American Architecture Series
William Le Baron Jenney

Biography of American Skyscraper Architect, Chicago School.

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Home Insurance Company Building
(1884-5) Chicago.

William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907)


Education in Architecture and Engineering
Chicago Architect
Teaching and Study
Skyscraper Architecture
American Institute of Architects

American Architecture Series
• For a brief guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For a general guide, see: History of Architecture (3,000 BCE - present).

To see how skyscraper design fits
in with the rest of the arts,
see: Definition of Art.
For more about the different
designs, see: Types of Art.

If you are looking for a source
of rare or secondhand books on
William Le Baron Jenney's designs
for high-rise skyscrapers,
see: Rare Art Books.


The earliest of several American architects who pioneered high-rise skyscraper architecture, William Le Baron Jenney was also an engineer, an innovator in building technology and a park and town planner. As well as anticipating the fluid interiors of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) as well as the Bauhaus idiom, he was the founder of the Chicago School of skyscraper architecture, and is best known for designing the 10-floor Home Insurance Building in Chicago (1884-85), the first building in America to use a metal frame rather than stone and brick to support its upper levels. He used the same method in the Ludington Building, Chicago (1891), to help bear the enormous weight of a publishing company's printing presses. His revolutionary design freed architects from having to worry about how to support a building's weight, and allowed them to build even taller structures. Other famous Chicago high-rises designed by Jenney, include the First Leiter Building (1879) and the Second Leiter Building (1889-91). The latter structure is an excellent example of another of Jenney's important improvements to nineteenth century architecture - his method of using iron and terra cotta flooring and partitions in order to solve the problem of fireproofing tall buildings. Aside from his skyscraper technology and design, Jenney's contribution to urban American art and culture included his creation of a series of large and small parks, in Chicago, in the manner of the French town planner Baron Haussmann (1809-91). He remains one of the greatest architects of the First Chicago School.


Education in Architecture and Engineering

Born into a family of whaling ship owners, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, he was the son of William Proctor Jenney and Eliza LeBaron Gibbs, he received a practical education at Phillips Academy, Andover, and other New England schools. After a voyage to the South Pacific he entered the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University to study civil engineering, but finding the instruction inadequate he transferred to the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, Paris, a sister institution to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied engineering and architecture from 1853 to 1856. There he learned the latest iron construction techniques as well as the classical functionalist doctrine of Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) - Professor of Architecture at the Ecole Polytechnique - which was the standard architectural curriculum of French engineering schools. One of Jenney's classmates was Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), who went on to design the Eiffel Tower (1887-89), one of the most memorable examples of public art in Europe.

Chicago Architect

In 1861, after working in Mexico, Jenney returned to the US and joined the Union Army, designing fortifications and other military installations. After the war, he moved to Chicago, where he opened his own design office, specializing in commercial buildings and urban planning. One of his first architectural commissions was for the West Parks, inspired by Baron Haussmann's plan for the renewal of Paris. This involved the creation of a system of major parks - Humboldt, Garfield and Douglas - and minor parks connected by grand, tree-lined boulevards. At the same time he collaborated with landscape architects Frederick Olmsted (1822-1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824-95) in the planning of Riverside, Illinois, where he also designed homes and several important larger buildings.

His domestic work was characterized by houses possessing free and open ground plans and equipped with the latest in technical conveniences, as exemplified by the Colonel James H. Bowen House (1868), Hyde Park, Illinois, a Swiss chalet with open circulation that predates the Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) by more than 30 years. In general, Jenney's design style followed the general eclecticism of the era, although his personal preference was for a modern style of Gothic architecture.

Teaching and Study

During the period 1876-77, Jenney commuted weekly to Ann Arbor, where he held the first professorship of architecture at the University of Michigan. Thereafter he continued to absorb writings on the theory and practice of building design by the Scottish expert James Fergusson (1808-86), by the highly influential French architect and builder Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79) and other important architectural writers of his century, synthesizing their ideas and passing them on to his student draftsmen. Since the latter included some of the most eminent architects of the 19th century, such as Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), William Holabird, and Martin Roche, it can be said that he was the founder of the Chicago School of architecture.

Skyscraper Architecture

Indeed, Jenney's international fame rests mainly on his high-rise commercial buildings in Chicago, where he became known as the "Father of the American skyscraper". Advocating a new, multistorey building, whose vertical height - made feasible by Otis's invention of the safety elevator - massively increased the profitability of the building lot, he began with the First Leiter Building (1879), which was virtually a glass box. Iron columns backed exterior masonry piers, thus permitting greater window areas, otherwise, its construction was conventional.

In the 9-story Home Insurance Building (1884-85), he brought together the most advanced technologies to create the prototype of the skyscraper supported by a metal skeleton, wrapped in masonry, consisting of a grid of iron columns, beams, girders, and floor joists. He extended the interior fireproofed frame to the exterior by inserting iron columns into the brick piers.

In the Second Leiter Building (now the Sears, Roebuck Building) (1889-91), Jenney opened the walls to an unprecedented degree, using iron supports and steel beams. The severe cubic quality of the elevation recalls the teachings of Durand but predates the influential work of the Bauhaus Design School in Germany. The building's State Street facade comprises nine bays separated by wide pilasters, capped by simple capitals, while a plain cornice tops the entire structure. The building is faced with pink granite. In the Manhattan Building (1889-91), Jenney achieved the first 16-story skeleton-frame office structure, but the most elegant and harmonious expression of his principles was the monumental Ludington Building (1891).

American Institute of Architects

In 1872, Jenney became an Associate of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and in 1885 became a Fellow. He served as first Vice President from 1898 to 1899. In 1893 he helped to promote the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, and designed its Horticultural Building. Considered one of the fair's finest structures, its area of five and one-quarter acres made it the largest ever botanical conservatory. Jenney died in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 74.

Other Famous American Architects

Greek Revival
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)

William Thornton (1759-1828)
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844)

Gothic Revival
Richard Upjohn (1802-78)
James Renwick (1818-95)

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86)

Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)

20th Century Skyscraper Towers
Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (est 1936)
Fazlur Khan (1929-82)
International Style of Modern Architecture (c.1920-70)

• For more about architects of the Chicago School of skyscraper design, see: Homepage.

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