The word skyscraper has been around long before the super-tall towers crowded the skylines of New York, Chicago or San Francisco. In the late 18th century, anything that stood out in size could be called a skyscraper, be it a particularly high horse or a very tall bonnet.
The skyscraper as we know it is much more recent phenomenon. The definition of the word is a bit more murky, but we’re siding with the camp that insists a tall tower is not a skyscraper unless it is at least partially held up by steel or iron.
In the 19th century, the reliance on wood as a building material became increasingly dangerous as the close confines of city life meant fires could wipe out blocks and blocks of buildings as they did in New York City in 1845 and Chicago in 1871. Stone and brick was better at standing up to flames, but architects who wanted to build higher had to rely on masonry to support the structure. And the more stories you added to a site, the thicker the walls and the darker the rooms would be, making for cramped and poorly lit quarters.
As the Industrial Revolution ushered in new ways of mass-producing steel and iron cheaply, architects and engineers turned to the metals to help support taller structures.
The first skyscraper in the US, built in Chicago in 1885, was ten stories tall. But the building trend caught on quickly and cities began to grow vertically across the country well into the early 20th century.
Though it wasn’t long before these early skyscrapers were dwarfed by new upstarts, it’s worth looking at some of the first examples of these structures. A number of them had concerned citizens clutching their pearls while others became immediate tourist sights. Take a look at the insurance buildings, office towers and newspaper headquarters that made up the first examples of skyscrapers across 15 major US metros, ordered by the year of completion:
Name of building: Home Insurance Building
Date completed: 1885
Location: 30 N LaSalle Street (current site of Field Building)
Details: William Le Baron Jenney, an engineer, designed what many believe to be the world’s first skyscraper. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city’s business district, concerns spread over wooden buildings and many city leaders and architects championed other materials such as stone, which proved heavy and dark the taller you built. The Home Insurance Building was constructed with the support of a fireproof metal frame on both its inside and outside, making it about a third of the weight of a stone structure of the same height. The outer columns of the building were covered in stone.
When it was first completed, the structure stood 10 stories tall with a total height of 138 feet or 42 meters. In 1890, two more floors were added to the building, bringing the height up to 180 feet or 54.9 meters. The design ushered in its very own type of architecture, the Chicago School, which can bee seen among the many of the modern skyscrapers seen in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Status: The building was demolished to make room for a taller structure in 1931.
Name: Sun Building
Date completed: 1887
Location: 1317 F Street
Details: The eight-story, steel-frame structure was built to house the office of the Baltimore Sun in the nation’s capital. It was designed by Alfred B. Mullet, an architect known for a number of government buildings across the US including the San Francisco Mint and the New York City Hall Post Office, which was later reviled by Modernists as “Mullet’s monstrosity.”
Upon its completion, the Evening Star in 1887 called the Sun Building “the most expensive private building ever erected in Washington,” in large part due to its steam-powered elevators, a rarity at the time. The original elevators were swapped out for newer technology (hydraulics, then electric elevators) and the building underwent other changes over the years, including the addition of another story in 1907.
Status: Still standing.
Name: Hammond Building
Date completed: 1889
Location: 632-656 Griswold Street
Details: Considered to be the first historic steel-framed skyscraper in the city, the 151 foot or 46 metre tall structure was not only the loftiest building in Detroit, but Michigan as well. Rising 10 stories high, it was designed by Harry W. J. Edbrooke for George H. Hammond, who owned a major meat packing business.
The building featured heavy masonry of stone and brick on its lower floors and had a reddish color. It became a sight to see in the city, even as other, newer skyscrapers overtook it in size.
Status: The structure was demolished in 1956.
New York City
Name of building: Tower Building
Date completed: 1889
Location: 50 or 52 Broadway
Details: Some argue that this was the first, true skysrcaper in America since, unlike the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, this structure had a steel-skeleton that supported the building weight and didn’t rely on any load-bearing masonry walls.
