The Wainwright Building and the Home Insurance Building Architectural Comparison

718 words | 3 page(s)

Louis Sullivan designed and constructed The Wainwright Building completing its construction in 1890. In its design and construction, Sullivan set out to achieve several objectives. One was to eliminate historical ornaments from buildings. Another objective was to use new materials and techniques in construction. Still, Sullivan set to establish new decorations for the surface, to express the building’s structure more clearly and to express the commercial purpose of the building much more clearly (Vladimir, 1981). Louis Sullivan succeeded in achieving all these objectives in the Wainwright building.

Prior to the construction of the Wainwright building, buildings designs included historical ornaments adorning their structure such as carvings of angels, gargoyles, former presidents or even previous wars. Sullivan succeeded in eliminating all these decorations in the Wainwright building. Building construction also utilized stone blocks to enhance stability. The more stability a building required, the larger the stone blocks required. Sullivan used a steel framework to enhance the building’s stability then in a stone outer shell. The Wainwright Building comprised of three parts in its construction. A ground floor and first floor with large windows for shops followed by a middle section meant for offices with narrower windows and vertical elements meant to dramatize the building’s height. Finally, a capping cone was meant for storage of mechanical equipment. The base housing the shops was broad to support the upper floors. Besides, to provide even more stability, the building had an underground foundation of about two floors made of concrete reinforced with steel.

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Sullivan was not the first architect to use the steel frame in the design of buildings to enhance the strength of the structure. However, he was the first to use exterior decorations in the form of the spires to provide more mechanical support. Use of steel skeleton meant a more thin wall in many buildings such as the home insurance building. A thinner wall meant less resistance to wind load. For example, the home insurance building completed in 1884 utilized an iron framework from the ground floor up to the sixth floor followed by a steel frame from the sixth floor to the twelfth floor. However, the building lacked eternal support against wind load a factor that led to its demolition in 1931. The Home Insurance Building set out the pace in utilizing a full metal structure skeleton which enabled it to rise to its landmark 12 floors at that period. Many architects, therefore, consider The Home Insurance Building as the world’s first true skyscraper.

The Home Insurance Building may have been the first building to utilize the metal skeleton structure but its structure included a heavy masonry encasing both to counter wind load and to support the building especially owing to the weak qualities of Chicago soil in supporting high buildings (Tallmadge, 1939). The design of the building was by William Le Baron Jenney and in its design, he aimed at achieving maximum illumination for the office blocks. To achieve this, Jenney utilized large glass windows for the office windows. In contrast, the Wainwright Building Utilized a style called the “U” Plan to provide light and air to the office blocks. In the U plan, the architect designs the building in such a manner that the different wings of the building form a “U” shape and therefore they trap air and light (David, 1999).

The Home Insurance Building was less visually appealing than the Wainwright Building especially owing to its heavy external masonry encasing. Furthermore, the external spires of the Wainwright building added to its visual appeal combined with the attic capping. It attests to the superiority of the Wainwright building over other buildings of that time that the building still stands today. The Wainwright Building and the Home Insurance Buildings are two of the world’s earliest skyscrapers. Despite the short period between their construction dates, the Wainwright building took major steps in material usages, design, and esthetic value compared to the Home Insurance Building.

  • Bazjanac, Vladimir. “Energy Analysis: Wainwright State Office Complex” Progressive Architecture. (198 l), p. 102-107.
  • David, Arnold., The Evolution of Modern Office Buildings and Air Conditioning, ASHRAE Journal, (1999), p. 40-54
  • Tallmadge, Thomas,. The Origin of the Skyscraper: Report of the Committee appointed by the Trustees of the Estate of Marshall Field for the Examination of the Structure of the Home Insurance Building. (rep. Chicago: Alderbrink Press, 1939.)

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