The American Skyscraper 1850-1940:
A Celebration of Height
By Joseph J. Korom, Jr.
Branden Books 2008
ISBN: 13: 978-0-8283-2188-4
Reviewed by G. A. Bixler
By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into it and they
Mingle among its twenty floors...
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and out all day
That give the building a soul of dreams and thoughts and memories...
-Carl Sandburg (p. 325)
Sheer serendipity brought me into the formal facilities planning and management activities I directed for many years. However, in many ways, it merged with an instinctual love of the architectural form in all of its beauty. Thus, for me, Joseph Korom’s The American Skyscraper, will become much more¾a “coffee-table” book to be picked up and read again and again.
In reality, however, it is a complete text on the history of America’s creation and use of Skyscrapers with in-depth information and over 300 images highlighting buildings across the United States. It includes over 60 pages for the bibliography, index, footnotes, and tabular presentations of celebrated skyscrapers! The author notes, “Between its covers are the stories of 287 American skyscrapers which were, or still are, located in seventy-one cities and towns...” (p. 21) Reflections of exterior details or interior shots, as well as architects’ personal pictures, create a significant historical contribution for the libraries of both students and professionals in the fields of architectural and engineering, as well as all those who, like myself, are awed with the majesty and beauty of structures.
Architect Joseph Korom earned a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he also served as mentor. He is an accomplished artist whose paintings are represented in many private collections and is a freelance writer, architectural critic, and photographer. He is a member of the Society of Architectural Historians, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Joseph Korom, who has also authored Look Up Milwaukee (1979) and Milwaukee Architecture A Guide to Notable Buildings (1995.
“Very tall buildings, those now known as “skyscrapers,” were invented here—in America.... Humans built tall for many reasons: to do so was communally satisfying, personally fulfilling and perhaps most of all it was a celebratory act—for everyone. To build tall was defiant, it was risky and it was scary but inherent in these anxieties was the conquering of height itself, to pierce the sky with a manmade object while still tethered to the ground was simply irresistible...” (pps. 14-15) Korom thus introduces his impressive text with a brief historical perspective of the brave men who began to build high and chronicles “this country’s unique contribution to architecture...” (p. 16).
Presenting Chicago’s Sear Tower as his first picture, he notes that it “is the ultimate expression of skyscraper technology and is the embodiment of vertical manifest destiny. It stands 110 floors, 1,454 feet tall, and is North America’s tallest skyscraper.” The author includes interesting factual information such as when he notes, “When the sun sets, pedestrians at the Sears Tower’s base are plunged into shade. But due to the curvature of the earth, shade covers the tower’s floors from bottom moving upward at the rate of one floor per second. Consequently, those at the building’s top enjoy approximately two more minutes of sunlight...” (p. 21)
When I explored the buildings on the West Virginia University campus, working to better manage the utilization of those facilities and then plan what was needed to meet future needs, it was always the older buildings that I found more intriguing. Exploring Woodburn Hall all the way up into the clock tower, or walking through Chitwood and Martin Halls, prior to their being gutted and renovated, I thrilled at the basic beauty we wanted to retain, while at the same time, create updated classrooms, offices, and teaching laboratories that were needed for our School of Journalism and many departments within our College of Arts and Sciences.
Thus, as I read through A Celebration of Height, it was not surprising that I eagerly studied the buildings with the older styles that were used during the “courageous beginnings” starting in 1850. (p. 22). Zachary Taylor was president “during the planning and erection of the famed Jayne Building in Philadelphia. Knowing that “Old Rough and Ready” was in charge helps place the birth of the American skyscraper in historical context.” (p. 23)
The following buildings included in the Celebration are just a few of those particularly enjoyed by this former Facilities professional/reviewer! I am sure others will choose those more modern.
- The Palmer House Hotel in Chicago; built 1872, by the “first merchant prince of Chicago, Potter Palmer, at the cost of $200,000. (pps. 49-50)
- Madison Square Garden Tower, 16 floors, 304 feet, New York. (P. 158)
- Women’s Temple, Chicago, 1892, home of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (p. 166)
- Columbus Memorial Building, topped by a giant bronze status of Christopher Columbus, built in 1893. “In an utterly wanton act, this delightful skyscraper was demolished in 1959.” (p. 179)
- Trinity Church, New York City. Its steeple once ranked it the tallest structure on Manhattan Island. (p. 190)
- The Carson Pirie Scott Store’s main entrance is marked by a most robust example of foliage This twisting mélange was executed in iron then painted a forest green. This building, completed in 1904, immediately was propelled into the annals of architectural immortality. The Chicago Loop was now home to a large department store, rising twelve stories, 168 feet. The building featured some of the most compelling ornamentation anywhere. (pps. 231-232)
- City Investing Building, New York City, 1908, 487 feet, and containing one-half million square feet, making it the world’s largest office building. “If ever there was a skyscraper that evoked romance, historicism, capitalism, and the optimism of the early twentieth century the City Investing Building was it. Here was a tower that drew upon inspiration from French Baroque sources, and in so doing, cut a delightful profile on New York’s skyline. (p. 271)
- Bromo-Seltzer Tower, Baltimore, 1911, 15 floors, 280 feet tall, with a facsimile of the original Bromo-Seltzer bottle atop its tower! (pps. 294-295)
- Peter Cooper first manufactured structural beam for the Cooper Union Building in New York, thus setting the stage for skeleton construction and ultimately the skyscraper. (p. 25). Also in New York, the mid-19th century marked the age of cast iron architecture and is still concentrated in the “Cast Iron District, as a living museum, near the Greenwich Village. (p. 28)
- And, of course, the history of the skyscraper must also include the invention of the elevator. Manhattan’s Haughwout Building was the first commercial building to employ a passenger elevator. “It was capable of lifting one-half ton at the rate of forty feed per minute and it was the first of its kind anywhere” when it was installed in 1857. Any facilities professional will not be surprised to hear that Elisha Graves Otis who eventually founded the Otis Elevator Company installed it. (pps. 28-29)
In addition to detailed facilities information, I also enjoyed the smaller details Korom added for interest, such as “Probably for the first time unrelated men and women worked side-by-side for eight or more hours in the same one or two rooms...skyscrapers, probably from their very inception, were places where ‘advantages were acted upon’ or there were rumors of such behavior...” (p. 137) and the various interior shots of those men and women dressed as they were at that time. Truly, The American Skyscraper 1850-1940: A Celebration of Height is a book that is highly recommended to all those interested in America’s history!
By his buildings great in influence and power...
His philosophy where, in “Form Follows function”
Sullivan has earned his place as one of the greatest
Architectural forces in America...
--Memorial Mark to Louis Henri Sullivan (p. 195)
G. A. Bixler, Retired as Associate Director,
Facilities Planning and Management,
West Virginia University
and is now an
Independent Professional Book Reviewer