Designed by Architect Bradford Gilbert, there’s little consensus over how tall the building actually was with estimates varying from 11 and 13 stories.
Status: Though many believed the structure would blow over, it didn’t meet its end that way. The building was torn down in 1914.
Name: Chronicle Building or de Young Building
Date completed: 1890
Location: 690 Market Street
Details: M. H. de Young, the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, tapped the famous firm of Burnham and Root to design the structure. Standing 10 stories high and topped with a clocktower, it that would become not only the city’s first skyscraper, but the tallest building on the West Coast as well, thanks to its full height of 218 feet (66 meters).
In 1905, the clock tower burned down after a mishap with fireworks. Two extra floors were added along Market Street and an annex was created along Kearny Street.
Status: Remarkably, the structure survived the 1906 earthquake that leveled most of the city. In 2004, the building was converted for residential purposes and eight extra stories were added. It’s currently home to the Ritz-Carlton Club and Residences.
Name of building: Pabst Building
Date completed: 1891
Location: 108 East Wisconsin Avenue
Details: The neo-Gothic office building was designed by the architecture firm of Solon S. Beman. The tower was built at the behest of Frederick Pabst, one of the founders of the major brewing company, and built just before the company changed the name of its flagship beer to Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1893. According to Emporis, the building stood 14 stories high with a height of 234 feet (71.6 metres). Its title of tallest tower in the city was short-lived, however. The 15-story Milwaukee City Hall was completed in 1895.
Status: The building was demolished in 1981, becoming the tallest building to be torn down in the city.
Name: Equitable Building
Date completed: 1892
Location: 30-44 Edgewood Avenue SE.
Details: The eight-story, Beaux-Arts style structure was the brain child of Joel Hurt, a local developer and the businessman behind Atlanta’s first electric streetcar line, which ran along Edgewood Avenue when it first opened in 1886. It only had a handful of tenants when it first opened, including a few doctors, an attorney and the Lowry Bank.
It’s believed the office building was 105 feet (32 meters). The skyscraper is the only known example of a Georgia building designed by the Atlanta-raised John Wellborn Root, of the famous Burnham and Root architectural firm. Not long after its completion, the city’s Flatiron Building surpassed the Equitable Building as the tallest tower in town.
Status: The building was demolished in 1971 to make room for a plaza. Some believed the building no longer fit the increasingly modernist skyline of the city.
Name: Winthrop Building
Date completed: 1894
Location: 7 Water Street
Details: The title of the very first skyscraper in the city is somewhat contested with one camp arguing that the 13-story Ames Building, completed in 1889, is the city’s earliest example. However, since the structure is doesn’t feature steel framing, which revolutionized tall tower construction in the late nineteenth, we’re siding with the Winthrop Building.
Designed by Clarence H. Blackall, the office building stands nine stories high with a rooftop height of 120 feet or 36 meters. It’s built on the site of Puritan Governor John Winthrop’s second house. The facade features brick and terra cotta and the tower itself features curves to better blend in with the slant of the street.
Status: Still standing.
Name: Land Title Building
Date completed: 1898
Location: 1400 Chestnut Street
Details: The 15-story structure, designed by the tall tower champion Daniel Burnham, is thought to be earliest example of the Chicago School on the East Coast. Rising 190 feet (or 58 meters) high, the early skyscraper features a two-story base with a granite facade. Though an office building, the interiors were outfitted with marble and hardwood floors.
In 1902, a second office tower designed by Burnham and Horace Trumbauer and standing 22 stories high, was added to the southern end.
Status: Still standing.
Date completed: 1901
Location: 201 East Baltimore Street
Details: The 16-story building was designed by none other than D.H. Burnham & Company. The office tower, which stands 220 feet (67 meters), survived the Great Baltimore fire of 1904 that destroyed 100 acres of the downtown financial district. Three major multi-story buildings caught fire including the Maryland Trust Company, B&O Railroad Building, and the Continental Trust Company. The inside of the building was gutted by fire, but the exterior didn’t go up in flames.
