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Presentism In Reverse

One of the traps for the unwary in historical research is presentism. We have to try to understand past events and society as they seemed to people at the time, not as they seem to us now. That doesn’t mean excusing people’s actions in the past that we now consider to be wrong, but rather understanding why they did what they did. To use a simple example, we know that heavier-than-air flying machines are not only possible, but can be built large enough to carry hundreds of people. If we look at the skepticism with which the Wright brothers’ claim to have flown was treated from our perspective, it seems ridiculous. If we look at it in the context of the time, circa 1900, it was one of many claims, nearly all of which were so badly wrong as to be fraudulent. Skepticism was justified when dealing with a first claim.

The picture above shows Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo, about four years after it was built, when it was still called the Prudential Building. There’s a good argument to be made that this was Sullivan’s best skyscraper. It was built five years after his first, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, but it’s simply a better building. Among other things, it’s taller than it is wide, while the Wainwright’s proportions are closer to a cube, which is a problem coming from the man who wrote of skyscrapers that one “must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing.”

Anyway… This photo is from the Detroit Publishing Company, which spent the early twentieth century making up for the lack of an internet that they had no idea would one day exist by publishing inexpensive photographs of anything they thought people might be interested in seeing. I’ve mined their archives heavily for this blog, including for many old skyscrapers. In other words, they didn’t take a photo of Prudential because they thought it was an important early skyscraper (which is our view today) or Louis Sullivan’s best tall building (at a time when Sullivan was still actively designing buildings). They took a picture because it was another example of the hot new trend – both stylistically and in terms of technology – of “skyscraper.” To them it was ordinarily extraordinary; to us it’s simply extraordinary.

Also, as a side note, the roof was apparently a good place for a weather station: