Saturday, June 6, 2020

Why Leland Hotel is considered "fireproof"

Leland Hotel
I had seen a lot of posts on social media where someone asks "Why is Leland known for being "fireproof"". For this question, we have to go all the way back to the late 1800s in Chicago, IL. To the first "skyscraper" ever built, the Home Insurance Building.

It all began in Chicago,IL after the great Chicago Fire in 1871. There were many new building constructions that were made mostly of iron, brick and steel instead of wood. During this time period it was illegal to erect non-fireproof buildings of more than sixty feet in height. Basically, you couldn't build anything that was taller than nine stories tall (this is an important fact to remember later in this story). 

William LeBaron Jenney

Well, along came William LeBaron Jenney [1832-1907]. He was a Chicago inventor, engineer and contractor. Now, here is a fun fact for us history nerds. W.L.B. Jenny had began his formal education at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA in 1846, then to the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard in 1853. Hang in there... you'll see where I'm going here... He then transferred to Ă‰cole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris to study engineering and architecture. Here is the fun fact, he learned the latest iron construction techniques with his classmate, Gustave Eiffel [1832-1923]. So, knowing this, the technique that is used for Leland Hotel, was also used for the Eiffel Tower. Kind of neat!

Now, back to the history of "fireproof" buildings. Mr. Jenney's "a-ha" moment in his design came from when he arrived home early. His wife was reading a book and when she went to greet him, she put her book on top of the bird cage. She walked towards him with open arms but he walked right past her and straight to the bird cage. He lifted the heavy book and dropped it back onto the bird cage a few times. Granted, I'm sure the bird despised this and his wife was extremely confused. He exclaimed, "It works! It works! Don't you see? If this little cage can hold this heavy book, why can't an iron or steel cage be the framework for a whole building?"
in 1883, Mr. Jenney was appointed by the Home Insurance Company of New York to design a tall fireproof building for their Chicago location. In his design, he used metal columns and beams to support the buildings upper levels. Each level would be constructed with a metal "skeleton" made from steel, which at that time was a fairly new material to work with. Especially at such a large proportion. Being that they used steel, the Home Insurance Building weighed only one-third as much as a ten story building made of heavy masonry. By doing this, the weight of the building was reduced and allowing the structure to be built taller. As for being fireproof, this entailed using masonry, iron and terra cotta flooring and partitions. 

The Home Insurance Building before
its demolition in 1931
Photo by Corbis
When Mr. Jenney requested his permit to build, he did this a bit prematurely. He didn't have much a description of the plans, the plans he had in mind were approved by Home Insurance in New York. He made a great point to them that this will be the first fireproof building. One of the managers of the western department stated that he was an engineer as well before he became and insurance man and he had carefully studied the designs and the calculations as they were presented by Mr. Jenney. He was able to approve them. During construction, city authorities were so worried that the building would fall over, they had halted construction for a period of time so that they could ensure its safety. They eight story building and basement office structure ended up adding two more floors making a total height of 180 feet, 10 stories tall. This obviously went over the legal height of nine stories tall. Mr. Jenney assured them that the building would be fireproof and first-class in every respect. On May 1st, 1884, the construction was started and the building was completed in the fall of 1885. Thus, with the building being taller than the allotted 9 stories, the Home Insurance Building became the world's tallest building, the first "skyscraper". 
The Home Insurance Building during demolition
Photo courtesy of  the Chicago Historical Society

46 years later in 1931, it was demolished. During demolition, they did a construction "autopsy" of the elements of the building. It was found that all of the steel and metal parts that were used for the "skeleton" were still in prime condition. This was a surprise to the architects who were on hand to investigate and see how well the skeleton had stood during its 40 plus years. In its place, the Field Building [1934-Present] was built. Named after Marshall Field, it still stands today as Bank of America. 

William LeBaron Jenney went on to design and utilize the process of "skeleton construction" for many other buildings such as the Second Leiter Building located on South State and East Congress, the Manhattan Building  at 431 South Dearborn Street and the Ludington Building at 1104 South Wabash Avenue, all in Chicago respectively. 

Leland Hotel construction
Photo courtesy of Aurora Historical Society
I'm sure you're asking, what does this have to do with Leland Hotel? Well, the architects, Graven and Mayger (Anker Sverre Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger) utilized the same "skeleton construction" process to build Leland Hotel. In the photo you can see how they also used the skeleton to construct the building. With using the skeleton, each room has its own metal framing which is wrapped by terra cotta. The surrounding structure uses brick, limestone and terra cotta. If there were to be a fire, and there have been a few inside the building as recently as 2019, the room will not collapse into the lower floors. This is obviously not something we wish to see happen to see if it works. Leland Hotel has been around for 92 years and it seems that the "skeleton construction" has proven its worth. 

I hope with all of this, you will have learned a bit about why Leland Hotel is "fireproof". It was fun to learn about this and a bit about architecture from noted Chicago architects. Seeing that a lot of those buildings are still standing as well. Also, seeing there there is a small bit of connection between Leland Hotel and the Eiffel Tower constructions. At this time, there have been a few historical buildings that have been demolished due to ill repair, abandonment or just in the name of "progress". When you have a better understanding on why buildings like this are important to keep around, especially with the history of who was behind in creating it, you understand why people like me are brokenhearted when these buildings are torn down. 

**Here is an update regarding the status of "fireproof" and what happens to the lower units if there is a fire. So, I had a member from an Aurora history Facebook page ask "What happens to all of the water if there is a fire. If there is a fire on the upper floors, do the lower floors get affected with the water that is used to put the fire out?" Well, I reached out to the Aurora Fire Department to see what they might know. I was contacted by the AFD Battalion Chief, Jim Rhodes who is the Training Director and Public Information Officer. This is his reply regarding both the term "fireproof" and what happens to the water during the fire::

The short answer is yes it “fireproof”, however, the correct terminology that we use in the fire service is the building construction is Type 1 – Fire Resistive.  It provides the highest level of protection from fire development and spread as well as collapse.  Concerning water damage to floors below the fire, the likelihood is minimal, but there is always a possibility.  This is because sometimes during construction, holes may be created to run utility lines, piping, etc., and if not properly sealed, then water could travel downwards through these channels."


  1. Thank you for this. Our family lived in an apt. there c.1943-4. I have since always loved hotels. I worked in Staudt & Neuman drug store 1056-63 (off and on during high school and college. Ended up majoring in history of art and architecture but still learned a lot from you. I will be back to read your other posts. Melanie

    1. Hi Melanie,
      Thank you so much for your comment! I'm really glad you are enjoying my site and the stories. Learning about the history Leland Tower is so much fun for me. I should have some more updates soon!
      Take care!

  2. 0f course I meant 1956=63. hard to see this..must remember to enlarge field!

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