Except in lower Manhattan in New York City, until 1885 few U.S. office buildings exceeded five stories. In lower Manhattan, after 1865 some office buildings without elevators were taller than five stories, but apparently the top floors generally were not used for offices. In addition, some hotels were taller than five stories. Construction of seven to ten story office buildings with elevators began around 1870.
By contrast, in New York City a 30 story office building was completed in 1899, a 47 story office building was completed in 1908, and a 60 story office building was completed in 1913.
Except to the extent they are constrained by zoning or building codes, owners of new office buildings chose building heights that produced the greatest profits. The incentive to build taller buildings is that they use less land per square foot of office space. One disincentive to building taller buildings is that the cost of construction per floor increases with the height of the building because the entire building structure, including foundations and vertical supports, must be stronger. Another disincentive to building higher buildings relates to the cost of moving people up and down. Prior to the development of practical passenger elevators, the market value of office space declined with distance from the street because people had to walk up and down. After the development of passenger elevators, the cost of providing elevators increased faster than the height of a building, because more and more of the otherwise usable internal space on lower floors had to be turned over to elevator shafts needed to reach higher floors.
With that background, one can see why office buildings generally did not exceed five stories until the late 19th century. First, central city land prices were comparatively low, so there was comparatively little incentive to bear additional construction costs in order to economize on land. Second, the cost of constructing higher floors was high, for either of two reasons. If one relied on stone or brick walls for structural support, the walls in the lower part of the building had to be made thicker, which increased construction costs and reduced usable internal space. One could avoid that by using iron or steel, but these metals were expensive. Third, prior to the development of practical passenger elevators, no one would pay much for offices located above the fifth floor of a building. Thus, the incremental cost of adding a sixth or higher floor was greater than the incremental rental revenue one could earn from the extra space.
Central City Land
The New-York Life Insurance Co. completed a new office building in lower Manhattan in May 1870. "The Company had scarcely occupied it three months when it was found necessary, in order to rent the upper floors, to put in an elevator--a means of conveyance which had come into fashion since the building was begun." (James M. Hudnut, Semi-Centennial History of the New-York Life Insurance Company 1845-1895, 1895, p. 146)
In 1872, C. W. Baldwin, who worked for the Otis company, invented the geared hydraulic
elevator. Hydraulic elevators were powered by water pressure supplied
directly by city water pipes or by the weight of water pumped to a storage tank
located on top of the building. Otis began producing hydraulic elevators in 1874.
Once such elevators were installed in buildings, companies were willing to pay substantially more for space in higher
stories than had previously been the case. Hogan reports that after 1875
"elevators became an essential part of office building construction. This
new means of vertical transportation brought about a complete reversal of
building operations and rental policies. The lower floors were no longer as
desirable as they were in nonelevator buildings because the demand now shifted
to the upper stories which were removed from the noise and dust of the street.
The upper floors actually commanded higher rents." (William T. Hogan, Economic
History of the Iron and Steel Industry in the United States, 1971, Vol. 1,
Until 1904, hydraulic elevators were the dominant systems
used in high-rise buildings. Still, Bolton
(1900) reported that "elevator service to the upper floors of the very high
buildings has proved insufficient, so that the present practice has settled down
to the erection of buildings of 200 feet to 250 feet in height, containing
fifteen to eighteen storeys."
In 1904, the Otis Elevator Co. installed its first electric gearless traction machines, which had first been used in 1903. These machines immediately made hydraulic elevators obsolete in new buildings. Electric gearless traction machines were still the standard in 1948.
Prices of Steel
and the Technology of Steel Frame Construction
Price of Bessemer Steel Rails at Pennsylvania Mills, 1867-95 ($/ton)
Technological developments in three additional areas were important in the development of tall office buildings in the late nineteenth century: fireproofing, foundations, and self-supporting metal frame construction. In a major fire, unprotected metal bends or melts. Beginning around 1880, it became standard practice to enclose metal supports in terra-cotta as a means of fireproofing. New techniques for construction of foundations to support heavy buildings were developed.
Until 1885, the weight of office buildings was transferred to the foundations by the stone or brick walls. Beginning around 1850, some office buildings were constructed with cast iron facades and cast iron interior vertical supports. However, these cast iron buildings also had brick load-bearing walls. Donald A. MacKay writes that "Many office buildings of the late 1800's still had masonry walls in addition to inner metal supports, for the skeleton frames of these earliest forerunners of today's skyscrapers could not have stood without the support they received from their masonry walls." (The Building of Manhattan, 1987, p.32.) Chicago's Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, had cast iron columns embedded in the masonry walls to carry some of the building's weight. New York City's Tower Building, completed in 1889, was the first office building to rely entirely on a metal skeleton to carry its weight.
To support the floors, around 1850 buildings used wood or cast iron beams. In the mid-1850s, wrought iron beams were introduced. In 1885, steel beams were introduced. Steel was too expensive for general architectural use until 1890. (William H. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects, 1972, Vol. 3, p. 21.) After 1890, steel was used for both vertical supports and horizontal beams, and buildings therefore had steel skeletons. Bolton (1900) reported that "Before the development of the method of steel skeleton construction, extreme height was impractical, but after its success was demonstrated in 1889, in the Tower building of ten storeys, a great impetus was given to increase of height."
