The Birth of the
A
merican Skyscraper


 



The Flatiron Building (1903)
175 Fifth Avenue at East 23rd Street
New York City


    The Skyscraper, modern American cities are defined by them.  Their towering spires and intricate shapes, the word itself brings to mind the steel and glass towers which climb thousands of feet into the sky.  While most Americans look upon the Sears Tower, World Trade Center or Empire State Building as the ultimate achievement of modern skyscraper design, it is a modest twenty story building, built in a section of the city which, at the turn of the century was considered “uptown”, that holds the distinction of having starting it all; The Flatiron Building.  Built at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue by Daniel H. Burnham, the Flatiron Building conforms to the triangular plot of land which marks the intersection of East 23rd Street.  At twenty stories tall the building quickly became a symbol of the skyscraper era and is considered the nations first true skyscraper.  A rusticated limestone facade build on a steel frame, the building, when viewed from the north, “resembled a ship sailing up the Avenue.” (From Architectural Record # 12 (1902); 128-36 Seth M. Scheiner)  Despite the far taller buildings that were later built, having survived the wrecking ball and modernization of the Broadway/Fifth Avenue section of the city, the Flatiron Building remains one of the few surviving examples of early 20th century technology, and the perfect example of early 1900's architectural composition.

The Design

    An American architectural movement, based in the late 19th-century Chicago and identified with that city as The Chicago School, was the adherents of which produced the skyscraper, the first true manifestation of modern architecture.  In 1855 the architect-engineer William Le Baron Jenney built the ten story Home Insurance Building in Chicago, employing for the first time an all metal skeleton of cast iron columns and steel beams to support the masonry shell of floors and walls, thus creating the prototype of all skyscraper design.

    Four young architects, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, and Martin Roche, who worked in Jenney’s Chicago office, became leaders of the movement.  As partners, Holabird and Roche created such significant steel-framed structures as the Tacoma Building (1889, demolished 1925), while Burnham and John Wellborn Root formed a brilliant architectural firm that built such landmark office buildings as the Rookery (1886), the Monadnock Building (1891), and the Reliance Building (1895).  But it would be Daniel Burnham who would achieve fame by designing New York City’s famed triangular skyscraper, the Flatiron (originally Fuller) Building in 1902.  Sullivan, however, eventually became acknowledged as the genius of the group, joining with the architect Dankmar Adler to build such masterpieces as the Auditorium Building (1890), combining a hotel, an office tower, and an acoustically perfect theater, and the Wainwright Building (1891) in Saint Louis, the epitome of the style in combination of cleanly functional structure and graceful terra-cotta and metal embellishment.  On his own Sullivan created the Schlesinger and Meyer Store (1899-1904), with unadorned glass and steel walls set off by a series of richly foliate metal panels adorning the street-floor facade.  The Chicago School’s tenets of functional clarity and organic decoration were carried on by Sullivan’s pupil Frank Loyd Wright, who became one of the greatest architects of the 20th century.

The Architect

    Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson New York in 1846   Along with his partner John Wellborn Root they became the leaders of the Chicago School, with Burnham acting as administrator while Root was the designer.  Their many commissions in Chicago included the Masonic Temple (1890), which was then the tallest building in the world.  They also helped to plan the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but Root died before the project was completed.  In addition to the Flatiron Building, Burnham was also a member of the commission to enhance Washington D.C.  Besides the famous Burnham plan for Chicago of 1909 (a urban renewal plain for reconstructing sections of Chicago’s older districts), he also designed notable plans for the cities of Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and San Francisco and was commissioned to do plans for Manila and other cities in the Philippines.  Burnham passed away in 1912, at the age of 56.

The Building

    The Flatiron or Fuller Building was erected in 1903, construction having begun the year before in 1902.  It quickly gained the distinction of becoming Americas first true skyscraper.  At 285 feet this twenty (20) story high building quickly became a midtown landmark, stretching 19th century technology in construction to its limits.  Built on a steel frame and covered with non-load-bearing masonry, the facade was designed to resemble a classical pillar, with ornate scrolling and a protruding ornamented base and top.  It was financed by Colorado gold miner Nathan Fuller¹, who struck it rich and decided to invest in New York City with this building.  It’s unique triangular shape, resembling the shape of an old style iron, gave the building it’s nickname “Flatiron” and subsequently the name stuck.  Its 24 levels, including a sub-basement, mezzanine, and attic, housed three shops, a barber shop, over two hundred offices, six Otis water-hydraulic elevators, and two main boiler systems to provide heating throughout the building. Although the building has seen better times in the last 93 years, the barber shop as well as the other shops have since closed, the building still remains a prime draw for New York City office space, and continues to employ 19th century technology in its daily function.

