William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907) was one of the most influential American architects of the late 19th century. Working almost exclusively in Chicago, Jenney made important advancements in the structure of tall office buildings by incorporating iron and steel in his designs.
Jenney was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a small town near New Bedford, on September 25, 1832. He was the son of William Proctor, a prosperous owner of a fleet of whaling ships, and Eliza Le Baron (Gibbs) Jenney. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After graduating, he traveled to California in 1849 to participate in the gold rush.
While in San Francisco, Jenney witnessed the rapid rebuilding of the city with brick structures after many wood buildings were destroyed by fire in 1850. He then journeyed to the Philippines and the South Seas. In the Philippines, he became intrigued by the durability of the native huts built of light, flexible bamboo. After these experiences, he decided to return home and begin his studies in engineering.
In 1851 Jenney enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. During the next two years, he became displeased with the quality of the education he was receiving. His search for better opportunities led him to France, which had a long-standing tradition of training engineers. In 1853 he entered the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, where he came under the influence of structural designer Jean Nicolas Louis Durand, an early proponent of classical functionalism in architecture.
In an article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Theodore Turak notes: "Jenney was given training in engineering and architecture at the same time. One finds, therefore, the gradual dissolution of the academic division of the building art into architecture and construction. Jenney was to absorb a system which treated structure and design as interrelated." Jenney's mixed emphasis on engineering and architecture later led to a debate among historians about whether he should be considered primarily an engineer or an architect.
Became Interested in Architecture
After Jenney graduated from Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1856, he worked in Mexico as an engineer for the Tehuantepec Railroad Company. The following year, the Berdon Bakery Company employed Jenney to design a mechanical bakery for the French army. During his second stay in France, he continued his studies and gained some practical experience. He also became increasingly interested in architecture.
Jenney's career plans were interrupted by the outbreak of the U. S. Civil War, and in 1861 he returned to the United States and enlisted as an engineering officer. He was assigned the post of captain additional aide de camp with engineering responsibilities under General Ulysses S. Grant. After serving with Grant for some time, he was transferred to the command of General William T. Sherman. He was appointed chief engineer of the XV Army Corps and led the army's engineering efforts in Memphis, Tennessee. By the time he resigned from the army in 1866, he had risen to the rank of major, a title he continued to employ throughout his life.
Opened Chicago Architectural Office
After leaving the army in May 1866, Jenney spent the remainder of the year in western Pennsylvania doing engineering work. In 1867 he married Elizabeth Hannah Cobb, with whom he had two sons. In the same year, he relocated to Chicago and, in 1868, opened an architectural office. Eventually Jenney organized the firm Jenney, Schermerhorn, and Bogart. His first significant assignment came two years later, when he was awarded the contract to design the West Chicago Park System. Then, with Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., he laid out the suburb of Riverside, Illinois. In 1869 he published the influential book Principles and Practice of Architecture.
Jenney's business increased dramatically after Chicago was destroyed by fire in 1871. Much of the city needed to be rebuilt. During the reconstruction of Chicago, Jenney began to be recognized as one of the leading architects in the Midwest.
Although he also designed spacious homes, Jenney was best known for his downtown Chicago office buildings. His first building after the fire was the Portland Block, located at Dearborn and Washington Streets. In 1879 he completed the first Leiter Building, which later became known as the Morris Building. It originally stood five stories high; two more stories were added in 1888. The structure was a hybrid of old and new form. In the past, buildings were made of bricks and wood. In the first Leiter Building, iron columns were placed adjacent to the brick piers. Since the iron columns were the primary load-bearing structure, Jenney was free to place large windows between the brick piers. It was the first building with an abundance of windows, appearing as nearly a glass box.
The Home Insurance Building
Jenney began construction of the Home Insurance Building in 1883. That same year, he gave a series of important lectures at the University of Chicago, which were published in Inland Architect and Builder. The Home Insurance Building, finished in 1885 with the assistance of engineer George B. Whitney, became Jenney's most influential engineering work. It was an important step in the development of the structural technology that spawned skyscrapers. The load-bearing components of the structure were made completely of cast iron, wrought iron, and steel, marking the first use of steel in a building in the United States. Jenney's use of Bessemer steel beams resulted in the Bessemer Steamship Company of New York naming a ship after him.
