World’s First Skyscraper Is Built Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Chicago architect William Jenney built the world’s first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, utilizing new steel-frame technology and aesthetic innovations that would inspire a generation of architects and forever change the design of urban buildings.

Summary of Event

After the Great Fire that nearly destroyed Chicago in 1871, Chicago Fire (1871) the city began to rebuild with an eye toward the future. A growing population, the scarcity of space in the city’s central area, and the dramatic increase in the cost of land suggested that city planners consider taller buildings, but buildings rising beyond five or six stories faced considerable obstacles. Water pressure could not provide running water beyond about four floors, and using stairs made offices on the higher floors unpopular with customers and difficult to rent. Architecture;skyscrapers Skyscrapers Chicago;architecture Jenney, William Le Baron Sullivan, Louis [kw]World’s First Skyscraper Is Built (1883-1885) [kw]First Skyscraper Is Built, World’s (1883-1885) [kw]Skyscraper Is Built, World’s First (1883-1885) [kw]Built, World’s First Skyscraper Is (1883-1885) Architecture;skyscrapers Skyscrapers Chicago;architecture Jenney, William Le Baron Sullivan, Louis [g]United States;1883-1885: World’s First Skyscraper Is Built[5270] [c]Architecture;1883-1885: World’s First Skyscraper Is Built[5270] [c]Engineering;1883-1885: World’s First Skyscraper Is Built[5270] [c]Science and technology;1883-1885: World’s First Skyscraper Is Built[5270] Bessemer, Sir Henry Adler, Dankmar Burnham, Daniel Hudson Root, John Wellborn

The most formidable obstacle to building tall, however, was structural. At the time, a building’s exterior walls bore the weight of the entire structure, so as buildings grew taller, their exterior walls needed to be thicker, and the resulting heavier walls brought design limitations of their own.

By 1881, one of the city’s most revered architects, William Le Baron Jenney, discovered that a thin frame of steel could support a tall building as effectively as thick exterior walls. Twenty-five years earlier, Sir Henry Bessemer Bessemer, Sir Henry had invented a process for mass-producing steel by blowing air through molten pig iron to remove carbon, dramatically reducing the cost of steel. Jenney designed a metal skeleton of vertical columns and horizontal beams that allowed him to use the exterior wall merely as a decorative and protective cover for the building rather than as its load bearer. Because the steel skeleton supported the weight of the entire structure, Jenney was able to design a facade that contained more windows than any previous building. The innovative design frightened city officials, who grew so concerned that they halted construction, which began in 1883, to investigate the building’s safety. When completed in 1885, the Home Insurance Building, as it came to be known, rose to a height of ten stories—138 feet—and would be considered the world’s first skyscraper.

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building.

Across town, a young architect named Louis Sullivan was working on the problem of how a skyscraper should look. Most of the architecture of the time reflected a Gothic Revival style, but Sullivan, an unusually innovative designer, was developing a model by which buildings would not only rise far above ground level but also support his highly original terra-cotta and cast iron ornamentation. His solution to the design problem was to envision the building not horizontally as a series of floors, but vertically, emphasizing the rise of each floor, similar to a classical Ionic or Corinthian column—with a distinct base, shaft, and ornate capital.

Typically, Sullivan’s buildings consisted of a two-story base supporting a shaft of large windows topped by a decorative terra-cotta cornice as its capital. The extensive use of glass to replace exterior walls eventually led to the development of a window with a large fixed-glass panel flanked on each side by a double-hung operable sash, a design that came to be called a “Chicago window.”

Many of the most ambitious and aesthetically innovative building projects of the period were designed by either Sullivan or his partner, Dankmar Adler Adler, Dankmar . The Auditorium Building, constructed in 1889, was Chicago’s tallest, largest, and heaviest building at the time, enclosing 63,500 square feet and weighing well over 100,000 tons. It was also the most technologically advanced building of its time, encompassing a hotel, office space, retail stores, and a state-of-the-art theater with a hydraulically operated stage, air conditioning, and acoustics that were considered nearly perfect.

The Transportation Building, constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, was 960 feet long and had an enormous entryway called the Golden Door, consisting of a series of arches decorated with gold leaf ornamentation. The Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York, designed in 1895 by Sullivan, is acknowledged as one of the era’s most beautiful and ornate designs and a masterpiece of the Chicago School of Architecture, as is the Carson, Pirie, Scott Building, a Chicago department store designed by Sullivan in two phases between 1899 and 1903.

The most architecturally advanced of the early skyscrapers was the Reliance Building, designed by Daniel Hudson Burnham Burnham, Daniel Hudson in 1895. Burnham and his business partner, John Wellborn Root, designed so many of the decade’s most impressive buildings that Burnham and Root came to rival Adler Adler, Dankmar and Sullivan as Chicago’s premier architectural firm. In his design for the Reliance Building, Burnham eliminated all of the support functions of the exterior wall, creating a white terra-cotta facade that weaves in and out along all four sides and incorporates a creative and attractive variation on the Chicago window. Most critics consider it the masterpiece of the Chicago school’s office buildings. Even more aesthetically creative was the Flatiron Building, New York City’s first steel-frame skyscraper, built in 1902 in a triangular shape resembling the irons used at the time to press creases from clothing.


With the wide availability of inexpensive steel, the “Chicago skeleton” became the urban architectural model for years to come, and by the turn of the twentieth century, all the developments necessary for skyscrapers to move to forty stories and beyond, including central heating, elevators Elevators , and pressurized plumbing, had been invented.

Just five years after the construction of the Home Insurance Building, Burnham Burnham, Daniel Hudson and Root built Chicago’s last high-rise to have load-bearing walls—the Monadnock Building. It rose to a height of sixteen stories but was entirely supported by conventional load-bearing walls, built six-feet thick at the base. Within a generation, skyscrapers were appearing around the world and had grown to heights unimaginable just a few decades earlier.

The New York World New York World Building followed five years after the Home Insurance Building and doubled its height. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Manhattan had more than twenty buildings exceeding fifteen stories. By 1910, a mere twenty-five years after Jenney’s first skyscraper, the Woolworth Building in New York, designed by Cass Gilbert in the Gothic Revival style, had reached more than 700 feet into the sky and was considered one of the world’s great works of art. The Home Insurance Building was itself demolished in 1931 to make room for an even larger structure.

The aesthetic innovations that the new steel skeletons permitted came to represent the ideal in sophisticated architectural art. Replicas of Sullivan’s terra-cotta designs were mass produced and used to decorate buildings throughout small-town America, as well as being widely copied by other architects, and the Chicago window was used in buildings across America until the 1960’s, when the widespread use of air-conditioning eliminated the need to open windows.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, George H. Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. A readable history of the skyscraper’s influence on urban life, with an emphasis on the dynamics of their construction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, Leslie A. Chicago Skyscrapers. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia, 2004. A photographic history of Chicago’s early (1880’s-1930’s) skyscrapers through the use of two hundred vintage picture postcards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lepik, Andres. Skyscrapers. New York: Prestel, 2004. A brief historical look at fifty of the world’s most important skyscrapers. Beautifully photographed, this work includes photos of several early skyscrapers, beginning with the Reliance Building in Chicago.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moudry, Roberta. The American Skyscraper: Cultural Histories. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. An examination of the skyscraper as a social, political, and architectural influence on cities, especially Chicago and New York, where the first skyscrapers were built.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Matthew. Skyscrapers: Structure and Design. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. An engaging work by a structural engineer outlining the architectural principles behind the construction of skyscrapers, including environmental challenges such as high wind and earthquakes.

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Categories: History