The Elevator System

    Although primitive elevators operated by human and animal power or by water wheels were in use as early as the 3rd century BC, the modern power elevator is largely a product of the 19th century.  Most elevators of the 19th century were powered by steam engines, either directly or through some form of hydraulic drive.  In the early 19th century hydraulic plunger elevators were used in some European factories.  In this type of elevator the car is mounted on a hollow steel plunger that drops into a cylinder sunk into the ground.  Water or some other fluid forced into the cylinder under pressure raises the plunger and car, which fall by gravity when the fluid is released.  In early installations the main valve controlling the flow of liquid was operated by hand by means of a rope running vertically through the car.  Lever control and pilot valves regulating acceleration and deceleration were later improvements, but the relatively low speeds of this design, 75 feet per minute, made this system impractical for any height over 5 stories.

    Powered elevators in the United States began in 1850, when a crude freight hoist operating between two adjacent floors was installed in a New York City building.  In 1853, at the New York Crystal Palace exposition, American inventor and manufacture Elisha Otis exhibited an elevator equipped with a device called a safety to stop the fall of the car if the hoisting rope broke.  In this event a spring would operate two pawls on the car, forcing them into engagement racks at the side of the shaft so as to support the car.  This invention gave impetus to elevator construction.  In these late 19th century elevators, a steam engine was connected by belt and gears to a revolving drum on which the hoisting ropes were wound.  In the 1870s the rope-geared hydraulic elevator was introduced by Elisha Otis’ company, The Otis Elevator Company.  The plunger was replaced in this type of elevator by a relatively short piston moving in a cylinder that was mounted, either vertically or horizontally, within the building.  The effective length of the stroke of the piston was multiplied by a system of ropes and sheaves.  Because of its smoother operation and greater speed and efficiency, the roped-hydraulic elevator generally replaced the type with a rope wound on a revolving drum.

    The elevators within the Flatiron Building are of the roped-hydraulic type, with 5 to 1 (5:1) roping.  Water was pumped into the cylinder by a series of steam pumps.  A rope, traveling vertically through the elevator car the length of the hoistway, is activated by a hand lever to open the two main valves and determine direction.  Pulling down on the rope allows water to flood the cylinder, raising the piston which is attached to a series of counterweights with a series of sheaves mounted on top of them.  This action would lower the car through the hoistway, as the direction of travel of the piston was in direct oppersistion to the direction of travel to the car.  In 5:1 roping the hoist ropes, which consist of four (4) 3/4 inch traction steel ropes, wrap around a series of five sheaves before being attached to the cross head at the top of the car.  This allows the car to obtain great speeds without having to employ a long piston within the cylinder.  A device called an Angle Clamp, mounted inside the car and activated by the hand lever, is closed as the car is approaching the desired floor.  The clamp grabs hold of the operating rope pulling it up (or down), closing the main valve and stopping the elevator.  To ascend the operator operates the lever in the opposite direction pulling up on the rope, opening the release valve and allowing gravity to pull the piston and counterweights back into the cylinder, thus rising the car through the hoistway.

    Although improvements in winding drum type elevators and the invention of the traction type elevator in the early 1900s replaced the roped-hydraulic elevator, the water hydraulic system in use at the Flatiron Building is one of the few systems of this type still in operation to this date.  The current system, which was modernized in 1950, and then again in 1989 to eliminate the hand lever² and add automatic controls, employs six pumping units of 75 horse power, 208 volts each, and is capable of lifting 2,000lbs through the hoistway at a speed of 400 feet per minute.  Unfortunately, due to the nature of the system and the preventive maintaince needed to maintain its great age, the elevator systems are currently undergoing replacement with the more practical computerized gearless-traction type elevator system.

The Building In American Culture

    The Flatiron Building’s architectural composition has been copied many time in many cities within the United States.  The building, however, holds the distinction of being the only building within the United States built in the middle of a metropolitan area to face the grave sight of a Civil War veteran.  His grave is located in a small plot of land marked by a monument between Fifth Avenue and Broadway at West 25th street.  The building also has the distinction of contributing to American  culture.  Its tapered structure creates unusual wind currents at ground level.  Back in the 1920s police officers were posted at the building to prevent men gathering to watch the wind raise the skirts of women passing on the 23rd street side.  The cry they gave to warn off voyeurs “23 skidoo!” has since passed into American culture.

Endnotes:

¹ This fact can not be confirmed, and the name of the investor may have been lost to time.  The name Nathan Fuller was found on a copy of a New York City visitors guide dated around 1925.  It is included here as a point of reference only.  Also, as the building was not constructed with the knowledge that it would become the first skyscraper, information on  its construction and financing is limited.  Building built around this time period were expected to last only 20-30 years, attested by the fact that most of the buildings designed by Jenney and his associates have been pulled down.

² Five (5) of the original six (6) elevators were modernized, with elevator #1 being the only car to retain the original operating system.

Sources:

Essay © 2004 John Rocco Roberto.

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