Architecture and Design Historian
Ringling College of Art and Design, Tampa
It is established that early experimentation with the design and construction of tall buildings following the devastating 1871 Chicago fire resulted in the introduction of ferrous metals to allow buildings to reach unprecedented heights. However, from an architectural history point of view, these initial experiments—such as Jenney’s First Leiter Building (1879) and Home Insurance Building (1885), Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building (1889) and Burnham & Root’s Reliance Building (1895)—were merely composed floor-upon-floor, like the layers of a wedding cake. These projects, while certainly admirable in terms of the heights and accommodation achieved, did not address the aesthetic, artistic and/or architectural consequences of this new building type. That is, not until the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan began to think about this problem.
In his essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered” published in Lippincott’s Magazine in March 1896, Sullivan asked the question: “What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building?” and answered it thus: “It is lofty.” Sullivan’s idea of “loftiness” translated compositionally into an emphasis on the vertical rather than the horizontal. As stated by Sullivan in that same article: “The 16-story building must not consist of 16 separate, distinct and unrelated buildings piled one upon another, until the top of the pile is reached.” The example with which Sullivan illustrates this point is his own Wainwright Building, St. Louis (1891), in partnership with architect/engineer Dankmar Adler.
It is proposed that Sullivan and Adler’s Wainwright Building—through a detailed reading of Sullivan’s Lippincott article, as well as comments from Sullivan's protégé Frank Lloyd Wright—is not the first skyscraper, but the first artistically-considered skyscraper