William LeBaron Jenney

by Erik Haden

Portrait of William LeBaron JenneyWhile invention of the modern tall office building cannot be credited to any one man, the inspired technical innovations of engineer and architect William Le Baron Jenney (1832—1907) have led him to be widely remembered as the father of the American skyscraper. After completing his technical education in Paris, where he was a classmate of Gustav Eiffel, Jenney served as a fortifications engineer in the Union army during the American Civil War. After the war, he settled in Chicago and established his own design practice in 1867. Eighteen years later, Jenney’s landmark work, the ten–story Home Insurance Company Building, was the first of its kind to carry its loads entirely on a skeletal metal frame without relying on masonry bearing walls. Employing bolt–together cast–iron columns, joined by wrought iron and steel beams to support the exterior masonry façade as well as interior floors, Jenney developed a revolutionary structural system that paved the way for modern curtain–wall skyscraper construction. Moreover, the Home Insurance Company Building further marked the maiden use of rolled Bessemer steel I–beams, first produced by Carnegie Steel while the building was under construction in 1885. Later, using a similar skeleton frame in 1889, Jenney’s Manhattan Building became the first to reach sixteen stories, ushering in a new era of soaring urban office towers and firmly establishing Jenney’s reputation as a structural pioneer.

William Le Baron Jenney was born to a family of ship owners in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1832. His family’s shipping business allowed him to travel abroad as a young man, and in 1849, Jenney sailed to the South Pacific where he visited and fell in love with the Philippine islands. At the time, the Spanish colonial government in Manila was planning extensive public works in the harbor, and Jenney resolved to earn a degree in civil engineering and return to the Philippines. Accordingly, in 1853, he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, where he studied for one year before transferring to L’École des Artes et Manufactures in Paris, one of the most advanced engineering schools in the world at the time.

Founded in 1829, as a pedagogical alternative to the more academic École Polytechnique, the École Centrale trained students to apply the latest discoveries of modern science to practical, technological use. Educators at the École Centrale believed that an engineer should be well rounded and versatile, able to apply his skills to any problem. Toward this end, at L’École des Artes et Manufactures, William Jenney studied architecture and city planning as a standard part of the civil engineering curriculum. Thus, the school profoundly influenced Jenney’s attitudes toward engineering and the building arts, and uniquely prepared him for what was to follow in his life.

After completing his education, Jenney did not return to Manila. Instead, he spent four years in Panama constructing its first railroad. Then, in 1861, he returned to Massachusetts to enlist in the Union army and serve in the American Civil War. As an assistant in the Engineering Corps, William Jenney designed fortifications at Corinth, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Later, as an engineering officer, he served with both Sherman and Grant, and by the end of the war, Jenney had risen to the rank of major and was Engineer–in–Charge of the Union headquarters in Nashville. Despite his success as a military officer, however, Jenney was anxious to begin a new career at the war’s end, and in 1867 he moved to Chicago and opened an architectural design office. Ironically, William Jenney’s first success in architectural practice came as a city planner. Together with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of Central Park in New York City—Jenney’s firm developed Riverside, Illinois, the first planned commuter suburb in the United States. Around the same time, with his partners Schermerhorn and Bogart, Jenney was also responsible for the planning of Chicago’s famous and extensive boulevard system, including Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas Parks.

Then, in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire raged through city, destroying more than 17,000 buildings and leaving nearly 100,000 people homeless. In its aftermath, the fire left a nearly bottomless demand for new, fireproof residential and commercial buildings, spawning an unprecedented building boom as well as an era of wide–ranging technological innovation. Evaluation of French experiments with architectural fireproofing—from his years of study at the École Centrale—and his own experimentation resulted in the development of the structural system using masonry, iron, and terra cotta flooring and partitions, which led Jenney to become known as the father of the American skyscraper.

The Home Insurance Building ca. 1890Three seminal buildings (among the many he designed in the years following the fire) established William Le Baron Jenney’s reputation as the inventor of the metal framed, skeletal tall building. These were the First Leiter Building, built in 1879, the Home Insurance Company Building of 1885, mentioned above, and the Second Leiter Building of 1891. Liberated from their load bearing responsibility, the exterior walls of these buildings were carried by exterior columns and filled with large windows, making them prototypes for the true curtain–wall skyscrapers that followed. What’s more, William Jenney introduced the modern functionalist aesthetic to large–scale urban buildings by clearly expressing the underlying structure of his buildings in the designs of their exterior elevations.

Finally, as a last testament to William Le Baron Jenney’s historical significance, many of the leaders of the architectural movement that would later come to be known as the Chicago School served apprenticeships on Jenney’s staff. Throughout the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, Jenney’s firm was well–known as the preeminent training ground for young architects and engineers in Chicago. Among the draftsmen who worked for Jenney were Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, Martin Roche, and Louis Sullivan, who would in turn push the tall office building to new heights. Thus, by the time of his death in 1907, William Le Baron Jenney had secured his place in history, and passed his legacy along to a new generation of building designers.


Billington, David. The Tower and the Bridge: The New Art of Structural Engineering. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1983)

Huxtable, Ada L. "The Home Insurance Company Building." Progressive Architect, v.38, June 1957, pp. 207-209.

Turak, Theodore. William Le Baron Jenney: A Pioneer of Modern Architecture. (Ann Arbor, MI., UMI Research Press, 1986)

Building Big: Data Bank: Home Insurance Building. Public Broadcasting Service. 1 May 2003.