The First Skyscrapers

Exterior of Chicago's Home Insurance Building, widely considered to be the world's first modern skyscraper.
Chicago's Home Insurance Building, widely considered to be the world's first modern skyscraper. Chicago History Museum / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The first skyscrapers—tall commercial buildings with iron or steel frameworks—came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chicago Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, is generally considered the first modern skyscraper, although it was only 10 stories high. Later, taller and taller buildings were made possible through a series of architectural and engineering innovations, including the invention of the first process to mass-produce steel. Today, the tallest skyscrapers in the world approach and even exceed heights of 2,000 feet.

Skyscraper History

  • A skyscraper is a tall commercial building with an iron or steel framework. 
  • They were made possible as a result of the Bessemer process of mass production of steel beams. 
  • The first modern skyscraper was created in 1885, the 10-story Chicago Home Insurance Building.
  • Early extant skyscrapers include the 1891 Wainwright Building in St. Louis and the 1902 Flatiron Building in New York City. 

First Skyscraper: Chicago Home Insurance Building

The first tall building supported by structural steel was the Chicago Home Insurance Building, which was finished in 1885. The building was 10 stories tall and reached a height of 138 feet. Two additional stories were added in 1891, bringing the height to 180 feet. The building was demolished in 1931 and replaced with the Field Building, an even taller skyscraper with 45 stories.

Early Skyscrapers

New York Taxi & Flat Iron Building, New York, United States of America
The Flat Iron Building, NYC.

Barry Neal/Getty Images

Although the first skyscrapers were relatively small by today's standards, they marked an important turn in urban construction and development. Some of the most notable early skyscrapers were:

  • Tacoma Building (Chicago): Constructed using a riveted iron and steel frame, the Tacoma Building was designed by the major architectural firm Holabird & Root.
  • Rand McNally Building (Chicago): The Rand McNally Building, completed in 1889, was the first skyscraper built with an all-steel frame.
  • The Masonic Temple Building (Chicago): Featuring commercial, office, and meeting space, the Masonic Temple was completed in 1892. For a time it was the tallest building in Chicago.
  • Tower Building (New York City): The Tower Building, completed in 1889, was the first skyscraper in New York City.
  • American Surety Building (New York City): At 300 feet tall, this 20-story building broke Chicago's height record when it was completed in 1896.
  • New York World Building (New York City): This building was home to the New York World newspaper.
  • Wainwright Building (St. Louis): This skyscraper, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, is famous for its terracotta facade and ornamentation.
  • Flatiron Building (New York City): The Flatiron Building is a triangular, steel-frame marvel that still stands in Manhattan today. In 1989, it was made a National Historic Landmark.

Mass Produced Steel Allows Construction of Skyscrapers

Portrait of Henry Bessemer, british inventor
Henry Bessemer. clu/Getty Images

Construction of skyscrapers was made possible thanks to Henry Bessemer, who invented the first process to mass-produce steel inexpensively. An American, William Kelly, had held a patent for "a system of air blowing the carbon out of pig iron," but bankruptcy forced Kelly to sell his patent to Bessemer, who had been working on a similar process for making steel. In 1855, Bessemer patented his own "decarbonization process, utilizing a blast of air." This breakthrough opened the door for builders to start making taller and taller structures. Modern steel today is still made using technology based on Bessemer's process.

While “the Bessemer process” kept Bessemer’s name well-known long after his death, lesser known today is the man who actually employed that process to innovate the first skyscraper: George A. Fuller. In the 19th century, construction techniques called for outside walls to carry the load of a building’s weight. Fuller, however, had a different idea.

He realized that buildings could bear more weight—and therefore soar higher—if he used Bessemer steel beams to give buildings a load-bearing skeleton on the inside of the building. In 1889, Fuller erected the Tacoma Building, a successor to the Home Insurance Building that became the first structure ever built where the outside walls did not carry the weight of the building. Using Bessemer steel beams, Fuller developed a technique for creating steel cages that would be used in subsequent skyscrapers.

The Flatiron Building was one of New York City's first skyscrapers, built in 1902 by Fuller's building company. Daniel H. Burnham was the chief architect.

Taller buildings were also made possible by the invention of the electric elevator in 1883, which reduced the amount of time it took to travel between floors, and the invention of electric lighting, which made it easier to illuminate larger spaces.

Chicago School of Architecture

Many of the earliest skyscrapers were built in an architectural style that came be known as the Chicago School. These steel-frame structures often featured terra cotta exteriors, plate glass windows, and detailed cornices. Architects associated with the Chicago School include Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (who designed the Old Chicago Stock Exchange Building), Henry Hobson Richardson, and John Wellborn Root. Buildings in the Chicago style were built in places as far away as Florida, Canada, and New Zealand.