The First 100 Years of Skyscrapers

Skyscrapers Are High. So Is the Granada.

The Granada Theatre
Courtesy Photo

Skyscrapers? You might be wondering, why an article on skyscrapers in Santa Barbara? I venture to say that most people walking down the street don’t really think about the buildings they pass by. These days, most people don’t even look up; they are too busy looking down at their mobile device. The demand for more office space for a burgeoning business economy created the need to build up — and up we built. Thus the term “skyscraper” was coined. The generally accepted father of the skyscraper is Louis Sullivan, architect of the firm Adler & Sullivan.

The definition of what counts as a skyscraper is broad and subject to change, as the word “skyscraper” simply refers to any tall building of any number of floors. Take, for example, the first building to earn the name: the Home Insurance Office building (designed by William Jenney) in Chicago, the birthplace of skyscrapers. When it was built in 1884, it was considered a tall building. At a whopping 135 feet and 10 stories, it would hardly qualify as a tall building in any city today, but while it was being built, the height involved was so disconcerting to Chicago building officials that they stopped its construction until they could be reassured that it would not topple over.

The Granada Theatre
Courtesy Photo

Prior to 1884, buildings were limited to approximately four stories because the engineering technology did not exist to provide a foundation that could support more stories than that. Heavy loads imposed by the structure could not be supported by the wall assembly techniques of the day. Prior to the invention by Elisha Otis of the elevator, which was initially just a moving platform with no walls or safety devices as we have in modern elevators, vertical access was also an obstacle. What finally propelled the skyscraper upward was the use of steel in the skeleton of the structure. The exterior walls, typically constructed of masonry, were no longer a limiting factor. The enormous weight of the building could now effectively be transferred to the foundation at many points instead of resting only on the perimeter bearing walls. In fact, many exterior walls on skyscrapers are not bearing walls at all. This engineering shift also freed up the interior floor space to be arranged into more office space.

The first 100 years of skyscraper development, 1884-1984, saw this building type rise in height exponentially. Between the Home Insurance Building at 135 feet to the next skyscraper, the Auditorium Building by Adler & Sullivan in 1889 at 238 feet, scraper height nearly doubled. This trend continued every 10 years or so as engineering skill and new materials allowed structures to make rapid, continuous gains in height.

Skyscrapers have a formula that governs their design; much as a column has its various parts, so does any tall building. It starts with the base and ends at the top with the cornice. Cornices on early skyscrapers were often detailed in terra cotta. In between are the floors, which often follow a rhythm, like music: 1-3-4, 4-3-1, and so on. The rhythm refers to the grouping of floors between horizontal breaks.

The Granada Theatre
Courtesy Photo

Santa Barbara has its own skyscraper — the Granada Building. The building was constructed between 1920 and 1924. It is eight stories tall, just one and a half stories shorter than the first skyscraper. The California Theater Company developed the site, which originally cost a mere $800. Its architect, A.B. Rosenthal, was from Los Angeles and was known for this type of building, of which he designed many around the country. Most of them looked just like our Granada Building. It is this building that prompted the city leaders of the day to impose a 60-foot height limit for all future buildings. Thanks to benefactors in this community, the Granada has been reborn into one of the world’s state-of-the-art performance centers, thereby ensuring that the building will be here for another 100 years.

Architecturally Speaking is written by members of the American Institute of Architects’ Santa Barbara chapter. Robert Ooley, FAIA, is vice president of AIASB. He can be reached at robert@ooley.com.

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