William Jenney Biography (1832-1907)


One of the main factors that identify modern architecture is the shift from load-bearing walls to load-bearing frameworks. William Le Baron Jenney startedthis architectural revolution with construction of the Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1884. It was the first major structure to use an iron framework as its sole means of support.

Born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in 1832, of English Puritan ancestry, Jenney was influenced by his father, who had carried on the family's maritime tradition as agent and owner of a fleet of whaling ships. After the whaling industry failed in the 1850s, Jenney's father entered the insurance business.

Jenney travelled extensively during his early years. He was probably most influenced architecturally by his witnessing of the rapid rebuilding of San Francisco after fire destroyed its wood buildings in 1850, and the city was quickly rebuilt with brick. According to his partner, William Mundie, Jenney was also influenced by his contacts with primitive societies like the Hawaiians whose dwellings were of frame construction.

Jenney received formal engineering training at the Ecole Centrale des Arts etManufactures in France from 1853 to 1856. During this period, the first ironbeams were being produced as replacements for wood flooring for fireproofing.

Jenney married Elizabeth Cobb of Cleveland in 1867. That same year he was attracted to Chicago, and was appointed chief engineer of the West Chicago ParkEngineers in 1869. Jenney was instrumental in planning Chicago's grand park scheme.

The Great Chicago Fire in October, 1871 was a disaster for most, but a boon to aspiring architects like Jenney. He designed many commercial, religious, and residential buildings during the 1870s and 1880s. His Home Insurance Building was his response for a call for improved fireproofing techniques.

In his later years, Jenney designed buildings for the Columbian Exhibition of1892 and the YMCA Building in 1893. Jenney retired in 1905 and turned the business over to Mundie. Jenney loved California and its gardens, and he died in 1907 while visiting Los Angeles.

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