THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMERCIAL
BUILDING IN AMERICA: 1870-1920
Doyle R. Harper
Professor Phillip P. Wisely
as partial fulfillment for AE 675
June 2, 1978
Table of Contents
The Development of the Commercial
Building in America: 1870-1920 . . . . 1
Bibliography .. . . . 14
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMMERCIAL
BUILDING IN AMERICA: 1870-1920
Before one may begin a study of commerical buildings,
it is necessary to determine what may be classified as
commericall." Webster's New World Dictionary defines com-
merical: 1) of or connected with commerce or trade 2) of
or having to do with stores, office buildings, etc. From the
second definition one may conclude that this study should
include both of these specialized building types. Indeed,
many office buildings have stores on their lower levels and
many store buildings have offices occupying a portion of the
From the beginning of time there have been buildings
set aside specifically for commercial uses. Initially these
were small stores and shops of the local craftsmen. Later,
they became larger and more specialized as guilds began to
develop into highly specialized groups. By the fifteenth
century even office space had become important. Evidence of
this remains in Europe where families like the Italian Medici's
built large buildings to house their banking business.
Colonial America:drew its heritage from western Europe,
so it is natural that the Colonists would continue the preci-
dent set in the old country of having special buildings for
specialized functions. This situation did not entirely
hold true, however. The Colonists were poorer than the
established families in Europe and labor for building was
limited. So as a result, most colonial American businessmen
conducted their business from their homes. This tradition was
not unusual in Europe, but was even more common in Colonial
After the 1776 Revolution and a half century of growth,
the American business had come of age. By this time the norm
was for a businessman to have his store or office in the
business district and his home in a nearby residential area.
Oftentimes, however, the businessman of more modest means
would have his business on the lower floors of his building
and live above.
At the outbreak of the Civil War most American cities
had a major business district consisting of store buildings
rising to five or six stories in height above the street.
Throughout the years of the war and those years immediately
following, commerical buildings changed very little. It was
not until the 1870's that the commercial building began to
rise in its new form.
No single item may be said to have influenced the change
in commercial buildings after 1860., There were many new
ideas and inventions that determined the destiny of these
In 1851, the first elevator was shown at the New York
World's Fair. The first elevators were usually limited to use
for freight in warehouses and were operated by steam or
hydrolics. It was not until the late .1860's that the elevator
became accepted as a reans of moving people to the upper
floors of a building. In 1863, George Post introduced the
passenger elevator in his Equitable Life Insurance Building
(New York City). This was the first commercial building to
be designed with the elevator in mind and opened a new chapter
in architectural history. It was the first of the so-called
"elevator buildings" which flourished between 1870 and 1890
when the skeleton frame became accepted (Weisman, 1972).
With the completion of Fost's Eauitable Life Insurance
Building and its success in renting the upper floors, it
became apparent that the elevator would become an important
architectural element. Early buildings had been limited in
height by the physical burden on man climbing the large
number of stairs. Upper floors were usually unrentable and
used only for storage or by the janitorial staff. The
elevator changed all of that. In 1865, the average commer-
cial building was five stories tall or about sixty feet
high. By 1872, within a period of only seven years, architects
were already planning buildings four times that high.
(Weisman, 1953). The profits of renting space encouraged
building up. Economists said that a much greater profit
could be acquired by increasing the height of the building by
several stories. Man's ego also encouraged taller buildings.
The prestige of owning the tallest building in the city added
numerous stories to many buildings.
Access was not the only limiting factor to early commer-
cial buildings. The general health conditions for the times
limited the size of the building. .Not until pressurized
plumbing systems were developed could the sanitary problems
of large numbers of people be handled efficiently. Prior
to this outhouses had to be maintained either on the site or
Light and ventilation were also a problem of early
buildings. Many were dark, dreary places with little if
any air movement. Gas lighting provided the first illumina-
tion in these buildings, but it was the use of the electric
light that began to make the spaces more pleasant and useable.
Electricity also advanced the use of the elevator because it
provided a cheap power source much simiplified over the early
steam and hydrolic systems. The new low cost of electric
elevators made them more acceptable in smaller buildings.
Ventilation of the office spaces was a design problem
from the earliest days. Once electricity came into use it
was unnecessary to provide air for combustion. Good ventila-
tion was now desired more for the mere comfort of the occupants.
Consideration in floor planning layout could eliminate most
problems of ventilation and natural light. New structural
materials and methods that came later would allow larger,
more plentiful windows to greatly improve these conditions.
The improvement of fireproofing techniques was another
development that encouraged taller buildings. Most early
commercial construction was done in masonry and wood. Build-
ing had been done for years without concern for fire preven-
tion. Yearly, most major cities lost their major buildings
through frequent and wide spread conflagerations. It was
evident that this was a major problem, yet architects refused
to deal with it. The great fire in Chicago (1871) and a
smaller fire the following year that destroyed much of
Boston, brought about new concern for fireproofing buildings.
