The Flatiron Building in New York, circa 1902-1910
Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co. The Flatiron Building in New York, circa 1902-1910

Back in the 1990s, for New York Magazine, I interviewed the Manhattan-based engineer Donald Friedman, a specialist in the structural quirks of historic buildings, about what happens when a façade fails. He explained to me that when collapse is imminent, there’ll be “a rain of mortar before the bricks themselves actually start falling out. So it’s like, ‘Why am I getting pelted by sand?’ ” I asked him how one should respond to that particular set of circumstances. He replied, “Run.”

I remember being fascinated by Friedman’s intimacy with the guts of historic buildings and the impression he gave that his work as a preservation engineer was an unending series of epiphanies. So when I learned that he’d just published a new book, The Structure of Skyscrapers in America 1871-1900: Their History and Preservation (Association for Preservation Technology International), I was eager to read it. Not that I’m the intended audience: I’m not a preservationist per se nor am I involved with the restoration of historic buildings. But I am greatly interested in old skyscrapers as technological artifacts, and the way our complicated, often ambivalent relationship with innovative systems and materials has always shaped our cities.

Association for Preservation Technology International

Friedman’s approach is deep and immersive. His book is an extensive journey through 19th-century building technology, much of it obscure and forgotten. The first half of the book explores the forces that led to the construction of the earliest skyscrapers (there were more of them than history acknowledges). And in a second, 200-page section, he’s documented 443 early examples of the form, with the requirements that they have been structurally complete by 1900 and stood at least 10 stories tall. Oddly, the one building that doesn’t fit Friedman’s formula is on the cover: Manhattan’s Flatiron building. At 22 stories, it was tall enough, but it was still under construction in 1902 when the photograph was taken. Friedman justifies its inclusion this way: “That photo was too good to not use.”

Jacobs: What did you think you were looking for when you started working on this book over 20 years ago, and what did you find in the end?
Friedman: The final product doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like originally. But it is exactly the same question through the whole 20-plus year march. That is, if you look at architectural histories they tend to give you a technological, determinist view of skyscrapers. Which is to say, people invented the steel frame so it got used. As the history of technology goes, that’s not a very good story. So that’s the first problem I had.

The second problem is those histories—with some exceptions—tend to focus on the same 30 to 40 early skyscrapers. If you know the field you can rattle them off: the Home Insurance Building, American Surety, and so on. I thought, There’s got to be more to this story than that. I actually studied the history of technology a bit and that’s not the way things work.

Elevation of the Tribune Building in New York City by Richard Morris Hunt, circa 1873
Library of Congress Elevation of the Tribune Building in New York City by Richard Morris Hunt, circa 1873
The Shoe and Leather Bank in New York, circa 1894
Library of Congress/J.S. Johnston The Shoe and Leather Bank in New York, circa 1894

What do you mean by that?
The idea that somebody invents something is just about dead in the history of technology. It’s an evolutionary process. Yes, inventors speed things up, they refocus, but nothing is from nothing.

There were already filament light bulbs before Edison got involved with that field. He improved them. He created a system where they would work. He did all sorts of useful things, but he didn’t invent the filament light bulb.

So the hero inventor or hero architect is convenient for telling a story, but it isn’t necessarily the real story?
Exactly. The second problem was the limited number of buildings. In engineering, when you don’t know how to analyze something, you can always fall back on brute force and say I’ll start from scratch and analyze everything.

So I said, “What if I just look for all of the buildings in the country that meet some definition of skyscraper?”

And the definition you came up with was buildings that were at least 10 stories tall …
… and structurally complete before the end of 1900.

It’s weird that the history of skyscrapers is, to some extent, a lost history, that there’s whole body of work that don’t appear in those histories.
One of the problems is that the two areas where early skyscrapers were concentrated, the Chicago Loop and Lower Manhattan, have been heavily rebuilt. So most of those buildings are gone. One of the reasons the history got lost is that people don’t know about what buildings they don’t know about.

Nassau Street in New York City circa 1905, before the advent of setback zoning laws
Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co. Nassau Street in New York City circa 1905, before the advent of setback zoning laws

Still, it’s odd that something so familiar is also so elusive.
When you read the old descriptions they talk about the “canyons of Lower Manhattan.” I live and work in Lower Manhattan and I wouldn’t ever use the word canyon. But that’s because we’ve gotten used to what the setback zoning law in 1916 did, and the plazas from the 1960s. When I play tour guide, I take people to Thames Street between 111 and 115 Broadway, and I take them to Pine St. east of Broadway next to the Equitable Building. When you go to those two locations, you’re in the position that people in 1898 were in: having very tall buildings with no setbacks right up to the lot line on both sides of the street. Those are two blocks where you can re-create that feeling.

Are there buildings you discovered that surprised you? Hidden gems and oddities?
My absolute favorite building is called the Manice Building, which belongs to this weird class that appeared in New York only: skyscrapers that have the footprint of a row house. They are less than 25 feet wide, and less than 60 feet deep, and somehow 10, 12, 13 stories tall. The Manice Building was 17 feet wide and 11 stories high. It looks like a drafting error. It didn’t make it 20 years.

The Manice Building
Creative Commons License/Peter MacQueen, Leslie’s, Oct. 1893 The Manice Building
The Gillender Building in New York, circa 1900
Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co. The Gillender Building in New York, circa 1900

Often when discussing the history of skyscrapers, fireproofing is mentioned as one of the things that made them possible. But what you point out in your book is that fireproofing also made them marketable, that it was like the LEED Platinum of its day.
Absolutely. It was specifically marketed the way things are marketed today: This is new technology that will make your life better. And it was.

The most interesting thing I read while doing research was the insurance report on the Baltimore fire in 1904. The Continental Insurance Company, which was a fire insurance company, had its building in Baltimore damaged. They sent Daniel Burnham, who had designed it, to survey it. His report was technically accurate but also pure propaganda: “Look how much better this building, using steel frame and terra cotta fire proofing (which I recommended), performed than its neighbor, which did not use that technology.”

The Continental Trust Building in Baltimore
Library of Congress The Continental Trust Building in Baltimore
The Continental Trust Building after the 1904 fire
Library of Congress/National Photo Company Collection The Continental Trust Building after the 1904 fire

The premise of the book is that it contains important information for preservation of old skyscrapers, but do you think there are lessons you learned in your research that would be useful to those involved with designing new skyscrapers?
There are fewer new ideas than we think there are. A lot of the very tall skyscrapers today are concrete core steel framing in order to get the rigidity for lateral load from the concrete. They’re a version of what I describe as the “cage frame.” It used to be that they did it with masonry shear walls. Now we’re doing it with concrete shear walls. One of the takeaways is just because something is obsolete–and the old cage frame form is obsolete, no question about it—doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting things to be found by learning about it. And I think that some of the newer structural forms we’re seeing in high rises have their roots in some of the obsolete forms.

Let’s say I’m designing a mile-high skyscraper in Saudi Arabia or whatever the current world’s tallest building is. Do these 10-story-tall skyscrapers have a message for me? Is there anything the late-19th-century engineers would like me to know?
I don’t know that this came from the research for the book, but whatever you think the last word is won’t be. Things will change in the future, and your building will be altered, and people will say, “Ahhh, we can do it better.”