||Joseph J. Korom, Jr.
||Branden Books, Wellesley, MA, 2008
||Robert Lau, CTBUH Journal Associate Editor
||Download PDF of review here
This book is an encyclopedia of early skyscrapers in America. Written in a chronological-order style, it presents a clear story of the progression from midrise to what we now call ‘Skyscraper’. The author, Joseph J. Korom, Jr., has researched a broad array of American skyscrapers to compile 287 buildings into this book’s 472 pages. While not every skyscraper that has been built before 1940 in America is included here, it does include a steady progression of projects from the very beginning of Tall Buildings to the mid twentieth century.
Lynn Beedle has taught us that Tall Buildings are interdisciplinary by their very nature. This book makes it quite clear that finance, technology, innovation, transportation, and a growing economy have all contributed to define the American skyscraper. Without the steam engine, our nineteenth century cities could not have grown. The international trade that blossomed in the late nineteenth century fueled the drive to the sky in Manhattan and Chicago. Our country’s westward expansion created large corporations with headquarters in major cities. These towers are a result of building our American financial empire.
Creation of Skyscrapers Required New Technologies
A major reason why skyscrapers were not built in the past is that the technology to create them had not existed. This book provides a short history of the elevator. It was instrumental towards inhabiting spaces in the sky. It also mentions the uses of cast iron and its eventual transformation to structural steel. While we today may think that this was a linear progression, cast iron was used in many forms until steel became accepted over time. Other technologies that are mentioned are plumbing systems, electric lighting, and heating systems. While we take these for granted today, these are all required in any building of height. While the author does not investigate these technologies in detail, it may have been interesting to discuss certain successful systems in light of their advancement of skyscraper development. Also mentioned are ventilation systems, which simply had been opening a window in the past. With taller and taller towers rising in Lower Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop, providing fresh air into these canyons was becoming a major concern. It would have been interesting for the author to examine why skyscraper ventilation systems were leading-edge technology to the emerging HVAC industry. Today we again take these systems for granted. Some in-depth discussion of the particularly successful ventilation systems would have been an interesting addition to this book. The first American skyscraper to be originally air-conditioned was the Milam Building in San Antonio.
Skyscrapers Create Image and Advertising for Corporations
Besides the financial advantage of greater density per square foot of real estate that skyscrapers offer, corporations quickly learned that their headquarter’s loftiness was a wonderful place to advertise. Where else to show your power and prestige but atop the highest point in the city? Naming yourself as ‘The Tallest’ won headlines and name-recognition, even one hundred years ago. Observatories and outdoor signage added to this prestige as corporate headquarters vied for the top honors. Even though the earliest skyscrapers were office buildings, they always contained a multi-use aspect by including income-producing observatories and restaurants at the top and retail establishments and bank lobbies at the base. Skyscraper hotels especially have a multi-use aspect to them by their operational nature. Besides providing a landmark for the city’s skyline, these towers also became part of the urban fabric by providing amenities. Landlords then competed for the best tenants by providing the most desirable amenities.
Location, Location, Location
Why did skyscrapers appear where they did? Ask any real estate agent and the answer is, “Location”. From the beginning, our cities became dense because that was where people wanted to be. The location of the earliest skyscrapers was dictated by access to transportation and commerce (Lower Manhattan, Chicago’s Loop, Philadelphia’s CBD). This has not changed into our day. The commercial skyscraper was and still is dependent upon access to good public transportation and the Central Business District. This book mentions many examples of towers planned next to or above transportation centers. This trend from the past will continue into the future as global fuel prices continue to rise. The examples listed here are all before our post-WWII love affair with the automobile. Suburbanization had not yet hit America.
This book makes it clear that no one person can take credit for inventing the skyscraper. It truly was a collaborative effort over a considerable amount of time. While William LeBaron Jenny is credited with the Home Insurance Building as the first skyscraper, the first skeleton construction skyscraper was the Tower Building by Bradford Lee Gilbert. Many other people are involved in various technologies to refine the skyscraper as it continues to evolve to our day. Besides the designers that have defined skyscrapers, like Sullivan and Burnham, the financiers, like Morgan, Woolworth, and Chrysler, are equally influential. They provided the impetus for the race to the sky. We would not have our skylines of today without both of these influences.
While technology seems to continue along one path, the styles of skyscrapers have not. Social influences have greatly altered their appearances. They have varied with the winds of time from Greek Revival in the 1840s to Victorian in the 1870s to Baroque/Beaux-Arts in the 1900s to Gothic in the 1910s to Roman Empire in the 1920s to Art Deco in the 1930s. The book mentions the first ‘International Style’ American skyscraper as the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society of 1932, opened during the depths of the Great Depression. The author holds certain attitudes for these styles but also understands that one style cannot be considered dominate over another. They reflect the society of the time. Each has its own virtues and the ability of the designers to use these styles effectively is the issue. The author’s writing style clearly indicates his preferences and those that he feels are less worthy. While he does mention the Great Depression and its negative influence on skyscrapers, there is no mention of the Panic of 1893 or WWI. These national events must have influenced skyscraper construction in some way.
The author makes it woefully clear that we as a nation have not always endorsed Historic Preservation. Of interest is how many of the skyscrapers described in this book no longer exist. It would have been interesting for him to include maps of Lower Manhattan and Chicago’s Loop, to help us travelers locate the building (or former site) of the skyscrapers. Many of them are gone forever. Finance has ruled as the determiner of what stays and what can be sacrificed. Density is good but it has its price. Our current city centers are the result of this filtering.
A Book for All Readers
This book was written for all types of readers. It is a great resource as an encyclopedia for students. While it has many photos of building elevations, it seems to be short in descriptive floor plans. Both plans and elevations describe a building. A few more plans may have helped in this regard. There is also little technical mention of wind bracing, fireproofing and seismic design. These technologies are important to skyscraper design. It may have been helpful to explain a couple of successful wind bracing designs (particularly for the slim towers of Lower Manhattan) or the advances in fireproofing of structural steel beams and columns in the twentieth century. So while this book may not be as technical in that regard for design professionals, it does provide an excellent discussion of the evolution of what we now call ‘Skyscraper’. The last chapter even discusses the lesser-known skyscrapers in smaller cities and their creating a sense of ‘place’. It is a thoroughly interesting read for a layman and a pleasurable read for an industry designer. In this sense it may be more appropriate for your reception area’s coffee table instead of on your office’s reference shelf.