The L.C. Smith Building, also known as the Smith Tower, was Seattle's first skyscraper. The photograph to the right shows this 42-story steel skeleton building under construction in 1913. The photograph to the left shows the completed building.
Selected Tall Steel Skeleton Office Buildings in Lower Manhattan, 1900
|Click on images to enlarge||Click on building names for
Then click on the Back button on your browser to return here.
|142 Broadway, NY, NY, home of the American Bank Note Co. (1867-82), image published in The Banker's Almanac for 1874.||.||.|
Library of Congress, P&P Div.
|Equitable Life Assurance Building, NY, NY, 1870. The first office building with passenger elevators. The hydraulic elevators were made by Otis. Destroyed by fire in 1912.||130||7|
|New York Tribune Building, NY, NY, 1875. Described at the time as "the highest building on Manhattan Island," but the spire was shorter than that on Trinity Church (285 feet). While metal columns and beams supported interior floors, the exterior walls were masonry.||260 to top of spire||9|
G.L. Howe and O. M. Powers, The Secrets of Success in Business, 1883.
|Western Union Building, NY, NY, 1875. While metal columns and beams supported interior floors, the exterior walls were masonry. Destroyed by fire in 1890.||230||10.5|
|Powers Commercial Fire-Proof Building, Rochester, NY, 1876 [confirm date].||.||6|
|Click on building name for photos.||Washington Building, NY, NY, 1882-85. The tallest office building in the world.||258||.|
Chicago Historical Society
|Home Insurance Building, Chicago, IL, 1885. Cast iron columns were embedded in the brick walls. The first six stories had wrought iron beams while the remaining stories had Bessemer steel beams. The photo to the left shows the building after its height was increased from 10 to 12 stories in 1890. Demolished in 1931.||180||10|
Museum of the City of New York
|Tower Building, NY, NY, 1889. "The earliest example of skeleton construction in which the entire weight of the walls and floors is borne and transmitted to the foundation by a framework of metallic posts and beams." The building site was only 21.5 feet wide. Demolished in 1914.||160||10-13|
|Click on building name for photos.||Tacoma Building, Chicago, IL, 1888 or 1889. Walls supported entirely by its steel frame. Five Otis Brothers hydraulic passenger elevators. Demolished 1929.||.||14 (12
Harper's Weekly, Oct. 27, 1888.
|Times Building, NY, NY, 1889.||.||.|
|World Building, NY, NY, 1889 or 1890. Also known as the Pulitzer Building. Tallest office building in the world. Steel columns. The weight of the building was supported by masonry walls as thick as 9 feet. Ten Otis Brothers hydraulic elevators, one of which traveled to the observation platform in the dome. Demolished 1955.||309-349||18-26|
Building, Chicago, 1891. The building was described on a 1904
postcard as the "largest office building in the
world." The building is described on the postcard to the left, which
is postmarked 1912, as "the largest office building in Chicago."
It is the tallest building in the world that is supported
primarily by brick load bearing walls. The masonry walls are 6 feet thick
at ground level and gradually narrow at higher levels; see the 2007 photo
immediately below. Cast and wrought
iron columns and beams support the interior.
Notice the thickness and taper of the external wall.
Temple, Chicago, IL, 1892. Destroyed 1939. It was the
"highest office building in the world" in 1892-1896 and probably
until 1898. (It may have been considered higher than the World Building
because the highest occupied floor was higher.)
the right is an 1894 photograph of Chicago with the Masonic Temple at the
far right. The tall building to the left of the Masonic Temple is the
Unity (16 stories). The next two are the Title & Trust and the
Schiller. The one at the far left is the Ashland Block (1892).
|Bennett Building, New York, NY, 1893 [confirm date]. The facade is cast iron.||.||.|
|Click on building name for photos.||Old Colony Building, Chicago, IL, 1894. Iron and steel frame construction. Hydraulic elevators.||215||17|
|Manhattan Life Insurance Building, NY, NY, 1894. In 1894, this was the tallest building in the U.S. Demolished in the 1960s.||348||17|
|Click on building name for photos.||Postal Telegraph Building, NY, NY, c. 1894. First electric elevators in a lower Manhattan office building.||.||14|
|American Surety Building, NY, NY, 1896. It was claimed that, at the time of its completion, it was second to the Manhattan Life Insurance Building as the tallest office building in New York City. It was built with hydraulic elevators.||305||21|
|Ellicott Square Building, Buffalo, NY, 1896. It was claimed that, at the time of its completion, this was the largest (not tallest) office building in the world. It had 447,000 square feet of floor space and an interior glass-covered courtyard. 4000 to 5000 people worked in the building, which contained 5500 tons of steel and had 16 Otis hydraulic elevators. The first floor contained stores, the second floor contained banks and other offices that wanted impressive 14' ceilings, the third through ninth floors contained offices, and half the tenth floor was a business club.||144||10|
|New York Life Insurance Building, NY, NY. Top drawing dates from 1897. Bottom image is from a paper weight.||220||16|
|Bowling Green Building, NY, NY. Image dates from 1898.||240||16|
|.||American Tract Society Building, NY, NY, 1896.||291||23|
|Gillender Building, NY, NY, 1897. Demolished in 1910 to make way for the 37 story Bankers' Trust Building.||273||19|
Union Trust Building, New York, NY, 1897 [confirm date].
