by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
Throughout his long career as an architect, LeRoy S. Buffington insisted that he had invented the skyscraper. Forget, Buffington urged, the work of William Le Baron Jenney, the Chicago architect who in 1883 designed the structure most often identified as the first American skyscraper.
Buffington, a Cincinnati native who spent most of his career in Minneapolis, was no crank. From 1871 until his death in 1931 at age 83, he designed state capitols, hotels, university buildings and private residences all around the Upper Midwest.
A tall building with a braced metal skeleton that supports its walls is the most basic definition of a skyscraper. Such a project had never been undertaken before the final decades of the nineteenth century in part because many architects and engineers of the time believed that iron was intrinsically incompatible with masonry as a building material.
During the 1880s, Buffington launched an investigation to find out if anyone had ever patented a system of building construction using a braced metal skeleton with supporting shelves for all walls. Turning up no such patent, he spent nights and weekends perfecting his own skeleton system. “I decided to take a column for my model, a solid base, a plain shaft with upward lines like volutes, and a beautiful cap and skyline to finish,” he wrote. “This was the design of my 28-story building.” That same year, he notes, he also designed exteriors for a building that rose 50 stories and 600 feet and a “cloudscraper” that towered 100 stories and 1,320 feet. These drawings, signed and dated, survive today. By the standards of 1882, all three designs were monstrous in height.
Buffington’s writings make it clear that patenting a metal skeleton system was the ultimate goal of his work. Much happened in the six years between Buffington’s claimed development of a skeleton system and his receipt of a patent. William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance building had marked the Chicago skyline, and Jenney had publicly detailed the project in a trade-journal article and in a talk before members of the American Institute of Architects, both in 1885.
But once he acquired his patent, Buffington expected that builders of any structure using a metal skeleton frame with shelves to support walls would have to pay him a royalty. In the 1890s such buildings began sprouting in several U.S. cities, and Buffington organized the Iron Building Company to license his patent and collect fees. Not surprisingly, builders resisted compensating Buffington and seem not to have taken his patent seriously. The architect retaliated with legal action. The outcome of the first of many lawsuits, Iron Building Company vs. William E. Eustis, filed in December 1892, set the pattern for those that followed. The court ruled against Buffington, noting that the patent protected the specific construction scheme detailed in the patent application, not the entire concept of metal-skeleton construction with wall-supporting shelves.
Reeling from the loss of $30,000 he spent to press his lawsuits, Buffington filed for bankruptcy in 1901. By then, his best architectural work was behind him.
Recognition came at last in 1929, two years before his death. Rufus Rand, the builder of a new Minneapolis office tower, voluntarily paid the aged architect a royalty of $2,250. Buffington’s patent had long ago expired. Appearing dazed at the news, Buffington told a reporter, “It hardly seems possible. I can’t believe there is a man in Minneapolis that would do this — or a man anywhere else in the world for that matter. I don’t know what to think.” Rand explained his motivation simply: “I sympathize with him in the lack of praise that has been his.”
Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.
Tselos, Dimitris. “The Enigma of Buffington’s Skyscraper.” The Art Bulletin, March 1944.
Upjohn, E.M. “Buffington and the Skyscraper.” The Art Bulletin, March 1935.