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Title: The Development of the commercial building in America
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Title: The Development of the commercial building in America
Physical Description: Archival
Language: English
Creator: Harper, Doyle R.
Publisher: Doyle R. Harper
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: June 2, 1978
Copyright Date: 1978
General Note: Course number: AE675
General Note: Professor Philip Wisley
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Full Text




Doyle R. Harper

Prepared for

Professor Phillip P. Wisely

as partial fulfillment for AE 675

Spring, 1978

June 2, 1978

Table of Contents

The Development of the Commercial
Building in America: 1870-1920 . . . . 1

Bibliography .. . . . 14



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

upper floors.

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

terra-cotta block.

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

frame building.

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

elevation design:

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

tall buildings.

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

that ornament.

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

that followed.

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

that awaremeness.


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