Skyscrapers are now ubiquitous to any metropolitan skyline, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But in the late 19th century such soaring buildings were still just architects’ dreams, including Minneapolis architect Leroy Sunderland Buffington.
In May 1888, Buffington filed a patent for a building with an iron or steel skeleton designed to take construction to new heights.
He called his invention a “cloudscraper,” and he would spend much of the rest of his life unsuccessfully defending his patent as skyscrapers began appearing around the U.S.
Born in Cincinnati in 1847, Buffington made his way to Minnesota in 1871, and by 1874, he had opened up his own architecture firm on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.
His reputation grew rapidly throughout the 1870s, and he was soon being called one of the best architects in the Midwest. His repertoire included Minneapolis’ Boston Block, a host of buildings for the University of Minnesota — including the Coliseum and Pillsbury and Eddy Halls — and many private clients with familiar last names, including Charles A. Pillsbury, James J. Hill, Thomas Lowry, Cyrus Northrop and C.M. Loring to name a few.
By the 1880s, his offices employed more than 30 draftsmen, making it the largest firm in the region.
Two of his designs, the Pillsbury A Mill and the West Hotel, received national press. The Pillsbury A Mill was the first architect-designed mill. Buffington’s design was progressive.
He focused more on function and utilitarianism, and the building was soon the biggest flourmill in the world, a title previously held by the Washburn A Mill, built on the other side of the Mississippi by Cadwallader C. Washburn in 1874.
Buffington’s West Hotel on Fifth and Hennepin was deemed the “Minneapolis Miracle” and “the finest hotel in the West,” with its 406 luxury rooms.
Despite these accolades and Buffington’s respected reputation, when he published his cloud scraper patent in architectural journals in 1888, he was ridiculed.
Within a few years, however, buildings using a metal skeleton frame were being constructed all around the country. Buffington formed the Buffington Iron Building Company and began filing lawsuits for patent infringement in 1892.
Scholars disagree over Buffington’s claim to the skyscraper’s origin story.
While he reported that he dreamed up his cloudscraper and drew design in the early 1880s, he didn’t receive a patent until 1888.
And history generally agrees that the first-ever skyscraper constructed was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, built in 1885, well before Buffington’s patent was approved.
Was Buffington merely trying to profit off a trend in architecture, or was he the earliest person to solve the construction problems of a skyscraper, but not the first to build one?
Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.