The development of cast iron and its first uses as a
structural material at mid-century was an initial step toward
the new era in architecture. It had been hoped that his new
material would he able to survive the flame of a fire and thus
make a building safer. This assumption was only partly
correct. The new iron would not burn as wood might, but
when subjected to high temperatures it would ultimately fail.
Once this fault had been determined by evident failure of
cast iron buildings in the Chicago fire, fireproofing techniques
took a leap forward.
The most important innovation in the direction of com-
plete fireproofing was George H. Johnson's invention of
hollow-tile construction of sub-flooring and partitions. A
designer for Badger's Architectural Iron Works in New York,
Johnson went to Chicago in 1871 to promote his invention.
He fireproofed the Kendall Building where the floors rested
on hollow terra-cotta arches spanning between the wrought
iron joist, and the fixed partitions were build of hollow
The application of tile to the covering of
exposed iron members soon followed and was the next
major step in rounding out the program of fire-
proofing. The result of these decisively important
inventions was that two of the greatest sources of
danger in the event of fire were largely eliminat-
ed. The tile, being fire-resistant up to very high
temperatures, remained intact in the heat of direct
flames. The reduction in the amount of inflam-
mable material in the floor brought about a consequent
reduction in the total amount of material that
could be consumed by fire. The tile covering of
iron members was even more beneficial. The hollow
space inclosed by the individual tiles acted as an
insulator, and the iron could thus be prevented from
melting and often from excessive buckling (Condit,
1964, p. 24).
By the mid-nineteenth century cast iron had found its
place as a structural material. At first, the use of metal
was limited to the columns of buildings where compressive
strength of cast iron could be used to.the best advantage.
Soon, however, it was learned that wrought iron could sup-
ply the tensile strength needed for spandrils and girders.
This knowledge was quickly put to work and it enabled great
advancement in structured design.
New engineering ideas, pioneered by George H. Post and
William LeBaron Jenny, utilized the new materials to allow
major design innovations. Post in his Produce Exchange
(New York City, 1881-85) used what he called "cage construc-
tion" (Weisman, 1972, p. 116). The outer walls supported
themselves while the floor and roof loads were helf up by an
interior metal frame.
Jenny, at the same time, developed- the fore-runner of
what emerged as the skeleton frame construction. In his
Home Life Insurance Building (Chicago, 1884), the upper
stories were supported entirely by the metal frame. The
lower storys' walls were self-supporting, and it was this
small detail that kept this from being the first skeleton
William LaBaron Jenny also pioneered the use of steel as
a structural material. Steel had both the compressive
strength of cast iron and the tensile strength of wrought
iron. With the newly engineered efficient structural shapes
in the form of an "I", steel became the number one structural
material used in the new skeleton construction.
Two other engineering break-throughs were used in
conjunction with the new skeleton construction. These were
isolated footings and caisson foundations. Isolated footings
allowed more freedom in structural design and the caisson
foundation allowed construction of large buildings on sur-
face soil unsuitable for bearing heavy loads.
Although the new technology allowed construction to
reach new heights, it had no real effect on the design. As
Weisman stated, "New construction methods, such as bolted,
revited, then velded frames had virtually no effect on sky-
scrapper appearance. Faster, smoother, and finally automatic
elevators improved service but did not influence form. The
electric light, better plumbing, rore dependable heating
systems and thet.elephone made life more comfortable and bus-
iness easiertto conduct; but these had virtually no effect on
the shape of the structure" (Kaufmann, 1970, p. 154).
Architects of this period, for the most part, were
content to design within the precedence set by earlier de-
signers. Romanticism and the Beaux Arts were very
influential in the design"of the new commercial buildings,
especially during the earlier years.
It was the general'practice,' initially, to utilize
various classical forms in the eclectic fashion. Often a
different motif would be used for each floor or grouping of
floors. This tradition soon became a problem, However, as
the building height began to increase.
George B. Post's Saint Paul Building (New York City,
1898-99) reveals the visual problems that this caused for a
tall building. Post soon became aware of the problem and in
his Havemeyer Building (New York City), he introduced the
first successful solution to the problem. Post felt that
all good art (architecture) should have a base, a middle,
and a top. He compared this to the classical colomn of a
base, a shaft, and a capital. This tripartite system soon was
accepted by many architects and numerous skyscrapers were
built on this principal.
