The world’s first steel skyscraper

Skyscrapers are the defining feature of our major cities. From the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the Chrysler Building in New York, these memorable structures are the most postcard-worthy aspects of their cities, representing their designers and unique cultural flair.

While Hong Kong and New York might top the list for the most skyscrapers in the world, they weren’t one of the first cities to build one. That title goes to Chicago and their Home Insurance Building. Let’s find out more about it.

Forged from steel: The Home Insurance Building

The story behind the world’s first (and tallest for a time being) skyscraper came about from the Great Chicago Fire. This was a devastating fire in the city centre of Chicago, which destroyed approximately nine square kilometres, killing 300 people and leaving 100,000 residents without homes.

Following the fire, rapid economic growth placed increasing demands on the land in Chicago. This forced developers to rethink their plans, and rather than spreading out, they decided to build upwards.

With the technological advancements of the industrial revolution, particularly in metal forming and steel cutting, the construction of the Chicago Home Insurance Building – the world’s first skyscraper – was possible.

Erected in 1884, the “Father of the Skyscraper” lorded over the city with its impressive 10 storeys, peaking at just over 40 metres. Designed by William Le Baron Jenny, it was the first building of its kind to use structural steel in its frame, while the majority was composed of fire-proof cast and wrought iron. It also featured the first hydraulic lift, and with these elements combined it created a blueprint for future skyscrapers.

Legend has it that that Jenney, an engineer (who also trained with Gustave Eiffel – best known for The Eiffel Tower), first believed than an iron skeleton could have the strength to hold up a tall building after witnessing his wife place a heavy book on top of a tiny birdcage, which easily supported.

Similar buildings of that time were mainly supported by their own masonry walls. But unlike these building, the Chicago Home Insurance building wouldn’t have to get darker, thicker, stuffier or heavier to rise above the city. By using iron and steel it only weighed a third of what it would have in stone. In a 1962 Life magazine reflective piece on the origins of the Home Insurance Building states how “an aggravated critic terrified his fellows at a protest meeting by impersonating the writhings of a steel beam exposed to a sudden change of temperature”.

Despite this confusion over the impacts of steel construction, the world’s first skyscraper stood up, not just physically, but for an entire building and architectural movement. It inspired a technology-forward country who strived to create innovative tall building supported by steel.

Although the Home Insurance Building was knocked down in 1931 to make way for a new high rise, its legacy lives on.

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