The origins of Steel Buildings

March 2, 2023by setuprankeo

Have you ever heard of the phrase “the best way to predict someone’s future is based on their past”? And with steel being the referred to “someone”, the phrase could not be more accurate. Let me introduce you to the first building mainly made out of steel in the United States of America: The Rand McNally Building.

Above rests a picture of the Rand McNally. Before getting into detail about the world’s first all-steel framed skyscraper, it is important to know about I shaped frames.

What is an I-shaped frame? 

The Rand McNally was a building whose construction was possible due to I-shaped Steel framing, which is a technique based on building a structure that mimics the function of a skeleton: to bare the whole body, or, in this given case, to bare the weight of the whole building. It consists of vertical steel columns and horizontal I-beams constructed in a rectangular grid to support the floors, roof and walls of a building which are all attached to the frame. The development of this technique was what made the construction of the skyscraper possible. The Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, was the first to use skeleton frame construction, followed by the Rand McNally In the United States, the first steel framed building.

The Open Hearth Furnace

Of course, so that metal can be given a certain shape it has to be molten. Since steel is difficult to manufacture owing to its high melting point, normal fuels, furnaces, or processes like the Bessemer Process were not as efficient as they needed to be for the modern uprising European societies.  Bessemer steel had a disadvantage, that to be handled steel needed to be excessively exposed to nitrogen, which would often cause the steel to become brittle, in other words, subtle to fracturing. Brittle Fracture is a condition that occurs when a material is subjected to temperatures that make it less resilient, and therefore more brittle. The potential for material to become brittle depends on the type of material that is subjected to these low temperatures. Some materials, such as carbon and low alloy steels will become brittle at low temperatures and therefore susceptible to damage ranging from cracking to shattering. 

The solution to this inconvenient was introduced by open hearth furnaces, which made it possible for steel not to be exposed to nitrogen and so more durable and stronger, made steel easier to control and permitted the melting and refining of large amounts of scrap iron and steel.  

The Rand McNally

It was just like that, that with the innovation by the German-born engineer Carl Wilhelm Siemens of the open-hearth furnaces in 1865, that I-beams went from an intangible dream to a tangible reality. Everything needed to take the next step into the future of architecture was now accessible, it only lacked someone who lead that process. One of Chicago’s most famous architectural companies of the nineteenth century was Burham and Root, and it was the one in charge of the designing of the building. It was erected in 1889 at a cost of $1 million. It was 45 meters tall and had 10 stories, 16 stores, and 300 offices, but the main tenant was Rand, McNally & Company, printers and publishers, with 900 employees. 

Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1911 so that a larger building of could rise, which still stands on the site. The building stood tall for twenty-two full years, housing more than just the Rand McNally Company, such as the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway offices and the headquarters of the World’s Columbian Exposition. If it had not been for its demolition in 1911, the grand metal building would still be standing.