The Wainwright building: At 10 stories tall, one of the first modern skyscrapers

| Scene Reporter

The Wainwright building, located at 709 Chestnut Street in downtown St. Louis, was built between 1890 and 1891. It is one of the earliest examples of amodern skyscrapers.

The Wainwright building, located at 709 Chestnut Street in downtown St. Louis, was built between 1890 and 1891. It is one of the earliest examples of amodern skyscrapers.

When you pass it for the first time, there’s something odd about the Wainwright State Office Building. Face its front at 111 N. 7th St., and you might see the building’s intricate ornamentation and red brick facade as a sign of the past, hallmarks of a time when buildings were smaller. But look up a bit, and you’ll see that the Wainwright building stretches higher than you’d expect. It isn’t lean, exactly, but the brick piers have a funny way of stretching upward when you gaze up at the building’s top.

This amalgamation of frieze and height are indicative of the historic transition the Wainwright building has gone through. The building itself was built to inflate the ego of St. Louis brewer Ellis Wainwright, but the significance of its design is still with us.

Before the Wainwright building, architects were unsure how to best use lightweight steel to build skyscrapers. Early attempts at high-rise office buildings were embarrassing layered affairs, resembling stacked books or, worse, cakes. In 1890, architect Louis Sullivan of the Chicago firm Adler and Sullivan received a contract to design the Wainwright building.

“[The skyscraper] must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line,” Sullivan later wrote in an article for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine.

Sullivan accomplished his lofty goal by turning the horizontal structure on its head. For one of the first times in architectural history, the architect took full advantage of the strength lightweight steel afforded him. He built up, not laterally. Instead of building a cake, Sullivan built a column sandwiched between the top and bottom floors.

Sullivan’s choice to stretch upwards is what gives the Wainwright building its historical significance. A casual glance at any city block shows example after example of Sullivan’s innovation. In fact, if you were to replace the Wainwright building’s brick facade with glass, in your mind’s eye, it would be indistinguishable from modern skyscrapers. That’s what makes viewing the Wainwright building nowadays such a treat. It doesn’t just sit downtown; it sits in this place between two worlds—one of pre-sheen masonry and one of corporate superstructures.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe