home insurance building, first skyscraper
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Introduction

The Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 and located on the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets in Chicago, Illinois, went down in history as the world’s first modern skyscraper. Designed by engineer William LeBaron Jenney, the building was supported by a revolutionary steel frame, which allowed for much greater height and stability without the greater weight of traditional masonry construction. The Home Insurance Building stood until 1931, when it was demolished to make way for another skyscraper, the Field Building (now known as the LaSalle Bank Building).

Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, a boom of new construction would revitalize the city’s economy and completely transform its skyline. Instead of wood, the new buildings going up in Chicago were made largely of stone, iron and steel, a relatively new material. The Home Insurance Building, located at the corner of Adams and LaSalle Streets in the Loop, Chicago’s business district, became a leading example of this era of new construction.

In 1883, William LeBaron Jenney was appointed by the Home Insurance Company in New York to design a tall, fireproof building for their Chicago headquarters. His revolutionary design utilized an inner skeleton of vertical columns and horizontal beams made out of steel. This was in stark contrast to earlier structures, which were supported by heavy masonry walls. Steel was not only lighter than brick, but it could carry more weight. With this new method of construction, lighter masonry walls could be “hung,” a bit like curtains, from the steel frame. As a result, the walls of the building didn’t have to be as thick, and the structure could be much higher without collapsing under its own weight. Buildings with this type of frame could also have more windows, as the steel frame supported the building’s weight and the stone or brick exterior merely acted as a “skin” to protect against weather.

The Home Insurance Building was completed in 1885; it originally had 10 stories and stretched 138 feet in the air. During its construction, city authorities were so worried that the building would topple over that they halted construction for a period of time so that they could ensure its safety. In 1890, two additional floors were added at the top, bringing the total height to 180 feet (55 meters). In addition to being the first of a new generation of steel-framed skyscrapers built in cities across America and the world, the building set the standard for various other building innovations, including rapid, safe elevators, wind bracing and modern plumbing.

Jenney’s achievement paved the way for the work of a group of architects and engineers that would become known as the Chicago School; together, they would develop the modern skyscraper over the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. Several important members of this group worked at one time in Jenney’s office, including Daniel Burnham (who would go on to design New York City’s iconic Flatiron Building), John Root and Louis Sullivan. Though New York would later become known for taking skyscrapers to new heights, Chicago has retained its title as the birthplace of the skyscraper, thanks to Jenney and the rest of the Chicago School. The first of these historic buildings, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building, was demolished in 1931 to make way for the Field Building (now known as the LaSalle Bank Building).