Home Insurance Building Built

The Home Insurance Building was built in 1885 in Chicago, Illinois, USA and destroyed in 1931 to make way for the Field Building (now the LaSalle National Bank Building). It was the first building to use structural steel in its frame, but the majority of its structure was composed of cast and wrought iron. It is generally noted as the first tall building to be supported, both inside and outside, by a fireproof metal frame. Although, the Ditherington Flax Mill was built as a fireproof metal framed building earlier, it was only five stories tall.

Due to the Chicago building's unique architecture and unique weight bearing frame, it is considered to be the first skyscraper in the world. It had 10 stories and rose to a height of 138 feet (42 m). In 1890, two additional floors were built on top of the original 10-story building. A forensic analysis done during its demolition purported to show that the building was the first to carry both floors and external walls entirely on its metal frame, but details and later scholarship have arguably disproved this, and it has been asserted that the structure must have relied upon both metal and masonry elements to support its weight, and to hold it up against wind. Although the Home Insurance Building made full use of steel framing technology, in this theory it was not a pure steel-framed structure since it rested partly on granite piers at the base and on a rear brick wall.

The architect was William Le Baron Jenney, an engineer. In fact, the building weighed only one-third as much as a stone building would have; city officials were so concerned that they halted construction while they investigated its safety. The Home Insurance Building is an example of the Chicago School in architecture. The building led to the future in the skyscrapers. “In 1888, a Minneapolis architect named Leroy S. Buffington was granted a patent on the idea of building skeletal-frame tall buildings. He even proposed the construction of a 28-story "stratosphere-scraper"--a notion mocked by the architectural press of the time as impractical and ludicrous.Nevertheless, Buffington brought the potential of the iron skeletal frame to the attention of the national architectural and building communities. Architects and engineers began using the idea, which in primitive form had been around for decades.”

New Yorkers may have a hard time admitting it, but Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper. And this building is the skyscraper that started it all.

The Home Insurance Building was born out of the building frenzy that followed the Great Chicago Fire. The city, formerly made largely from wood, was being re-built in stone, iron, and a new material called steel. The building boom helped the economy flourish and structures in the city's central Loop district reached higher and higher to accommodate the demand for space.

But the problem that architects and engineers ran into was that as their buildings grew in height, they also became thicker, darker, and less attractive to prospective tenants. Taller buildings needed stronger walls. Walls were made stronger by making them thicker. That left less and less space for windows in an era before air conditioning, advanced ventilation, and anything more than basic electric lighting.

William Jenny had the solution. He wasn't a developer or an architect, but an engineer. He figured out that if you built a skeleton of iron, you could have stability, rigidity, and height without the thickness of structural stone. In fact, the frame of the building would be so strong that it could support a stone skin.

The idea was revolutionary. So much so that city inspectors halted work on the building until they were convinced that the new technique was safe. More than safe, it provided the blueprint for hundreds of thousands of skyscrapers that would follow it. The construction industry of the time saw the potential and Jenny's tower, already being built with iron, was switched to steel after the sixth floor when a Pittsburgh mill offered some of the then-exotic new material to him.

Before the Home Insurance Building went up there were other attempts to use metal to carry the load of tall buildings. But these most often relied on cast iron which was brittle and worse -- would twist and warp in the heat of a fire. Wrought iron would have helped, and was used to hold up walls in some early proto-skyscrapers, but it was Jenny's design and his use of steel that held up not only the walls, but the floors and roof of the building making the metal truly the heart of the building, and the cladding secondary.

Though there have been many claims and counter-claims over the years, the matter was put to rest by the 1896 investigation of The Engineering Record. It declared that in spite of patents and innovations in Minnesota, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom that William Jenney did in fact design and erect the world's first skyscraper.