"Nothing but a Sash Frame": The "First" Glass Curtain Wall Skyscraper

Trevor Hardwick
COO
Select Group, Dubai

The early skyscrapers of the 1880s sought a new expression for the tall building within the constraints of the architecture of the masonry wall; floors might extend higher, the proportion of glass to masonry might increase, and the masonry cladding might become merely a curtain, but the overall expression remained one of masonry planes broken by punched openings. The ‘first’ skyscraper to overtly express the glass curtain wall would have to include the following: vertical expanses of glazing unbroken by masonry spandrels across at least 75 percent of the building height in typical bays, forthright expression of a glazed façade rather than windows within or applied to a masonry plane, and a clear treatment of the glazed façade in a manner expressive of its construction, unconstrained by the aesthetic framework of the masonry wall.

Charles B. Clarke’s Fagin Building (1888) in St. Louis was the first skyscraper to overtly express the glass curtain wall. A metal-framed curtain wall extended across eight of the building’s ten floors, featuring immense sheets of glass and cantilevering oriels uninterrupted by horizontal masonry. Unconstrained by the aesthetic framework of the masonry wall, Clarke explored the limits of glass as the primary material expression of the building façade, eschewing the idea of masonry as support in his treatment of the granite facing on the columns between the bays. Condemned by Architectural Record for the “absurdity” and “indecency” of having “a front that is nothing but a sash-frame,” the building’s glass curtain wall was replaced by a neo-Renaissance masonry façade in 1896. Long dismissed as an aberration, the Fagin Building was the first skyscraper to overtly express the glass curtain wall, marking a key step in the evolution of the skyscraper and setting the precedent for the glass-clad towers of the twentieth century.

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