I like to believe that the very first person who used the word skyscraper was doing so because he was impressed by the height of one of these new tall buildings, and exclaimed something like “whoa, that’s a … skyscraper!” while looking up in a state of amazement. Whatever building this person was looking at, that ought to be considered the first skyscraper. Alas, we’ll never know which building that was.
Most likely there was not one building around that time that stood out as the skyscraper, but that a group of buildings that were taller then anything else in the city were generally being referred to as skyscrapers. That hasn’t stopped people from trying to single out one building as the first skyscraper.
In an 1909 article titled The Evolution of the Skyscraper New York journalist and architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler proposed several candidates for the title of the first skyscraper:
The Equitable Building in New York (1870) was the first office building where a passenger elevator was an original feature of the design.
The Tribune Building and the Western Union Building in New York (1875) for being the first buildings to use elevators and the first to show the number of stories of the building on the exterior.
The Home Insurance Building in Chicago (1885) for being the first building to have a load-bearing steel frame embedded in the masonry.
These choices listed above are all based on a technical advancement, most notability the invention of the safe passenger elevator and the steel frame design. Especially the Home Insurance Building keeps on popping up on the Internet when you search for “first skyscraper” and as such, this one being the first skyscraper has become something of a consensus. This leans heavily on the idea that steel frame construction made skyscrapers possible.
According to the architect of the building himself, William Le Baron Jenny, steel frame construction was not a revolutionary technology or sudden invention, but rather a gradual evolution form old forms of construction. Later research also suggests that the structure must have relied upon both metal and masonry elements to support its weight, and to hold it up against wind.
Aided by the rapid growth of the city, and a flourishing architecture industry in its wake, this was a time in which several existing technologies were advancing that together allowed for buildings to grow taller. When deciding on the first skyscrapers by technological advancement, others tall building related technologies should be considered as well, such as adequate plumbing, heating and lighting systems, fireproof construction, reinforced concrete structural design, and especially wind bracing design, which is an essential structural design consideration for tall buildings.
Looking back, there are a number of buildings that represent one of these technological advancements. New York’s Haughwout Building (1857) for example was the first commercial building to employ a passenger elevator. The Cooper Union Building in New York (1858), had an elevator and used steel beams in it structure. Ditherington Flax Mill (1797), a five-story Flax mill located in Ditherington, Shrewsbury, England, is the oldest iron framed building in the world, and as such, some Brits consider it as the granddaddy of the skyscraper.
There is not one skyscraper that incorporates all, or a number of new technological advancements for the first time. The buildings that were amongst the first that did use one of these just don’t like skyscrapers. Especially the Equitable Building looks like it didn’t even wanted to. It contained seven stories but in its external design showed no more than four. Some floors are hidden in the roof.
An issue with considering technological advancements in general is that these advancements are invisible to the public eye and as such didn’t produces that wow-effect when seeing it.
Perhaps the most straightforward gripe against the Home Insurance Building being the first skyscraper is that people were already referring to the tallest buildings as skyscrapers before this building was erected.
Before the steel frame and the usable elevator, six stories was considered the maximum height for practical and safety reasons. Before the 1880’s, a number of buildings went up taller than that anyway. This is where it starts to get interesting, as skyscrapers are often explained through commercial, social, economical and technological reasons, which as a driver for skyscrapers weren’t as strong in the mid 19th century as they would be 25 years on.
Also, since the word skyscraper doesn’t embody any technological terms, but related to the imaginary scraping of the sky, emotional arguments for height ought to be considered as well.
In the book The American Skyscraper, author Joseph Korom singles out the Jayne Building (1850) in Philadelphia as the first building that wanted to be tall.
Unfortunately it’s impossible to trace why early skyscraper commissioners wanted their buildings to be as tall as they were. Therefor it’s hard to say if the 1880’s buildings that triggered the skyscraper race needed to be that tall because the height was wholly dictated by rational reasons, or if a bit of oomph was added for cheer emotional reasons as well. Was it just a matter of required floor space given the plot size which added up to this, or were a few extra floors added just to show what a new technique was capable of?
The Jayne Building however, was definitely taller than it needed to be given the time and place it was built. The observation tower added on top of the buildings shows that height was an appreciated feature. This puts the Jayne Building in the same category of buildings in which pretty much every supertall building in the world is in today. It must have provoked a “wow” standing in front of it, and it sure must have triggered a wow-moment when standing on the top floor. Or as Korom calls it; it celebrates height. Just like today’s tallest skyscrapers.