When compared to architectural history, American architecture is relatively young having started in the 1600s with the colonization of the northeastern seaboard. Most of the architecture was simplistic and made of available materials that could be afforded by poor colonists who were more interested in creating shelter than fancy digs. With so few trained builders and nothing but the earth, wood, and stone available to them, the colonists created plain homes with anything approaching decoration being reserved for houses of worship.
However, those colonists brought with them the architectural styles from various parts of Europe and Greece which made their way into American architecture as it became more sophisticated.
A Brief History of Architecture
The Stone Age doesn’t just include prehistory; Egypt is one of the earliest civilizations that had any type of architectural style that can still be seen today and all those fabulous structures were built of stone and brick. This was true across the known world with Sumerian and Minoan architecture that was similar in look.
When Greece became the center of civilization stone was still the pre-eminent building material. With Greek building came the post and lintel with vast columns supporting the ceiling structure. However, creating an open covered space was not possible until arches were developed and perfected during the Roman Empire. The Romans were also responsible for the development of concrete as well as keeping Greek aesthetics alive.
Through the Ottoman Empire architectural styles and practices expanded with the most elaborate structures being created in service to religion. From the Greek Gods through to Christianity, the most effort, both artistic and engineering, was lavished on churches and temples.
With the Renaissance arches and columns recalled Greek and Roman architecture as well as that of the Middle East. Through the next few centuries styles became more and more ornate. Still, everything was built from stone and wood as Neoclassicism came into more widespread favor.
The Beginning of Metal Structures
Early in American architectural history steel and other metals were used more for fire-proofing and decoration than for framing. The United States Capitol Building with its highly recognizable dome structure is a prominent piece of neoclassic architecture that is echoed in many, if not most, of the state capitol buildings around the U.S. The capitol dome was originally made with wood but over time was remade with stone and iron.
Throughout the 1800s these classical styles would be used over and over with little variation. But there is a structure that stands out. Between 1885-1889 the Eiffel Tower was constructed from iron girders. However, in America a new use was found for steel: the skyscraper.
The skyscraper was, for decades, a peculiarly American style of building. They were made possible by using steel and other metals as framing and support for wood, stone, and concrete skins. (It is important to note here that the skyscraper would not have been practical without the invention of elevators.)
Skyscrapers began to be built starting in 1849 and continue to be at the heart of many a metropolis. You can usually define the “downtown” of any large city through the soaring, multi-story buildings of steel and glass that rise from the smaller homes and businesses. Because steel enabled these structures to be built it also brought about a more efficient use of land. No longer did a building have to spread over a large amount of real estate when it could reach up into the sky.
Meanwhile Down on the Ground
American residences started as simple colonial structures with one to two levels, at least in the north. Down south where plantations ruled Greek and Gothic revival was popular up through the Civil War. Beginning in 1840 residences of the well-to-do became more and more ornate with Italianate and Second Empire style becoming popular. In the late 1800s a simpler style became the norm as can be seen in the bungalow, craftsman, and prairie style architecture that has given way to the homes you see today.
But now, these same residences can be built with steel while still appearing to be simple bungalows and ranch homes. Steel creates a durable, fire-resistant frame that can stand up to many of the environmental challenges all over the United States. With steel roofs storm damage becomes more of a nuisance than a disaster. And in earthquake country, which seems to be spreading to the plains, steel is flexible yet strong enough to withstand the shaking.
A Final Word
Steel has been a prominent building material in America for over 150 years. Architectural styles have changed quite a bit over that time and will continue to do so. Fortunately, steel can easily be used to build everything from today’s ranch-style home to a Second Empire mansion if those were to come back into fashion, and everything in between or yet to be designed.