The Rise Of The Skyscraper And The Fall Of Louis Sullivan

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If a single building type can—and should—be identified with twentieth-century American architecture, it is the skyscraper. Tall buildings were the stuff of the stories told by the legions of European immigrants whose first glimpse of America was the southern tip of Manhattan Island, bristling with its towers. They remain a symbol of American corporate power. They are the way Americans describe how high Superman can leap in a single bound.

 

If a single building type can—and should—be identified with twentieth-century American architecture, it is the skyscraper. Tall buildings were the stuff of the stories told by the legions of European immigrants whose first glimpse of America was the southern tip of Manhattan Island, bristling with its towers. They remain a symbol of American corporate power. They are the way Americans describe how high Superman can leap in a single bound.

In an article for Lippincott’s Magazine written in 1896, entitled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Louis Sullivan, the most influential architect of his day, issued a challenge that would resonate through architectural history from that moment on. The tall office building, Sullivan declared, “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line—that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.”

 

Like so many great architects before and after him, Sullivan was an energetic—if not always grammatical or especially coherent—writer, and he rejoiced in his own verbiage. But in this passage he seized with remarkable accuracy on not only the central architectural fact of his time but also its spirit. The emergence of the tall building as an architectural type was an unprecedented opportunity, yet it was also somewhat frightening. Indeed, it was to sweep before it the very definition of the word architecture and establish the unchallenged power of American design for at least a century. It would also leave Sullivan—a massively talented but no less troubled artist—a broken and dispirited man.

Of course, height had been an obsession with architects long before Sullivan’s time. But only with the coming of iron and steel as strucktural materials in the early nineteenth century were designers able to escape the inherent limitations of masonry and brick. As a rule of thumb for the architects of those days, a one-story masonry building required a twelve-inch-thick wall, and the thickness at the base had to increase by four inches for each additional floor. Thus a stone building of twenty stories would have to start out with walls more than seven feet thick.

Thanks to the pursuit of metal technology—especially by bridge builders like John and Washington Roebling—the impulse to go ever higher could be indulged almost without limit, at least in theory. Metal beams could span great distances and could support increased loads with a minimum of bulk. Metal members could free the building’s skin from its support role, permitting much larger windows as well as much greater and more flexible interior spaces to meet the growing demand for offices and factories.

 

In fact, however, a serious obstacle remained to the exploitation of metal technology in building. Generally speaking, five flights of stairs were all most people could be expected to climb. That changed with the introduction of the passenger elevator. In 1857 the first practical one was installed in the Haughwout store on lower Broadway in New York. At a stroke the tall building was flung open to those who were not alpinists. The first office building to employ the new device—the 1870 Equitable Life Assurance Building, also in Manhattan—remained at the traditional limit of five stories, but driven by rising real estate prices, architects and engineers soon began to investigate the larger potential of the elevator. Prominent among those architects was Richard Morris Hunt, who had already ministered with great vigor and skill to the residential fantasies of the rich and proved no less willing to embrace an office tower. His Tribune Building (1875), facing New York’s City Hall Park, rose to a dizzying nine stories, and George Post’s nearby Western Union Building (also 1875) outdid that at an even ten.