STONE TO STEEL A distinctive American architecture had its origins in the period of rapid industrialization and disruptive social change that characterized the last third of the nineteenth century.
In the years following the Civil War, industrial production and innovation restructured the economic system and disrupted the social order of American society But no architect had yet emerged who was capable of expressing the values of an industrialized society in buildings the way Walt Whitman had done in poetry.
Henry Hobson Richardson was one of the first Americans to be educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He did not bring back any applied Beaux Arts style. What he had absorbed from the abstract French curriculum was a rational method of analysis and a structured process of design.
Richardson aspired to creating a “bold, rich, living architecture”, using a vocabulary of heavy, rough-finished stone, often in contrasting colors, rounded arches for entrances, and romantic towers. He was not creating new forms, but using traditional elements in new ways.
Norcross Bros Builders were involved throughout the design process; providing advice on structrual engineering and construction, and coordinating with the architect on-site to ensure the final stonework met his satisfaction. They were one of the first firms to vertically integrate construction activities, from ownership of the quarries to interior finishes and equipment.
Richardson’s buildings captured the spirit of their time, and his style was widely copied.
Of all the men trained in Richardson’s office, McKim, Mead and White are the best known. What is surprising is the degree to which their work diverged from their master’s.
McKim Mead and White revived Renaissance forms in handsome compositions with elegant choices of materials that brought a new image of urbanity to American buildings. They used new construction techniques to speed and lighten construction, and would in later buildings substitute steel framing for heavy masonry.
The firm’s newly-wealthy clients imagined themselves princes in new American Renaissance. They built mansions and financed museums and libraries to display their cultural aspirations and validate their new-found social status.
Proponents of the City Beautiful Movement believed these grand buildings could inspire civic pride and uplift the morality of the urban underclass. But their purity belied the squalor, social inequity and political corruption of contemporary cities.
The industrial city had become increasingly specialized toward the end of the nineteenth century, enabled by revolutions in transportation, communications, management and finance. Land values resulting from the density of use were the premise for tall buildings.
John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham joined a cadre of young Chicago architects who consciously and unifiedly created a new type of office building to serve the commercial needs of an industrialized society.
The skyscraper was made possible by three technical innovations: a safe and reliable elevator, stronger Bessemer steel, and a systematic method of construction. Their skeletal cage of slender columns and beams was strong enough to carry the loads, wrapped in a curtain of weatherproofing and ornament.
Buildings of this scale required an organized system of construction management to administer a multiplicity of tasks on a tight urban site . A new kind of contractor was needed, who could visualize the building problem in its entirety: promotion, finance, engineering, labor and materials.
By the time Louis Sullivan came to Chicago, the basic technology of the steel-framed office building was already well-established. Now the issue was visual. Sullivan emphasized the vertical lines of tall buildings, rather than their boxy structural frame. He created a new architectural image for the skyscraper where the technical was not raw and the aesthetic was not flimsy.