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The World’s First Skyscraper

The word “skyscraper” was used to describe a tall building for the first time during the construction boom that rippled across many America cities in the late 19th century. But the idea of multi-storied buildings was hardly new. In the desert city of Shibam, in Yemen, there are mudbrick residential buildings as tall as ten stories, built in the 13th century. In San Gimignano, in Italy’s Tuscany, there was once more than seventy towers, two hundred feet tall, all constructed before the 15th century.

Home Insurance Building

The Home Insurance Building built in 1885, in Chicago, is often regarded as the world’s first skyscraper. Photo credit: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Before “skyscraper” became a synonym to tall buildings, it was used to describe in jest anything that was tall, such as a tall horse or a tall man, or tall hats and bonnets, or the sail at the top of a ship's mast. Then in the later part of the 19th century, with economic prosperity and advancement in construction technology buildings began to supersede in height, and the term skyscraper was applied to these soaring steel-framed constructions.

The modern phenomenon of skyscrapers developed in America, but it might surprise you to learn that it wasn’t Manhattan where the first skyscraper went up. Rather it was in Chicago in 1885, where the first building was constructed using a skeleton of steel columns and beams rather than massive masonry walls. Designed by architect William Le Baron Jenney, the Home Insurance Building was a major technological improvement, one that dictated skyscraper construction for decades to come.


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Home Insurance Building

Until then buildings were constructed with thick load-bearing walls. In Jenney's design, the walls were thin because the load of the building was borne by the steel frame rather than the walls. This allowed buildings to be taller as well as lighter than masonry buildings of identical size and height. The Home Insurance Building weighed only one-third as much as a masonry building would have. When Jenney submitted his designs to the city council, the committee was incredulous. They even temporarily halted construction of the building, after it was permitted, in order to investigate further whether the building could really stand up on its own.

The Home Insurance Building not only did stand, it gave rise to an entirely new architectural movement called Chicago School. Buildings of this style was characterized by the use of steel-framework with masonry cladding, allowing large plate-glass window areas and limited exterior ornamentation. The movement quickly caught on in Chicago, and by 1893, less then ten years after the Home Insurance Building was completed, the city had built twelve skyscrapers between 16 and 20 stories tall, tightly clustered in the center of the financial district. These skyscrapers rapidly became tourist destinations for the views of the wider city they provided from their upper floors and as attractive sites in their own right.

While many of the buildings inspired by the Home Insurance Building still stand, the source of the inspiration itself fell to the wrecking ball in 1931, to make way for another skyscraper, the Field Building.

Home Insurance Building

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