Weisman commented on the appropriatness of the tripartite
The tripartite system seemed ideal for a
twenty story structure, because a five-story.base,
a ten-story shaft, and a five story capital produced
a well proportioned scheme. Entrance details and
a colossally ordered colonade above contributed to
a harmonious combination of elements. However, at
thirty stories or.beyond this, the formula work-
ed less well, and as building height increased, the
problem of attractively relating the parts to the
whole became more difficult (Kauffman, 1970, p. 144).
The tripartite systems had its limitations. At the
same time that it was most used, others were working on a
more suitable design solution for the tall commercial build-
ing. Hoffmann described the outlook of John Wellborn Root
and his contemporaries toward design:
Reverance for nature was, of course, one of the
dominant forces of Romantic thought in general.
From such an outlook arose the belief in an honest
expression of construction, with ornament serving
to articulate structure and to furnish only those
details necessary to complete th entity; and a use
of materials based on their natural structural
potentialities and natural beauty--revealing the
grain of wood, the soft colorings of marble, the
permanence of granite and other stone, the earthen
hues of brick and terra cotta, and the linear tensible
strength of iron and steel (Hoffman, 1967, p. 24).
This general idea was carried further by William
LeBaron Jenny in his comments in 1889 to an Architectural
Sketch Club in Chicago:
Engineering is the science of building well
and economically, and architecture is the applica-
tion of art to engineering. Fergusson's definition,
"Architecture is ornamental and ornamented construc-
tion,",..is but another way of expressing the same
thing. First, the construction, i.e., the engineer-
ing...Then the application of art, the adjusting of
the proportions so that the construction is pleas-
ing in its appearance, and then for further
ornamentation, the details of the construction are
accented by moldings and carving...The practical is
at the bottom of the whole, and underlies all
that makes claim to architecture. The plan and
the entire construction...is purely practical
science, leaving but a small and superficial area
for the application of art (as stated by Jordy,
1972, p. 40).
Jenny not only presented his idea of what architecture should
be, but he also recognized the trend toward the separation
of the engineering and architectural duties.
The new steel framing needed a new form of architec-
ture. This was recognized by Holabird and Roche in their
Marquette Building (Chicago, 1894). The steel frame is
fully proclaimed in the grid-like design, though by law it
had to be covered by masonry. On the Marquette Building
the masonry remained simple, little if any surface decora-
tion was apparent.
Perhaps the master of architecture as Jenny saw it was
Louis Sullivan. Although initially influenced by Henry
Richardson's Marshall Field's Wholesale Store (Chicago,
1885-87) and evidenced by his (Sullivan) Auditorium Building
(Chicago, 1887-89), Sullivan's later works reveal his mastery
of architectural decoration. Adler and Sullivan's Wainwright
Building (Saint Louis, 1890-91) clearly demonstrates
Sullivan's understanding of. the mas.ing, and decoration of
After breaking with Adler in 1895, Sullivan built the
Carson Firie Scott Store (Chicago, 18990-1904). By and
large this building--incredible for its date--could have
been designed at any time .in the last fifty years and con-
sidered a success. It accepts, and indeed exploits, all
the implications of its structure.
Sullivan also created a new kind of ornament. In
realizing the potentialities of ductile metal and convolut-
ed or tense curves, he made some of the finest and most
sensual ornaments of his time. The ground floor of the
Carson Pirie Scott Store, otherwise so austire, glows with
After 1900 architecture continued in its various directions
much as before the turn of the century. The Columbian
Exposition in Chicago (1893) had some influence, possibly
setting back the modern movement of commercial building
design. Its buildings designed within the Roman character
turned many architects to revival styles.
The new heights being demanded by the building clients
caused the need for further changes in design. A new form
was needed and architects found the tower the solution.
Ernest Flagg in his Singer Building Addition (New York City,
1906) and Nepoleon Brun with his Metropolitan Tower (New York
City, 1901) revealed this new attitude.
George B. Post and Ernest Flagg foresaw, however, the
problem of unregulated construction and its effect on city
streets, raking there dark, windy corridors between rows of
tall buildings. In 1916, the New York building code was
changed, establihsing rigid restrictions as to height of
buildings in comparison to the width of the street. This
resulted in the "set back", or ",ziggurate" skyscraper style
The years following this period of study brought many
design changes. The Tribune Tower (Chicago, 1922-25) result-
ed in a Gothic revival tower. The wide publicity of this
completion made the American public aware of commercial
design in architecture. Later years, after 1930, commercial
buildings took on another design theory form. This form is
represented by the Rockefeller Center (New York City, 1931-
40) featuring a solution with limited space development,
park-like setting, and often of multi-block dimensions.
The most recent trend seems to be an extension of this
park-like development of the Rockefeller Center to a totally
isolated development in the suburbs and/or rural areas.
The prime example is the John Deere Headquarters (near
Moline, Illinois, 1964) in its rural park-like setting.
