|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|