In the Encyclopedia of American Architecture, William Dudley Hunt, Jr. refers to the Home Insurance Building as "the most important building of its era, and one of the most important in American history." Even so, the Home Insurance Building was far from a great architectural achievement due to Jenney's tendency to overlook aesthetic beauty for functionality. According to Carl W. Condit in The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925, "Jenney was perhaps the most original structural talent of the Chicago school, but at the same time he was the least conscious of the aesthetic problem fixed by his new construction. As an engineer he had that kind of easy confidence in his ability that seldom led to self-questioning or to theoretical considerations. But Jenney knew what he was doing, and it had to be done before others could move on greater heights."
Jenney's new structural formation attracted the immediate attention of architects and builders. By doing away with the need for a supporting wall, the weight of the building was cut tremendously. Because iron-and-steel frames were one-third the weight of brick-and-wood frames, the height of buildings could be greatly increased. Iron and steel were cheaper, and builders could work with greater speed and efficiency. Though it stood only 11 stories tall, the Home Insurance Building is often referred to as the first skyscraper, because it was so much taller than other buildings of its day. At the least it was an important precursor to the modern skyscraper. It was demolished in 1931.
Other Jenney Buildings
Having gained considerable fame in Chicago for the Home Insurance Building, Jenney became very busy and his business grew rapidly. Continuing to use an iron-and-steel skeletal frame, Jenney next designed the Manhattan Building. Completed in 1891, it was the first 16-story commercial building in the United States that was supported entirely on an iron frame. In the same year, he took on a partner, William H. Mundie, previously a draftsman in his office. The association of Jenney and Mundie lasted the remainder of Jenney's life.
Over the next few years, Jenney designed numerous buildings, many of which remained standing into the 21st century. The second Leiter Building (1891), built after the first was destroyed by fire, is often regarded as his best aesthetic design. Characterized by an unprecedented vast openness, the building, later known as the Sears and Roebuck Building, offered brightly lit office spaces, wide halls, and a minimalist decorative style combined with a functional approach to design. For the first time, Jenney incorporated the steel and iron frame into the architectural design so that it added to the beauty of the building. Other works included the Central Young Men's Christian Association Building (1891), the Ludington Building (1891), the Fair Store (later known as the Montgomery Ward and Company Store, 1892), and the Isabella Building (1893). During his career, Jenney also devised many conveniences for modern offices, including tile office vaults, metal elevators, and an improved plumbing system.
Jenney reached the pinnacle of his career in the early 1890s. Although he continued to design buildings, including the Horticultural Building (1893), the Morton Building (1896), and the Chicago Garment Center (1905), they offered little new creativity in design. In 1905 Jenney and Mundie took on a new partner, Elmer C. Jensen, who had worked for the firm since 1885. In a letter to Condit, written April 13, 1949, Jensen commented on Jenney: "While he felt he was contributing to the making of new architectural forms, that was not his motive. His main purpose was the development of more efficient structural features. My personal opinion is that while he was fully conscious that his ideas and buildings were developing new forms, his main purpose was to create structural features which increased effective floor areas and made it possible to secure more daylight within buildings."
At the age of 73, Jenney retired due to poor health. He left unfinished his last project, an Illinois memorial on the battlefield of Vicksburg. He died two years later, on June 15, 1907, while visiting Los Angeles, California.
Mentor for Younger Architects
Jenney was not only an important architect and engineer, he contributed greatly to the development of modern buildings by training several younger architects who became the next generation of innovative and influential building designers. His trainees included Louis Henri Sullivan (1856-1924), Martin Roche (1855-1927), William Holabird (1854-1923), and Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912). Jenney's style as exhibited in his early tall buildings became known as the Chicago school of architecture.
Throughout his career he was active as a member, officer, and Fellow of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In recognition of his contributions to the industry, he was elected as a delegate to the International Congress of Architects in Madrid, Spain, in 1901. Although his buildings are seldom considered to be aesthetically pleasing, Jenney possessed a unique combination of engineering and architectural abilities that provided a foundation for the development of the modern skyscraper and a new emphasis on functionalism in design.
American National Biography, Volume 11, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Condit, Carl W., The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925, University of Chicago Press, 1964.
Hunt, William Dudley, Jr., Encyclopedia of American Architecture, McGraw-Hill, 1980.
Withey, Henry F., and Withey, Elsie Rathburn, Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased), New Age Publishing, 1956.
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, March 1970.
"Jenney, William Le Baron," Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"William Jenney," World of Invention, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"William Le Baron Jenney," American Decades CD-ROM, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"William Le Baron Jenney," Dictionary of American Biography, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).
"William Le Baron Jenney," International Dictionary of Architects and Architecture, http://www.galenet.com (January 18, 2001).