This short survey of the development of commercial
buildings cannot begin to be complete. The topic is too
complex and too detailed to be adequately covered within one
quarter of study.
The years between 1870 and 1920 saw the rise of American
cities. It was during these years that American business had
its large growth. American business, once blue collar
oriented, had become white collar and "big business." The
commercial buildings of the time had to provide for this
It is particularly important for the architect involved
in preservation to be aware of the commercial style and its
impact in every city across the country. Although born in
New York City and Chicago, the downtown business districts
of every city in America has felt the influence. It is
also important that the preservationist remain conscious of
the different movements and styles in the development of the
commercial building. Let him not so short sighted as Whiffin
when he stated, "commercial buildings are of five to six-
teen stories with straight fronts, or slgiht cnetral
projections at most, flat roofs, and level skylines"
(Whiffin, 1974, p. 183). I believe that anyone who has
studied commercial buildings will be fully aware of the over-
simplification of this statement. If nothing more, I hope
this survey of commercial building development brings about
Andrews, W. American Gotic: Its Origins, Its Trials,
Its Triumphs. New York: Random House, 1975.
Andrews, W. Architecture in New York. New York: New York
Andrews, W. Architecutre of Chicago and Mid-America.
New York: New York Atheneum, 1968.
"Banker Trust Building," Architecture, 25:5 pp. 69-71,
May 15, 1912.
Caparn, H.A. "The Riddle of the .Tall Building: Has the
Skyscraper a Place in American Architecture," The
Craftsman, pp. 477-488,-,July, 1906.
"Commercial Buildings," Architectural Record, 8:3 pp 231-63,
January-March, 1899. :
"Commercial Buildings," Architectural Record, 26:1 pp. 84-89,
"Commercial Palaces,'~ Architects.': and Builders' Magazine,
7:177, February; 1906. -
Condit, C.W. The Chicago-School of Architecture. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1964.
"Critique of Architecture in New York and Philadelphia,"
Architectural Record, 7:219, July-September, 1897.
Edgerton, G. "How New York Has Redeemed Herself from Ugli-
ness," The Craftsman, pp. 458, January, 1907.
Ferry, W.H. The Buildings of Detroit. Detroit: Wayne
State University Press, 1968.
Fitch, J.M. American Building: The Forces that Shaped It.
New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
"Flatiron Fuller Building," Architectural Record, 12:5
pp. 528-536, October, 1902.
Million, E.V., Jr. Early Illustrations and Views of American
Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Gillions, E.V., Jr. & Gayle, M. Cast Iron Architecture in
New York. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.
Guralnik, D.B. (ed.) Webster's New World Dictionary of the
American Language. New York: World Publishing Co., 1970.
"Hallidie Building," American Architect, 113:2205 p- 393,
March 27. 1918.
Hoffman, D. (ed.) Buildings and W ritings by John Wellborn
Root: The Meanings of Architecture. New York: Horizons
"John Shillito Store,"' American Architect and Building News,
Jordon, R.F. A Concise History of.Western Architecture.
London: Harcourt, Brace & World Incorporated, 1970.
Jordy, W.H. American Buildings and Their Architects: Progres-
sive and Academic Ideals at the Turn. of the Twentieth
Century. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972.
Loth, C. & Gadler, J.T., Jr. The Only..Proper Style.
Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.
Morgan, K. American Victorian Architecture. New York:
Dover Publications, 1975.
Office Buildings: An Architectural Record Book. New York:
McGraw-Hill Company, 1961.
Pierson, W.H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects:
The Colonial and Neo-Classical Styles. New York:
Doubleday and Company, 1970.
Schuyler, M. American Architectural Studies. New York:
Harper & Brothers, 1892.
Siegal, A. (ed.) Chicago's Famous Buildings. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1971.
"Singer Building," Architectural Record, 15:3 pp. 274-84,
Spraque, P.E. "The Wainwright--Landmark Built and Saved,"
Historic Preservation, pp. 5-11, October-December, 1974.
"Times Building," American Architect and Building News,
"Tribune Tower Building," Architectural.Forum, 41:3 pp. 97-100,
Webster, J.C. "The Skyscraper: Logical and Historical
Considerations," Society of Architectural Historians
Journal, pp.126-139, December, 1959.
Weisman, W. "A New View of Skyscraper History," The Rise
of American Architecture, edited by Edgar Kaufman, Jr.
New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970.
Weisman, W. "The Commercial Architecture of George B. Post,"
Society of Architectural Historians Journal, p. 176,
Weisman, W. "New York and the Problem of the First Sky-
scraper," Society of Architectural Historians Journal
p. 13, March, 1953.
"Works of D.H. Burnham," Architectural Record, 38:1-168,
Whiffin, M. American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the
Styles. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1969.