How Buildering Works

By: Mark Boyer

The History of Buildering

Although buildering has been growing in popularity in recent years, it isn't a new phenomenon. People have been climbing walls for as long as we've been building them, but the sport of urban climbing appears to have its roots in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, Geoffrey Winthrop Young (the father of modern urban climbing) published "The Roof Climbers Guide to Trinity," one of the first printed guides to climbing Trinity College buildings in Cambridge, England. The small book served as a guide to scaling some of the school's tallest buildings, providing instructions on which routes to take. In 1937, under the pen name "Whipplesnaith," Noel Symington published "The Night Climbers of Cambridge," a follow-up to Young's guide, which is still widely referenced today.

In American cities, buildering rose to prominence along with the rise of the skyscraper in the first three decades of the 20th century, when a couple of key daredevils scaled some of the world's then-tallest towers. The most famous of these early climbers was probably Harry H. Gardiner, aka the Human Fly (a nickname that was reportedly given to him by President Grover Cleveland). Wearing all white and grinning, Gardiner famously climbed the Detroit News' 12-story Detroit ad building in 1916 before a large lunchtime crowd. "They dared not cheer," reported the Detroit News. "Men stood and stared with bulging eyes. Women hugged their babies to their breasts and held their breath" [source: Baulch].


Because it was so popular, an encore climb was scheduled a few days later, but it was canceled because the large crowds created such a disruption. Gardiner later went on to climb the 16-story Empire Building in Birmingham, Ala., and the 17-story World Building in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In another famous buildering attempt, in 1924 Henry Roland broke his hip falling 35 feet (10.67 meters) while attempting to scale the Davis County Courthouse in Bloomfield, Iowa. The fall left Roland, who had been traveling the country performing stunts, penniless and injured. But eight years later, he returned to Bloomfield and successfully climbed the courthouse in just 12 minutes, placing his hat on the head of the Blind Justice statue at the top of the building's clock tower [source: Evans].

Not all early buildering stories had such happy endings, though. In 1923, H.F. Young, another urban climber, famously died from a nine-story fall off of the Hotel Martinique in New York. After two more deaths the following year, many cities passed ordinances that banned buildering. From the mid-1920s to the early 1960s, urban climbing's popularity tailed off in the U.S., but it would again rise to prominence in popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.