Chicago boasts many historical architectural feats — it was the host of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the playground of greats including Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. But did you know Chicago was also home to the world’s first ever skyscraper? Today we’re taking a look at the historic Home Insurance Building and how it came to be.
How the World’s First Skyscraper Came to Be
The Great Fire ravaged Chicago in 1871. But it was a devastation that gave way to the opportunity to rebuild anew. As the city looked to rebuild, architects pondered what the next generation of urban structures looked like. With commerce and industry downtown exploding exponentially, these structures had to accommodate more residential space and more office space — leading to verticality as a solution. And with the Great Fire as their lesson, architects also knew these structures had to be much more durable than those that had been so easily destroyed.
Luckily, two pivotal inventions from the mid-19th century made the introduction of soaring steel-framed buildings possible. The first was the safety elevator pioneered by Elisha Otis in 1854, which allowed for the safe transport of elevator passengers. While the top floor of buildings had once been inaccessible and undesirable, the elevator changed that forever. Meanwhile, the Bessemer Converter of 1856 allowed for widespread, large-scale commercial production of steel.
The culmination of these factors led to the world’s first skyscraper in 1885: the Home Insurance Building, a ten-story, steel-frame fireproof building in downtown Chicago.
A Closer Look at the Home Insurance Building
The Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney, was located at the corner of Adam and LaSalle Street. It earned the title of the world’s first skyscraper thanks to the combination of its height and its revolutionary steel frame. The frame was composed of wrought and cast iron alongside Bessemer rolled steel beams, leading the building to weigh in at a third of the mass of traditional masonry buildings of the time.
While two additional stories were added to the Home Insurance Building in 1890, it was eventually demolished in 1931 to make way for the Field Building, now known as the LaSalle Bank Building. Despite the building being gone today, it has forever left its mark on Chicago’s skyscraper history.