William LeBaron Jenney, the son of an affluent whaling ship owner, was born in Fairhaven, Mass. on Sept. 25, 1832. As a child of the industrial revolution, his formative years occurred during a time of innovation, prosperity and the implementation of engineering marvels such as textile mills, the steam engine, and bridge trusses.
Jenney had an exceptional childhood. He attended the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and while only in his teens, sailed around South America to California, Hawaii and the Philippines, an impressive feat. During his travels he was impressed and fascinated by indigenous methods of construction, especially light-weight bamboo frames used for structures in the Philippines that could withstand the impact of tropical storms. Later, he employed similar techniques with other materials, such as iron and steel.
In 1850, Jenney entered Harvard University to study engineering. However, he left and decided to study in France, where the reputed best civil engineering schools were located. In 1853 he enrolled in the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, the same school attended by Gustav Eiffel, the structural engineer behind the Eiffel tower.
Jenney graduated with honors in 1856 and took his first job as a railroad structural engineer in Mexico. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned home to the U.S. and joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He designed fortifications, serving under generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, eventually attaining the rank of major.
After the war, in 1867, Jenney moved to Chicago and opened an architecture office. On May 8, 1867, he married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Hannah Cobb, from Cleveland, Ohio. They had two children, Max and Francis.
In 1869, Jenney received his first important commission: the design of the West Parks system. As chief engineer, he designed the Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas parks and the boulevard system. Jenney had been influenced by the construction of the Paris boulevard system and used these designs as a model.
Other important early projects for Jenney included his role as supervising engineer for Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape design of Riverside, Ill. (now a town on the National Register of Historic Places). Jenney also co-authored “The Principles and Practice of Architecture” with Sanford E. Loring, an influential publication that brought him notoriety in the business community, and transitioned his role to that of a designer of large commercial buildings.
During the late 1870s and early 1880s, Jenney designed the First Leiter Building in Chicago, a department store for Levi Z. The building had many of the essential elements of the modern skyscraper: great height (First Leiter was originally five stories tall, and soon expanded to an unheard-of seven stories); an iron skeletal frame, inspired by Jenney’s early exposure to Philippine indigenous construction; terracotta, fireproofing materials on all of its structural members; and elevators. The Chicago building department required him to build an exterior party wall as a traditional masonry loadbearing structure, but the floors were constructed of heavy timber. Jenney’s approach was to use cast-iron columns encased in masonry to support steel beams bearing floor weights. The outside walls, which were no longer weight-bearing, could then be filled with windows.
Just two years later, Jenney began work on another of the many tall buildings he would design. The Home Insurance Building, located at Adams and LaSalle streets in Chicago, was a 10-story iron and steel-framed high rise, with similar characteristics to the First Leiter building. The building was widely recognized as the world’s first true skyscraper, the first fully metal-framed building, and the first to incorporate steel as a structural material. It established Jenney as a leader in the field, which earned him the nickname, “Father of the Skyscraper.” The Ludington Building, also in Chicago, built in 1890-1891, was the first to have a structural frame entirely made of steel and was also clad entirely in terracotta.
Jenney was never afraid to experiment with materials, concepts, and unusual design ideas. In addition to his groundbreaking experimentation with metal frame skyscrapers, Jenney was also an influential writer, lecturer and mentor. During the late 1870s, he commuted regularly to teach in the architecture program at the University of Michigan. He also was a teacher and mentor to a number of younger architects of the Chicago Commercial school.
Jenney was elected an Associate of the American Institute of Architects in 1872, and became a Fellow in 1885. He served as first vice president from 1898 to 1899. He died in Los Angeles on June 14, 1907.
Christina M. Zweig is a contributing editor. She can be contacted at email@example.com.