St. Paul Building, NY, NY, 1898. Tallest building in the US when it was completed. The c. 1901 photograph to the left shows the St. Paul Building in the center and the Park Row Building on the left.
Detroit Publishing Co. Lib. of Congress, P&P Div., LC-USZC4-5091
Park Row Building, NY, NY, 1899. Also known as the Syndicate Building. The Park Row Building was the tallest building in the world until 1908. It had electric elevators.
|Queen Building, NY, NY, before 1900.||.||15|
|Conover Building, Dayton, OH, completed 1900. Photo taken 1904-06. Postcard postmarked 1906. The Conover Building (also known as the American Building) was later enlarged so that the side that has two windows per floor in the photo had three windows per floor. The tall building to the right of the Conover Building is the United Brethren Building (lated known as the Center City Building), which was completed in 1904. The latter building originally had 14 stories, but in 1927 two taller towers were added. It was Dayton's tallest building from 1904 until 1931.||.||13|
|Flat Iron Building, NY, NY, 1902. Also known as the Fuller Building. Built with a steel skeleton and six Otis Brothers hydraulic elevators with a speed of 600 feet per minute. The lower postcard is postmarked 1908.||285-307||20-21|
|Farmers Deposit National Bank Building, Pittsburgh, PA, 1903. Tallest building in Pittsburgh when completed. "The building is exceeded in height by only two other office buildings in the United States." Steel frame. Approximately 598 offices, excluding banking rooms on the first floor. Housed offices of more than 100 companies in 1903. Approximately 2,000 people worked in the building. Equipped with 10 hydraulic elevators. "For such long runs as are necessary in this building, the direct plunger [hydraulic elevator] system is not usually advisable because of the expense of boring for the plunger tube, and the same reliability of operation can be secured by the use of the hydraulic multiplying system, in which the direct lifting is done by ropes, while the motive power is furnished by a hydraulic plunger." ("Farmers Bank Building," High Tide, Pittsburgh, 1903) Demolished in 1997.||329||24|
|Ingalls Building, Cincinnati, OH, 1903. Postcard postmarked 1906. The Ingalls Building (later renamed the Transit Building) was the world's first reinforced concrete skyscraper, and it remained the tallest reinforced concrete building until 1923. The structural concrete, which is reinforced with twisted steel rods, is covered with a facade of marble, brick, and terra cotta. Arguments for using reinforced concrete for the Ingalls Building were that it would be fire proof and that it would cost less than a steel skeleton building. Previously, reinforced concrete had been used for bridges.||212||16|
|Times Building, NY, NY, 1905. Top: Undivided back postcard postmarked 1906.||476 to
|Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Building, Baltimore, MD, 1906 [confirm date]||.||.13|
|Singer Building, NY, NY, 1908. The Singer Tower was the tallest building in the world prior to completion of the Metropolitan Life Building in 1909. It was built with Otis electric gearless traction elevators. Demolished in 1968.||612||47|
|Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, NY, NY, 1909. This succeeded the Singer Building as the tallest building in the world. It was built with Otis electric gearless traction elevators.||700||48-51|
|Yeon Bulding, Portland, OR, 1911 [confirm date]. Tallest office building at Oregon when built.||.||15|
|Woolworth Building, NY, NY, 1913. Tallest building in the world until completion of the Chrysler Building. 3,000 offices occupied by 12,000 people. Built with 26 Otis electric gearless traction elevators.||750-792||55-60 (or 30 base
plus 25 tower)
|Equitable Building, NY, NY, 1915. "Largest business building in the world. It is 38 stories with a floor space of 45 acres. It houses 15,000 people." It was built with electric gearless traction elevators. This building was built on the site of the 1870 Equitable Building after the latter was destroyed by fire.||538-544||38|
|City Investment Building, New York, NY. [Date?]||.||.|
|Hudson River Terminal Buildings, New York, NY, postcard postmarked 1919. The twin structures together formed the largest office building in the world. 20,000 people worked in the two buildings.||375||22|
|General Motors Office Building, Detroit, MI.||.||15|
|Chrysler Building, NY, NY, 1930. Occupied by 15,000 people. Built with Otis Signal Control electric traction elevators.||1,046||77|
|Empire State Building, NY, NY, 1931. Long the world's tallest building. Occupied by 15,000 people. Built with 58 Otis Signal Control electric traction elevators.||1,250||102|
|Radio City, New York, NY. [Date?] This was the world's largest office building.||.||.|
By comparison, the World Trade Center (1971-2001) was 1,368 feet tall, the Sears Tower (1974) is 1,454 feet tall, and the Petronas Towers (1998) are 1,483 feet tall.
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