Cartesian Boxes

by Don Friedman on September 15, 2017

One of the oddities of researching early skyscrapers is trying to account for the occupancies. Why would someone build a high-rise* factory in the 1890s? Why would someone build a high-rise tenement? One of the oddest of the oddities is the way that insurance companies dominate the early skyscraper office buildings. New York Life, Metropolitan Life, and Home Insurance each constructed multiple tall buildings in an era when no one even knew if tall buildings were a fad or a permanent fixture of American cities. Why?

The answer is illuminating of how much has changes in the past 120 years and, incidentally, rather depressing. Insurance companies, by the nature of their business, were the first corporations to need filing cabinets not just for paper but for people. They had to store enormous amounts of paper and also the clerks to handle all the paper. The defining feature of tall buildings – the “typical floor” – is a statement of repetition and that is what the insurance companies needed. The picture above, showing the 1915 Equitable Life Assurance building, gives you the idea. Later on, other white-collar professions followed down the same path, but the insurers got there first. Whether digitization and office use of cloud services spell the end for this type of occupancy is not yet certain but it’s an obvious possibility.

Meanwhile, there is a less depressing version of the same idea: storage for archives and books. Unlike people, paper in storage doesn’t need windows. Actually, paper lasts longer when protected from light, so books could be hidden deep within the recesses of, say the New York Public Library. The following pictures show the NYPL stacks, located under the main reading room at the top rear of the building, in sequence of construction. First, the steel-angle columns, I-beam intermediate floor framing, and the top of the tile-arch floor below the stacks; second, the cast-iron shelf structure above the fill on top of the tile arches; third, the completed shelf system with a cement wearing surface over the floor; fourth, the stacks in use.

This may seem like a triumph of rectangular geometry over all other logic, but it’s an amazingly efficient system for storage and retrieval. And, of course, I much prefer the books version to the people version.

* High rise for its time.

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