Posted by on Feb 12, 2013 in Origins | No Comments

Generally it is safe to say skyscraper first came into use during the 1880s, which means that the buildings that were the inspiration for the name have been developed and built in the early 1880’s. This was a time the first 10 to 20-story buildings were built in the United States. Mostly these buildings sprung up in New York and Chicago, all office buildings. Even though that both New York and Chicago were showing spectacular populations growth around this time, tall residential buildings were apparently not considered at the time.

As we have reasoned previously the latter one claims bragging rights when it comes to coining the skyscraper. In the book The Development of Chicago Building Construction (1949) author Frank Randall repeatedly singles out the Montauk Building (1882, first image in the gallery below) as the first building that was being called a skyscraper, although other then pointing out that this was the first building in Chicago that broke the 10-story threshold, it is not clear what this name claim is based on.

A look at the tallest buildings in Chicago during the 1880’s shows what were the first buildings that were being called skyscrapers.


A first glance at these buildings notices that weren’t explicitly vertical. Architecturally they possess quite strong horizontal elements. This combined gives them an overall square box mass designed in what is now referred to as the commercial style of the “First Chicago School of Architecture”. But what these images don’t show however is that these buildings were not just bigger than surrounding buildings at the time, but also represented a sudden jump of the height of the buildings.

Jump Start

The destroyed city center as a result of the Great Fire in 1871 not only created physical space for new developments, but a lack of an existing context offered fertile ground for a new one, allowing a whole generation of Chicago architects to thrive in its wake. Add a growing awareness that the city was rapidly becoming the capital of the Midwest into the mix, along with an unprecedented real estate boom peaking in 1890, and what you have are all the main spatial and economical ingredients for skyscrapers.

This context served as a pressure cooker that cooked up buildings that suddenly were ten to 16 stories tall, where previously buildings had only been up to six stories tall. The sudden rise in building height, instead of a more gradual growth, made people aware that there was a new kind of building in town. As such, these buildings might very well have triggered the wow-effect that caused the coining of the word. The new city, and a whole country in its wake, just had found a new way to shape and express itself.


After the word was coined, the skyscraper never looked back, nor down. Once emerged, the skyscraper rapidly went on reaching unprecedented heights and sizes, and as such changed the cityscapes of American cities forever. Being big and visible, the skyscraper represented the rise of the young country during the 20th, aka, the American Century, in which corporate power, individual success and united ambitions found a visible place in the American cityscape. Everything was newer, better, bigger and ergo, taller then ever seen before, especially in Europe, and it showed.

By being the first to name this kind of tall building, the United States could claim it for being a native product and the embodiment of the American spirit, and it enthusiastically built them to express itself as such. Americans created the architectural styles best suited for skyscrapers, and developed the technology that allowed skyscrapers to grow taller and taller. The skyscraper became, and still is, the most distinctively American thing in the world.