If you asked me to list the materials that changed American life the most profoundly, steel would certainly be at the top of the list. Ubiquitous in our modern daily lives, at the turn of the century this material completely revolutionized the fields of engineering and architecture in the 20th century.
Steel is a metal alloy of iron and other various elements, primarily carbon. In its pure elemental form, Iron is relatively weak and pliable. However, the addition of alloying elements (such as carbon and magnesium) fortifies the metal and accounts for the mixtures high tensile strength and durability. Prior to the 20th century, the manufacture of steel was incredibly expensive so it was mainly made in small batches and used for weaponry.
In the 1860s, Henry Bessemer debuted a new process (aptly named the Bessemer process) whereby air could be blown into molten iron to create the metal alloy. The Bessemer process revolutionized steel production by allowing manufacturers, such as magnate Andrew Carnegie, to make large industrial batches of steel efficiently. By the 1920s, the United States had become the world leader in steel production. If you were to open any American history textbook, the main contribution of steel was in building the great railroads. However, although that is both an impressive and important use of steel, the price of the material decreased significantly enough to make it a viable building material as well.
The accessibility of steel had profound impacts on city structures during the American Industrial Revolution. The two notable uses of steel that we will discuss in detail here are the Chrysler Building in New York City as well as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In both instances, steel allowed for engineers and architects to conceive innovative designs that had been hitherto impossible using traditional building materials.
Constructed between 1926-1930 by William Van Alen, the Chrysler building is perhaps one of the most iconic specimens of Art Deco architecture and a testament of the use of steel in skyscrapers. Commissioned by Walter Chrysler, the skyscraper was meant to impress the Midtown passerby with the ‘prestige and progressive modernity’ of the Chrysler Corporation. 77 floors tall, it held the record of the tallest building in New York until the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931. The Chrysler Building is one of the most experimental buildings of the time, both in terms of aesthetics and engineering. It was the first building to surpass 1000 ft(304.8 m) tall. Although the exterior of the building is brick, Van Alen employed a steel internal skeleton. It is this steel infrastructure that allowed the construction of this soaring building. Steel was not only a structural material but also a decorative one, comprising the metal cladding of the famous coronae and spire. The New York headquarters serves as an advertisement for the Chrysler Corporation itself. For the first time in the history of New York, older structures were being entirely demolished to make way for newer and bigger buildings. This skyscraper was the company’s response to other monumental corporate structures being constructed. There was a race between many different companies to build the tallest and most original building and the Chrysler Corporation wanted to make a lasting mark on the New York skyline.
An equally impressive feat of engineering, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was constructed 1933 by McClintic-Marshall Construction Co., a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. The bridge spans the narrow strait between the San Francisco peninsula and the Pacific Ocean and (until 1964) was formerly the longest suspension bridge in the world. The building of the bridge was facilitated by a need for the city of San Francisco to be connected to Marin County. Until that point, the economic growth of the city had been stunted and in order to keep up with the other growing American metropolises, something had to be done. Previous designs had not been orchestrated because many assumed the fog and strong winds would prevent both construction and operation. However, through the work of plucky engineer Joseph Strauss and Leon Moisseff, the architect for the Manhattan Bridge. Another key player in the bridge’s conception was lead engineer Charles Alton Ellis, who introduced his idea of “deflection theory”, where the bridge could be flexible under high wind conditions and the stress on the bridge itself would then be diminished. The engineering of steel allowed this small army of engineers and architects to construct a bridge in a location that for many decades people had believed to be unbuildable.
While the Chrysler Building and Golden Gate Bridge are two epochal examples of steel in Art Deco architecture and design, steel continues to permeate our lives to this day. Indeed “stainless steel” has become synonymous with clean, modern and sleek design in addition to being integral components in weaponry, watches and even surgical instruments. Steel played a critical role in catapulted the United States to become a global powerhouse in the 20th century as well as shaping both the American economy and our architecture.