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Old Babbitts Die Hard

"Believe me, it's the fellow with four to ten thousand a year, say, and an automobile and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town, that makes the wheels of progress go round."
—George F. Babbitt

The most prominent buildings of a civilization speak eloquently of what it esteems. The great medieval cathedrals of France rose in splendor over their Gothic towns, and the upward pull of their inner space offered otherworldly consolation to the souls around them. Some 200 years ago, a foreign traveler arriving in one of the coastal cities of English-speaking America would have been awed by the profusion of church steeples towering over the skyline. Today, the seaborne visitor to Manhattan Island will find himself arrested by a very different vision, of concrete or steel-and-glass behemoths that dwarf all human scale, swallowing up such once-imposing ecclesiastical edifices as Trinity in Wall Street or St. Patrick's in midtown.

In nearly every American city, the physiognomy is much the same. The business skyscraper dominates the urban vision. Of course, such buildings tell us even more of the special place that business holds in our civilization. More specifically, the evolution of skyscrapers—from the nuanced structures of Louis Sullivan to the unabashed virility of the Empire State Building to the glass towers and mirror-skinned...

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