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Chicago School, Skyscrapers

Birth date / place

September 25th 1832, Fairhaven, Massachusetts, USA

Selected Architecture


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Chicago, USA

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Article last edited by Bostjan on
October 19th, 2019

William Le Baron Jenney Change this

Change thisChicago, USA
born 1832, Fairhaven, Massachusetts
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William LeBaron Jenney (September 25, 1832 – June 14, 1907) was an American architect and engineer who is known for building the first skyscraper in 1884 and became known as the Father of the American skyscraper. The earliest of several American architects who pioneered high-rise skyscraper architecture, William Le Baron Jenney was also an engineer, an innovator in building technology and a park and town planner. As well as anticipating the fluid interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) as well as the Bauhaus idiom, he was the founder of the Chicago School of skyscraper architecture, and is best known for designing the 10-floor Home Insurance Building in Chicago (1884-1885), the first building in America to use a metal frame rather than stone and brick to support its upper levels. He used the same method in the Ludington Building Chicago (1891), to help bear the enormous weight of a publishing company's printing presses. His revolutionary design freed architects from having to worry about how to support a building's weight, and allowed them to build even taller structures.

Education in Architecture and Engineering

Born into a family of whaling ship owners, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, he was the son of William Proctor Jenney and Eliza LeBaron Gibbs, he received a practical education at Phillips Academy, Andover, and other New England schools. After a voyage to the South Pacific he entered the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University to study civil engineering, but finding the instruction inadequate he transferred to the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, Paris, a sister institution to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied engineering and architecture from 1853 to 1856. There he learned the latest iron construction techniques as well as the classical functionalist doctrine of Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) professor of Architecture at the Ecole Polytechnique, which was the standard architectural curriculum of French engineering schools. One of Jenney's classmates was Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923).

Teaching and Study

During the period 1876-77, Jenney commuted weekly to Ann Arbor, where he held the first professorship of architecture at the University of Michigan. Thereafter he continued to absorb writings on the theory and practice of building design by the Scottish expert James Fergusson (1808-86), by the highly influential French architect and builder Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) and other important architectural writers of his century, synthesizing their ideas and passing them on to his student draftsmen. Since the latter included some of the most eminent architects of the 19th century, such as Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), William Holabird, and Martin Roche, it can be said that he was the founder of the Chicago School of architecture.

Skyscraper Architecture

Jenney's international fame rests mainly on his high-rise commercial buildings in Chicago, where he became known as the "Father of the American skyscraper". Advocating a multistorey building, whose vertical height - made feasible by Otis's invention of the safety elevator - massively increased the profitability of the building lot, he began with the First Leiter Building (1879), which was virtually a glass box. Iron columns backed exterior masonry piers, thus permitting greater window areas, otherwise, its construction was conventional. In the 9-story Home Insurance Building (1884-85), he brought together the most advanced technologies to create the prototype of the skyscraper supported by a metal skeleton, wrapped in masonry, consisting of a grid of iron columns, beams, girders, and floor joists. He extended the interior fireproofed frame to the exterior by inserting iron columns into the brick piers.

In the Second Leiter Building (now the Sears, Roebuck Building) (1889-1891), Jenney opened the walls to an unprecedented degree, using iron supports and steel beams. The severe cubic quality of the elevation recalls the teachings of Durand but predates the influential work of the Bauhaus Design School in Germany. The building's State Street facade comprises nine bays separated by wide pilasters, capped by simple capitals, while a plain cornice tops the entire structure. The building is faced with pink granite. In the Manhattan Building (1889-91), Jenney achieved the first 16-story skeleton-frame office structure, but the most elegant and harmonious expression of his principles was the monumental Ludington Building (1891).

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