American Style: The Age Of The Skyscraper

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Here on the BuildDirect Blog: Life At Home, I’ve been exploring the architectural forms that make America what it is — the best place to road-trip in the world. Whether it’s the gorgeous variety of homes flying by, or the inspiring cityscapes that cast imposing silhouettes against the sunset after a long day of driving, there’s no end to the architecture one sees when driving across the land.

This time, it’s those cityscapes I’ve turned to for inspiration for an American Style feature.

While other countries have taken skyscrapers to greater heights than early architects could ever have dreamed, there’s no arguing America gifted the skyscraper to the world.

In our modern build’em-up-and-knock’em-down world, these massive buildings come and go now, but for a time there, skyscrapers seemed like they would last forever and would change the world.

And change the world, they did. Here’s a look at why we love the skyscraper.

New Architecture for a New World

When early immigrants landed, they came to the New World from lands where buildings were still standing from centuries before. Many centuries.

To this day it blows my mind I can go to England and swill beer in a pub that’s served up pints for over 1,000 years in the same modest building. I can walk the floor of the Roman Colosseum, where people were thrown to lions 1,900 years ago. It’s mind-boggling how much history lines every single European street.

But this continent had no such architectural history. It was a largely natural landscape, and anything built thus far could be torn down, improved upon. Sure, a few New England row homes might date to the late 1600s, but much of this “New World” had no real sense of permanence then. These immigrants had building freedoms their European counterparts would envy. What was yet to come would be bigger, taller, grander in scale, because this new land offered the space for doing so.

vintage elevator door

The invention of the elevator opened up the possibilities for American architecture in city centers.

Before Skyscrapers Came Elevators

Skyscrapers didn’t arrive until there had been a decade of rapid growth in elevator technology. Between 1872 to 1880, several inventors all came up with different contributions — from closing doors automatically through to the first electric elevator and even innovations in hydraulics.

With elevators now a possibility in tall buildings, structures could be built higher than ever — especially since architects were discovering new ways to harness steel and concrete.

Going Up: The First Skyscrapers

Two cities lay claim to the advent of the skyscraper. New York and Chicago, towns that epitomized the New World and the dreams it heralded. Think of prime pre-1900 examples, like the Home Insurance Building, the Monadnock, and the Masonic Temple.

It’s not that no one ever thought to build high buildings until Chicago led the way, but rather that they were limited by know-how and technology. Along with those elevator innovations, it was steel-frame construction that changed everything. Once architects learned how to start with metal and build higher, it seemed like the sky might be the limit.

Like Wikipedia states:

“Technical challenges overcome, there was a boom in skyscraper construction in Chicago from 1888 onwards, the city leading the way in the new form.[49] By 1893, Chicago had built 12 skyscrapers between 16 and 20 stories tall, tightly clustered in the center of the financial district.”

New York lagged behind with only four built in that same time period. Everyone else was yet to follow.

Twenty floors were impressive in 1893. Today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the “world’s tallest building,” with a jaw-dropping 163 floors. Skyscrapers are nothing if not a testimony to humanity’s imagination and savvy, whether you’re talking about 1884’s “Tallest Skyscraper,” the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, or Dubai’s Burj Khalifa now.


Home Insurance Building in Chicago, completed in 1884 and demolished in 1931. What is now called the Bank of America stands in its place today.

A Cultural Turning Point

Skyscrapers changed cities so much in their first few decades, but they came of age at the same time as another American contribution — the automobile. 2013 was heralded as the skyscraper’s 125th anniversary. The car turns 130 next year. Think about that. In those 130 years, we’ve seen cities and life get bigger, higher, faster. We’re a completely different world than what existed in 1880, but it’s in its infancy. We’ve made so many errors, damaged the environment, and had little foresight on energy. But we’re learning.

Today, we live, work, shop, play, and entertain in city centers. Smaller homes, smaller footprints, smarter furniture and layouts, are all geared toward the urban-minded citizen. With a growing trend of having fewer children, even families are moving back into cities, citing better education and more activities for kids.

And this is all while we’re still learning how to harness the skyscraper. From environmental advances to building materials, it’s all a changing game, even now. Enter LEED certification, eco-friendly materials, recycling, and more. What will the city look like in another 130 years?

An American Icon

Thinking back to those early years of immigration booms, it wouldn’t be long until poor immigrants landing at Ellis Island would be staring at towering buildings that soon made New York’s harbor one of the world’s most recognizable cityscapes.

Skyscraper technology might be on display the world over today, but it’s such an identifiably American symbol that it’s where those fateful flights struck on one sad September day as the 21st century was just unfolding.

From the Home Insurance Building to World Trade Center, it was America that taught the world how to reach new heights.

Today, it seems every country has joined America in a race to see how high mankind can really go, but if you ask me, something about skyscrapers will always represent a distinctly American Style.

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