An Alternate History of the American Skyscraper: Joseph M. Wilson of Philadelphia

Tuesday, 11/24 at 6pm

George E. Thomas (bio)

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Is it possible that Philadelphia is the birthplace of the skyscraper? George Thomas, preeminent scholar of the work of that city’s 19th-century genius architect Frank Furness, argues that critical breakthroughs in modern construction systems came first, not from Chicago or New York, but from Philadelphia, where engineers and architects for the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad played a key role in translating their experience into high-rise office buildings. Thomas’s provocation will focus in particular on the work of Furness’s principal competitor, the Wilson Brothers, led by engineer/ architect Joseph Miller Wilson (1838-1902).

With unique professional training, including two years of studies of metallurgy in addition to engineering training at RPI, Wilson became the chief of the bridge department for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1865, and in 1875 was assigned by the railroad to design the principal buildings for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. In 1876, he formed the Wilson Brothers, bringing together an array of professionals who served clients across the western hemisphere. Their Broad Street Station in Philadelphia of 1879 incorporated a frame of steel carrying masonry infill that, Thomas argues, predates similar systems in Chicago and suggests an alternative history to the modernist emphasis on the Midwestern origins of skeleton construction.

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