Early 20th-century American office buildings

by Paul Burmeister

Portland OR American Bank building

Take a walk through downtown of any American city and look for a well-preserved example of early 20th-century steel-framed office building. I've seen examples in Portland and Savannah, Louisville and Indianapolis, Boston and Chicago (of course.) Not yet skyscrapers as we think of them today, the style seems to combine American new-classicism or neo-renaissance with an aspirational, pre-modernism connected to the Chicago school. The best examples have preserved or restored lower levels, usually with elaborate ornamentation intact.

What I like most about the examples are their grid-like, intellectual organization of horizontal layers, which divides the tall facade into proportional thirds—a one- or two-story street level, a cellular body level, and a top level with an articulated cornice. These buildings are primarily utilitarian, meeting a socio-economic need of their day that has survived to our time.

Because I'm not an architectural historian I don't fully understand the examples for structural or stylistic considerations, and a greater understanding would enhance my visual appreciation of an example's intellectual appeal. Trying to photograph the examples is an exercise in frustration; rarely are the conditions right for capturing the sense of intellectual / visual whole.