Gerald Larson
Professor Emeritus of Architecture
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati

Winston Weisman’s 1953 proposition was that the Equitable Building in New York of 1867 was the first skyscraper. This was because it was the first building designed to exploit the elevator by making its floor heights taller than convention, because stairs were no longer needed. This resulted in a building that towered above its neighbors, due to this extra height. If one cannot accept a seven-storied skyscraper as a “first”, but arbitrarily requires a minimum of 10 floors, there were many such buildings constructed in New York and Chicago prior to Jenney’s commission to design the Home Insurance Building in 1884. In Chicago, this type of building was referred to as a “skyscraper” in an 1884 article that identified three skyscrapers that were taller, and completed before his commission.

However, if we accept the definition requiring the use of iron-skeleton framing, the Home Insurance Building does not qualify as a skyscraper, because, while its interior structure consisted of iron skeleton-framing, its exterior structural system was a polyglot of masonry bearing walls and iron-reinforced masonry piers and lintels. The two party walls, and even the first two stories of the street elevations, were also load-bearing masonry. Only the piers in floors 3-10 of the street elevations contained iron sections, while the spandrels in these stories consisted of masonry walls sitting on shallow, segmental iron pans. Further evidence, stemming from Jenney’s own details, reveals that he had no intention of creating a “skeleton frame” in the two street fronts.