The Rise Of The Skyscraper And The Fall Of Louis Sullivan

PrintPrintEmailEmail
The prospect of greater height was something of an artistic threat, and architects made these increasingly tall structures look like amplified short ones.

Thrilling as the prospect of increased height was to many architects, it was at the same time something of an artistic threat. Though dazzlingly tall, the New York buildings designed by Post, Hunt, and their contemporaries were essentially smaller buildings living beyond their aesthetic means. The standard approach to the architecture of these increasingly tall structures was to make them look like amplified short ones. The Tribune Building culminated in a corbeled clock tower reminiscent of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, while the Western Union—which also included a clock tower—sprouted dormers and decoration worthy of a luscious country mansion. The result was a family of misshapen buildings whose ornament might have been appropriate to a Newport “cottage” but was monstrously out of place at a greatly increased scale.

 

This dichotomy was natural enough, given the training of the architects. After all, many of them had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they had been steeped in neoclassical monuments. They were used to looking for architectural precedents, and, in their case, precedents meant Europe. There had certainly been nothing in American architectural history to provide a competing set of forms.

Mindful of the conflict between height and the European models on which they had been nurtured, many American architects dealt with the problem by embracing the organizing principle of the classical column, with its threepart division into base, shaft, and capital. Thus a building’s bottom few stories would be embellished with arches or multistory windows topped by heavy cornices, the intermediate floors would be virtually identical to one another, and the upper portion would be given a flamboyant hat of some vaguely Gothic or Renaissance sort.

The form persisted for years, and while the height of buildings increased, this aesthetic treatment remained. Although the results included some impressive objects—among them Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building (1903), which employed the base-shaft-capital formula with powerful effect on a triangular New York City site—they more often verged on the silly. New York’s Singer Building, finished in 1908 to the design of Ernest Flagg, sported a bulbous mansard top capped by a classical lantern, looking like a buxom dowager at a Paris ball, while the Metropolitan Life Tower (1909), by Napoleon LeBrun & Sons, gave passersby a taste of a Venetian campanile in such overscaled measure that it was bound to cause architectural indigestion.

 
 
 

One should not be too harsh on the early New York skyscrapers. At their best they were wonderfully romantic and entertaining, and at least one, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, achieved truly aesthetic, as well as physical, heights. This 1913 landmark, which was the tallest building in the world and was instantly dubbed the “cathedral of commerce” for its Gothic cladding, succeeded not just in its theatrical impact but in the skill with which its architect handled its massing and proportions.

The Woolworth marked the highest expression of what might be called the early picturesque skyscraper, and for that reason it has remained a classic of its kind. But its brilliance hardly put an end to efforts to outdo it in opulence and ornamental complexity. What was missing from it and virtually all its spiritual contemporaries before and after, however, was any underlying sense that height and the technology that made it possible created an opportunity for a fundamentally new form of expression, one that acknowledged the difference in kind between tall metalframed buildings and short ones held up by stone or brick. Indeed, the Woolworth in this sense is no nobler than its lesser rivals, which made every effort to conceal what they were made of and how they were supported.

Although New York was late to grasp the fact, this aesthetic impasse had long since been broken by the fire that devastated Chicago in 1871. The disaster focused attention on the one remaining problem confronting the use of metal as a structural material: fireproofing. Exposed to concentrated heat in a fire, unprotected iron would, as numerous Chicago buildings had demonstrated, buckle and eventually collapse. In the early 1870s, however, engineers successfully experimented with a number of fireproofing techniques, including the use of hollow tile for subflooring and partitions and the direct application of masonry and tile to exposed iron columns and beams.

The Chicago fire created a tremendous opportunity for the city. Most of the buildings that were destroyed had been made of wood. As soon as builders came up with new techniques to use fireproofed iron and steel in place of wood and masonry in a building’s structure, owners and architects alike turned to new materials with more than simply technical enthusiasm.