The Skyscraper

William Jenney was born in 1832 in Massachusetts. He came from a privileged background and studied at elite institutions such as Phillips Academy and Harvard. He transferred to École Centrale Paris to study engineering and architecture.

While in Paris, he learned about the use of steel in construction. It was this knowledge that could create the defining moment in his career. A classmate in Paris was Gustave Eiffel who created the Eiffel Tower.

When William returned, he joined the Union in the Civil War and designed military structures. After the Civil War was over, he created his own architectural firm. His focus was on commercial buildings.

It was a project for the Home Insurance Company in Chicago that changed America’s urban landscape. William came home one day and surprised his wife. She laid the book she was reading on top of a bird cage. The bird cage held the heavy book. This was the inspiration for a building system. Up to this moment, buildings were constructed with masonry. The weight of the masonry limited the height of the building.

What William did was use steel beams to reduce the weight of a building allowing it to reach a higher level. The Home Insurance building was 10 stories tall and is considered the first skyscraper. The building had two additional stories added later.

William used his steel construction technique in further projects. William passed away at the age of 74. He was ranked 39 in the list of 1,000 people who shaped the millennium.

It’s hard to imagine what American cities would look like today if not for skyscraper technologies. The impact of skyscrapers has far reaching impact both good and bad.

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“Beauty or beast, the modern skyscraper is a major force with a strong magnetic field. It draws into its physical being all of the factors that propel and characterize modern civilization. The skyscraper is the point where art and the city meet.”
– Ada Louise Huxtable (Architecture journalist)


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