Mystery writer Dashiell Hammett worked in the building and in his novel “Red Harvest,” the private investigator known as the Continental Op takes his name from the tower. It’s also believed that the falcons on the structure inspired one of Hammett’s most famous works, “The Maltese Falcon.” Today, the tower is known as One Calvert Plaza.
Status: Still standing.
Photo: sha in LA/Flickr
Name: Continental Building
Date completed: 1904
Location: 408 South Spring Street
Details: The 12-story building was designed by John Parkinson, the architect behind a number of famous LA buildings including the Alexandria Hotel, City Hall, and the University of Southern California. The Beaux Arts tower was originally known as Braly Block as it was bankrolled by a John Hyde Braly, a financier who oversaw construction of the building.
At 151 feet (46 meters), it remained the tallest office tower in the city until the 1950s due to building height limitations put into effect by the city in 1905.
Status: The building is still standing and has been converted into residential lofts.
Name: Praetorian Tower
Date completed: 1909
Location: 1607 Main Street
Details: Regarded as the city’s first skyscraper, the Praetorian Tower stood 15 stories tall with a height of 190 feet or 58 metres tall. It was designed by C.W. Bulger & Son as the headquarters for the Praetorian Order, a fraternal insurance company. The golden-coloured, neo-Classical tower featured interiors with African mahogany, tile and marble.
The office tower was gutted both inside and out in the late 1950s and 1960s, its exterior clad in porcelain and steel.
Status: Though there was recent talk of restoring the office building to its former facade, it was demolished to make way for an expansion of The Joule hotel after changing owners.
Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr
Name: Smith Tower
Date completed: 1914
Location: 506 Second Avenue
Details: Designed by the delightfully name architecture firm Gaggin and Gaggin, the white terra-cotta skyscraper measured 469 feet, or 143 meters high, when built, making it the tallest tower west of the Mississippi. The Smith Tower was named for Lyman Cornelius Smith, an industrialist who started shotgun and typewriter factories, and died before the building was finished. The Smith Tower remained the tallest structure in the city until the Space Needle was built in the 1960s.
The top of the tower features a pyramid-shaped cap which originally hid a 10,000 gallon cast-iron water tank which was removed in the 1990s when it underwent a massive restoration.
Status: The tower is still standing and the cap is now home to three-story penthouse.
Name: Samuel F. Carter Building
Date completed: 1910
Location: 806 Main Street
Details: Samuel Fain Carter, a local businessman, was behind the 16-story building designed by Sanguinet & Staats. Before the structure was built, many Houstonians thought the height was far too ambitious and bound to topple, and the structure was prematurely dubbed “Carter’s Folly.” The exterior was outfitted with polished Texas granite, stone columns, terra cotta and brick and a roof garden topped it all off.
The office building surpassed the 10-story structure that was then the tallest in the city. Carter put his office on the top floor as a testament to the building’s sturdiness. A penthouse and an additional six floors were added in 1919 and 1925.
Status: The tower still stands today though it is now the JW Marriott Downtown Houston.
Name: Luhrs Building
Location: 11 W Jefferson Street
Date completed: 1924
Details: George Luhrs Sr, a prominent local, was behind the construction of the 10-story high-rise. Standing 138 feet (42 meters), the tower was designed by the Texas architecture firm Trost & Trost. The neoclassical building is L-shaped, and features brown sand brick, marble ornamentation and a rooftop cornice. Until 1971, the top four floors was the home of the Arizona Club, an exclusive men’s club popular among the city’s business community.
The first skyscraper is next to the city’s second skyscraper. The Luhrs Building’s sister structure is the Luhrs Tower, a 14-story Art-Deco creation completed in 1929 (seen to the right in the above picture). It even played a role in the Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Together, the skyscrapers make up Luhrs Block in downtown Phoenix.
Status: Still standing.