published in 1884, it was ‘the most indispensable
desideratum with which a building is procured’.
Cities were being filled with huge, densely clustered,
block-filling buildings up to nine or 10 storeys
tall. How to light the deeply embedded interiors of
these massive rectangular blocks was a pressing
problem. One means was the use of the light well:
a tall shaft of space pierced through the multi-storeyed
block, funnelling natural light into the deep interior.
The origin of the glazed light well in American
architecture is linked to a number of social, economic,
and technological factors. It came into common use
in major cities primarily after the Civil War as a
result of several factors: the mounting demand for
large multi-storeyed buildings such as wholesale stores
and tall office buildings; the increasing pressure on
downtown land values, which led to the glazing over of
traditional open light wells so that their space could be
used; and the development of the industrial technology
that made the large-scale production of plate glass and
steel economically feasible. Especially in the large office
block where deep office spaces were unavoidable, an
office with ample natural lighting was a valuable asset.
On street floors, where rents were highest, expansive
windows for display as well as light were essential.
Traditionally, interior light was obtained by opening
up the core of the building with a large open court or
by wrapping the building around a court in an L- or
U-shaped plan. The disadvantage here was the loss of
interior space, which was increasingly expensive as
land values soared in the city’s downtown. In the latter
part of the century, but particularly in the 1880s and
1890s, more and more of these simple utilitarian light
wells were glazed. By the end of the century their use
particularly in Chicago was relatively common.
It was actually in the quest for light, not height, that
William Le Baron Jenney made the decisive move
in the development of the fully framed modern
skyscraper at the Home Insurance Building of 1884.
What the Home Insurance Company sought from
him was a standard 10-storey office building, with
maximum light. Toward this end, Jenney abandoned
solid, load-bearing, masonry exterior walls in favour
of a steel skeletal framework, significantly reducing the
bulk of the wall in order to expand the size of windows.
The generation of the 1870s and 1880s had placed a
high premium on the salutary effects of fresh air
Above right and opposite: in 1905 Wright remodelled the lobby of the
1885 Rookery Building in Chicago, designed by Burnham and Root. Its
owners, Peter and Shepard Brooks, knew that natural light, along with
elevators and a grand lobby, would command high rents
‘This super material, glass, as we
now know it, is a miracle. Air in air
to keep air out or keep it in. Light
itself in light, to diffuse or reflect,
or refract light itself’