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The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City

Author(s):Wermiel, Sara E.
Reviewer(s):McSwain, James B.

Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in

the Nineteenth-Century American City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University

Press, 2000. 301 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-6311-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee


Sara E. Wermiel, historian of technology and city planner, has produced a

well-researched, clearly written study of the development of

fireproof/fire-resistant buildings in the United States from the late

eighteenth century to the threshold of World War I. Extensive documentation, a

useful glossary, and an excellent bibliographic essay, undergird her analysis.

Her work contains helpful reproductions of contemporary engineering,

architectural, and promotional drawings and sketches.

The drive to build fireproof buildings arose in part out of fear of

conflagration, or a city-wide fire. Many municipalities established “fire

limits,” a zone requiring strict exterior construction standards. This,

however, did not address the flammability of interior materials. Finding a

suitable non-flammable substitute for wood meant designing buildings with

noncombustible floors and roofs. The initial solution was the masonry vault,

or a barrel-shaped, load-bearing span that supported the floor above, and

rested on massive, and expensive, walls and piers. Held back by high costs and

“technical difficulties,” only a dozen masonry vaulted buildings, mainly for

the Federal Government, were put up in the U.S. before 1850. Vaulted buildings

performed well in fires, but had several drawbacks. They had a thorough-going,

anti-human atmosphere owing to the enormous walls, center pieces, columns, and

the “thrust” of the vault arches, that blocked light and used up most of the

interior space of the building.

Wermiel devotes the bulk of her book to the various solutions to the problem

of putting up fireproof/fire-resistant floors and roofs, without resorting to

vault construction. By 1850 U.S. builders relied upon a system of iron beams

and girders (horizontal spanning elements), in between which were brick

arches, quite like the masonry vaults, but not nearly as space-consuming.

Subsequently, wrought iron, having superior tensile strength, replaced cast

iron in framing buildings. Its malleability allowed rolling into “I” shaped

beams thinner and stronger than cast iron.

During the post-1865 construction boom, builders tried a number of

alternatives to brick arches and floors, including iron sheets and concrete,

stone slabs, and various sorts of solid and hollow clay (terra cotta or tile)

blocks. They generally performed well, though often structural iron failed

under intense heat. This suggested that noncombustible materials did not

guarantee the survival of a building. So, the notion of fireproof expanded to

include noncombustible materials that did not conduct heat, which could

distort flanges or other crucial components. In the 1890s building owners

found in New England “mill construction” an attractive model of affordable

fire-resistant construction that featured space separation accompanied by

fire-fighting equipment. Drawing upon this paradigm, the Associated Factory

Mutual Fire Insurance Companies (AFM) made features such as sprinklers,

stairways isolated from floor areas, and exterior access ladders, required

items. The AFM regarded this “slow-burning” construction a superior method

toachieve fire prevention at a comparatively low cost.

In the 1880s elevators allowed buildings to go beyond the six-story limit. To

make the proposed “skyscrapers” fire safe, architects and builders switched

from load bearing walls to a metal framework (skeleton), made of iron or

steel, that carried the weight of the building. However, a major problem to

resolve was egress. The contents of a fireproof/fire-resistant building could

burn and produce deadly smoke, toxic fumes, and blistering heat that killed

trapped occupants, forcing architects and engineers to focus upon how to leave

buildings. In the 1860s fire escapes became the norm for New York city

tenements. Yet, city codes for other public buildings remained dangerously

ambiguous. Boston led the way up to 1900 in imposing strict standards of

egress for many new buildings and all tenements and boarding houses. After

1900 New York city authorities tied egress to occupancy, so that the more

rooms a building had, the more exits were required.

Two fires revealed gaps between code and practice. In 1903 the Iroquois

Theatre in Chicago, outfitted with fireproof floors, roofs, and partitions,

burned, killing 581 people. However, it had steps in front of doors, fire

escapes exposed to flames, inadequate balcony stairways, and no exit signs.

Subsequent Chicago ordinances dealt with all of these shortcomings. In March

1911 the New York building containing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned.

The iron, steel and tile structure survived nicely. Although there were

stairways and escapes, several had doors that opened inward, and one may have

been locked. This led to building codes that redefined adequate egress from


Wermiel concludes that the pivotal event of modern fire-resistive construction

was adoption of skeleton frame construction. It brought together existing

fireproofing materials and experience to build fire-resistant tall buildings.

She also argues that since fireproof buildings were so much more expensive

than regular buildings, government contract requirements and code regulations

provided incentives for architects, engineers, and industrial people to come

up with new materials and construction techniques for fireproof projects.

Several observations are in order. Having investigated controversies over

petroleum storage (1901-03), I was aware of insurance concerns over

conflagration in the late nineteenth century. Several names familiar to me

surfaced in Wermiel’s book. Engineers F.J.T. Stewart and William H. Merrill

served as advisors to the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the National

Fire Prevention Association and various consulting committees. I would,

therefore, have enjoyed more information about the role these groups played in

the development of and campaign for fire-resistant materials and construction

techniques. But I cannot fault Wermiel for sticking to her topic. Her work has

whetted my appetite for more explanation, an outcome I attribute only to good


Further, there are important parallels between Wermiel’s book and Thomas J.

Misa’s A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925

(1995). Wermiel points to the crucial role of government in stimulating demand

for fireproof building design and materials. Similarly, Misa explores the

relationship between central governments and an international cartel of steel

manufacturers who monopolized the fabrication of pre-WWI battleship armor.

However, in fireproofing there was much more unrestrained competition among

architects, suppliers, and contractors, than among the armor moguls. Price

considerations played a constant role in fireproof construction versus

traditional wood framing, and in iron and steel production. Here is where Misa

and Wermiel converge, because both address the market for iron and steel rails

and beams. Wermeil is clear about the role price, engineering preferences, and

the shift from wrought iron columns to steel columns, played in making

skeleton construction important to the evolution of fireproof buildings.

Misa’s account of the skyscraper is a bitmore complex and provides crucial

details of how designers and builders came to favor open-hearth steel over

steel produced by Bessemer rail shops. It is also set in the broad context of

urbanization and the push this provided to make better use of space by

building up rather than out.

Wermiel’s book is carefully crafted and informative. Though readers may

benefit from collateral reading in works such as Misa to fill out the context

of certain crucial events in the saga of fireproof construction, Wermiel has

assembled and synthesized a great deal of difficult, technical details to

support her narrative and to sustain her insightful conclusions.

James B. McSwain has recently completed “Energy and Municipal Regulation: The

Struggle to Control the Storage and Supply of Fuel Oil in Mobile, Alabama,

1894-1910,” the first of three related essays on this issue in the Gulf South

(Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston).

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century