Joanna Merwood-Salisbury


On her book Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City

Cover Interview of January 03, 2010

In a nutshell

This book is about the first skyscrapers in the world, those built in Chicago in the 1880s and 90s.  The unprecedented sixteen-story buildings lining La Salle and Dearborn Streets gave the world a spectacular image of the future of the modern city: dense, crowded and vertical.  Amongst architects, these buildings are famous for the way in which they incorporated and expressed new building technologies (steel-framing, elevators), and rejected traditional ornament in favor of startling simplicity.

My goal in writing this book, however, was to examine these buildings not as icons of architectural history, but in cultural and social context.  What did they mean to the people who designed and built them, worked inside their walls, and gazed up at their façades?

Researching the book I uncovered a fierce debate about the meaning of the first skyscrapers in the popular press and in professional journals.  While architects and property owners saw these pioneering structures as manifestations of a robust American identity being formed in the Midwest, labor activists viewed them as symbols of capitalism’s inequity, and social reformers worried about their potentially negative effects on public health.