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Louis Sullivan Describes the Heart and Soul of the Tall Building

by Louis H. Sullivan

Birth of the Skyscraper


In Chicago, the progress of the building art from 1880 onward was phenomenal. The earlier days had been given over to four-inch ashlar fronts, cylinder glass, and galvanized iron cornices, with cast iron columns and lintels below; with interior construction of wood joists, posts and girders; continuous and rule-of-thumb foundations of “dimension stone.” Plate glass and mirrors came from Belgium and France; rolled iron beams-rare and precious—came from Belgium; Portland cement from England. The only available American cements were “Rosendale,” “Louisville,” and “Utica”—called natural or hydraulic cements. Brownstone could be had from Connecticut, marble from Vermont, granite from Maine. Interior equipments such as heating, plumbing, drainage, and elevators or lifts were, to a degree, primitive. Of timber and lumber—soft and hard woods—there was an abundance. This general statement applies mainly to the business district, although there were some solid structures to be seen. And it should be noted that before the great fire, a few attempts had been made to build “fireproof” on the assumption that bare iron would resist fire. As to the residential districts, there were increasing indications of pride and display, for rich men were already being thrust up by the mass. The vast acreage and square mileage, however, consisted of frame dwellings; for, as has been said, Chicago was the greatest lumber market “in the world.” Beyond these inflammable districts were the prairies and the villages.

. . . The city had become the center of a great radiating system of railways, the lake traffic changed from sail to steam. The population had grown to five hundred thousand by 1880, and reached a million in 1890; and this, from a pitiful 4,000 in 1837, at which time, by charter, the village became a city. Thus Chicago grew and flourished by virtue of pressure from without—the pressure of forest, field, and plain, the mines of copper, iron, and coal, and the human pressure of those who crowded in upon it from all sides seeking fortune. Thus the year 1880 may be set as the zero hour of an amazing expansion, for by that time the city had recovered from the shock of the panic of 1873. Manufacturing expanded with incredible rapidity, and the building industry took on an organizing definition. With the advance in land values, and a growing sense of financial stability, investors awakened to opportunity, and speculators and promoters were at high feast. The tendency in commercial buildings was toward increasing stability, durability, and height, with ever bettering equipment. The telephone appeared, and electric lighting systems. Iron columns and girders were now encased in fireproofing materials, hydraulic elevators came into established use, superseding those operated by steam or gas. Sanitary appliances kept pace with the rest.

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