Research to Reality

I’ve mentioned a few times that I had a long-running research project on the early history of skyscrapers. This was never simply an academic exercise for me: understanding what people built in the past, and why, is central to our engineering firm. When I research individual buildings or structural systems, it’s with two goals: to accomplish whatever task is at hand at the moment, usually for a client, and to learn more about past practice. If structural and construction history were as well documented as architectural history, this would not be necessary, but they are not so it is.

I mention this because I recently received the page proofs for my book based on the skyscraper research, The Structure of Skyscrapers in America 1871-1900: Their History and Preservation. The book is being published by the Association for Preservation Technology International, with the technical work of editing and publishing being performed by Mount Ida Press. For those who have not been through this process, page proofs are the final check before printing and therefore represent the moment when authors and editors see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Any number of my past blog posts have been inspired by or drawn on the research, more will in the future. I’ll admit that, some 21 years after I started this particular research project, I am proud to see it become publicly accessible.

The picture above, dated by the Library of Congress as “circa 1900” gives a sense of the free-for-all of early skyscraper construction. While there are a few famous buildings in the picture, we’re seeing their backs and sides, and so getting a better sense of them as technological objects (responding to the need for windows, chimneys, and elevator penthouses) rather than as aesthetic designs. We’ve got the bizarre little John Wolfe Building in the middle, a skyscraper with Dutch stepped gables, and some masonry curtain wall under construction just to its left. The picture shows, I believe, a new technology coming into its own, with all the messiness that always implies.

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