraper.

Manhattan Building. 2010 photo by J. CrockerWikimedia Commons.

Now, some folks dispute Jenney’s honorable stance as the father of the (American) skyscraper. They offer his glory to other people, even other cities.16 Sullivan, the ornamentation half of Adler & Sullivan, claimed that Jenney wasn’t an architect at all, but rather an engineer,17 which has always seemed to me a singularly unpleasant–and indeed flagrantly inaccurate–assessment of Jenney’s skill. (Donald Miller, in City of the Century, argues that Jenney was “one of the outstanding innovators in the history of building technology,” a man who believed beauty flowed through the structure itself–which seems to me an excellent judgement of Jenney’s importance to modern architecture.) Maybe Sullivan was jealous? He was not, after all, half the engineer that either Jenney or his partner Dankmar Adler were. The guy was indeed an engineer, as many a good architect is; he was also an architect. One can, after all, be both.

19 South LaSalle. 2012 photo by TonyTheTigerWikimedia Commons.

But Jenney was more than simply a brilliant engineer and architect, or even a founding father of the Chicago School of Architecture. Instead, he mentored the great architects of Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, the future Holabird & Roche, and the evidently ungrateful Louis Sullivan.18 He partook of the culture of Chicago, from high culture to pop culture and encouraged others to do the same,19 a decision which, I do not doubt, better enabled him–and the architects of the Chicago School–to design for their city’s unique needs. As Miller20 tells us, none other than the great Daniel Burnham laid credit for those great feats of fireproofed engineering and art at Jenney’s feet. Jenney’s mentorship of the great Chicago School architects makes him well and truly the progenitor of towers, for they went on to build the great skyscrapers that would enable ever taller, grander skyscrapers.

Without William Le Baron Jenney and the men he mentored, our skyline would be a whole lot different. Who knows? Without him, we might never have reached Aqua, or Vista. And so, today, on the anniversary of Jenney’s birth, let us celebrate his mastery by enjoying our skyline–and by working towards preservation of our historic architecture, our great gift to the world.

Horticultural Building

Jenney’s long-gone Horticultural Building, at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Image from the Field Museum’s archival collection. Housed on Flickr.

1 Who says this? Well, lots of people say it! Blair Kamin, our Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, is the one who comes first to mindCraine’s Chicago Business says it; and so does The Unofficial Guide to Chicago. It is, in short, a part of the fabric of our communal civic soul.
2 When it was built, Aqua was the tallest skyscraper designed by a woman. It is discussed in The Guardian and The New Yorker, among others.
3 Vista Tower is currently in the construction phase. It is exciting in a hundred and one ways, about which I will write later; in the meantime, the following articles are excellent sources of information about the project (and how exciting it is):

It’s also worth noting that 1 World Trade Center’s technical director is a woman.

4 That architect was a guy named Peter Bonnett Wight, about whom we learned lots in “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture” (Spring 2009) and “Origins of Modern Architecture” (Fall 2008), both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both taught by the excellent Tim Wittman. The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago have Wight’s archive, for those interested.
5 This sounds wild, but it 100% happened.
6 This list is drawn from my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” and “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture.”
7 So, there is a surprisingly non-standardized definition of this whole height thing out there, which is why I’ve gone with “really tall,” which, obviously, is essentially meaningless. I have several written down, but they aren’t really all that tall; I’d say they fit early skyscraper definitions, but not modern ones. Emporis, which is apparently an architectural data mining firm, says a skyscraper must be “at least 100 meters,” so if you want a number, go with that.
8 According to my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” on 26 November 2008, the average Manhattan lot is only 20×80, while in Chicago it’s 25×125. (My professor said the Dutch didn’t know how to handle space, but the Brits and the Germans, who were settling Chicago, did. This may even have some truth to it.) This not only facilitates our skyline and our alleys but, thanks to said alleys, offers light from the back as well as the front.
9 Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure-Grounds,” 58-60.
10 The Chicago Park District, The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks: West Side Park System: 1869-1900.
11 Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 62-65.
12 See this excerpt from Verbivore’s Feast.
13 Gerald R. Larson, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 138-140.
14 “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture,” Tim Wittman, 23 March 2009.
15 Larson, 138-139; Miller, 335.
16 In City of the Century, Donald Miller argues that the glory probably does belong, in large part, with Jenney, who synthesized and mentored the skyscraper into being (341-347). Larson isn’t so sure (136-138). I’m going with Miller and with my architecture history notes (Tim Wittman, 2008-09); this may be largely chauvinistic pride in my city, but I’m sticking with it.
17 Miller 336; Weingardt, 61.
18 Miller, 336, 342-346; Pacyga, 132-133.
19 Miller, 336.
20 Miller, 344.


Bibliography and More Reading

Haden, Erik. “William Le Baron Jenney.” Article available via the Wayback Machine.

Larson, Gerald R. “William Le Baron Jenney: Developed Chicago’s Distrinctive Skyscrapers, 1832-1907.” In The Great Builders, ed. Kenneth Powell. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Leiter I Building, from Historic American Buildings Survey.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. 1996. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Plan of Chicago: A Regional Legacy. Available as a pdf.

Powell, Kenneth, editor. The Great Builders. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure Grounds.” In Midwest Landscape Architecture, ed. William H. Tishler, 57-79. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Tischler, William H., editor. Midwest Landscape Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Weingardt, Richard G. “William Le Baron Jenney and Tung-Yen Lin.” Leadership and Management in Engineering 3(1) (2003): 61-63. pdf.

Advertisements