The Home Insurance Building in Chicago

Photo of The Home Insurance Building in Chicago, Illinois
Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

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The Home Insurance Building

Adams and LaSalle, Chicago, Illinois, The Loop 60603
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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.

Quick Facts
Timeline
  • 1880: A Minneapolis man named Leroy Buffington comes up with a design for the world's first skyscraper, but no one will give him the money to build his 28-story dream.
  • Autumn, 1883: William Jenney wins a contest held by the Home Insurance Company in New York for a new building in Chicago.
  • Spring, 1884: Construction begins.
  • Autumn, 1885: Construction of the Home Insurance Company building is completed. 1888: Leroy Buffington is awarded a patent for the skyscraper, even though the Home Insurance Building and other skyscrapers have already been built.
  • 1890: Two stories are added to the top of this building.
  • 1931: This building is torn down.
Notes
  • This building was originally ten stories and 138 feet tall. It was later expanded to 12 stories and 180 feet.
  • In addition to height, one of the big advantages of using a metal skeleton in this building was that it make it fire resistant, an important attribute when your client is an insurance company.
  • This building was located on the northeast corner of LaSalle Street and Adams Street.
  • This building had iron columns clad in masonry as part of its exterior. While some believe this is evidence that the Home Insurance Building was not truly a metal cage skyscraper, those columns were covered in stone only for fireproofing.
  • After this building was erected, it would be four years before New York got its first skyscraper, the Tacoma Building on lower Broadway, built in 1889 and demolished in 1914. By then Chicago had at least five skyscrapers.
Stacking Diagram
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Did You Know?
  • One of Jenney's classmates at l'École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris was Gustave Eiffel who went on to build the Eiffel Tower.
Controversy
  • Some pendants believe there is a significant difference between a metal skeleton building and a metal cage building. To drive this point home a bronze plaque was placed in New York's Tower Building in 1899 reading "This tablet placed in 1899 by the Society of Architectural Iron Manufacturers of New York commemorates the erection during 1888-9 in this The Tower Building the earliest example of the skeleton construction / The entire weight of the walls and floors is borne and transmitted to the foundation by a framework of metallic posts and beams" The bone of contention here is the fact that the Tower Building used rivets to attach the wall to the skeleton while parts of the Chicago building were not attached because it was known the building would shift as it settled.
Quotations
    "Chicago was the real cradle of the skyscraper in actual practice. New York soon took the lead, however, for the simple reason that there was greater need there for the concentration of population which the skyscraper afforded."

    -New York Times, March 18, 1928

Related Links
    135 South LaSalle, which replaced the Home Insurance Building after it was demolished in 1931.
Forum Discussions Talk about this building with other architecture enthusiasts
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There are two comments.

  Umm... Brent? It wasn't actually "fire-proofed" nor was it entirely made out of steel. The frame was PARTIALLY steel and America being how it is (was)... a win is a win. I will, however, agree that it was an absolute beauty.

Sarah - Wednesday, November 13th, 2013 @ 8:27pm  

  Just think, this was the world's first fire-proofed steel framed skyscraper. Such a height for a building at the time. Wish it was still standing, but another taller building just as neat looking stands there now, which is the Field Building.

Brent Kampert - Wednesday, December 10th, 2008 @ 7:32pm  

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