Why Did They Do That? : The Impetus for Investigation

Working in history, the starting question is often — Why did they do that?  It’s what drives research.  For historic preservation, each aspect of a building is a choice that someone had to make.  It’s fascinating to reflect on why they made the decisions they did.

There are connections that are easy to make.  Banks built temple-front buildings out of stone to communicate authority and permanence to inspire confidence in their customers.  Successful businessmen used imported English tile in fireplace surrounds and obscene amounts of mahogany to communicate financial status.  Gardens can be designed to give visitors certain views, window awnings added for temperature control, stone and logs to make the man-made look natural… More and more has gone into examining ‘ugly’ design like Brutalism and why designing with raw concrete in sharp geometries was ever desirable.  It’s even more elusive to look into the vernacular, the popular, the common, even the cheap.  What factors went into those choices?  Was it money alone?

I’ll say here, I have a love-hate relationship with historic newspapers.  I love them better when they’re digitized and word-searchable, and when I’m not in a time crunch.  There is something wonderful about browsing historic newspapers… the delightful accidents of research.  A few of those accidents have given me insight.

I came upon an ad for concrete block sold by Gage Bros. in Sioux Falls while looking through the Freeman Courier, February 21, 1952.  Gage advertised not only its affordability, but in that left-hand column, they also claim its safer for fire and storms, weather tight, vermin proof, has built-in insulation, lowers insurance rates, is durable, easy to maintain, easy to finance, quick to build, healthy, and has “structural beauty.”  From this one ad, you can ask questions about how many people did use concrete block in building in Sioux Falls and the surrounding area, was this a successful advertising campaign, and did their claims for the material hold up over time?

The Building Technology Heritage Library is my absolute favorite place to look for answers to this question when I can’t wait for happy-accidents or am looking for national context.  Browse by keyword for house plan books, product catalogs, company brochures…  All sorts of wonderful ephemera, like this promo for aluminum veneer – Zourite by Kawneer!  Fabulous.  Although the brochure is undated, I’d hazard that this product was one of the many post-World War II efforts to redirect the country’s aluminum production facilities.

This question prompts research, which is fun. I think so at least. But it’s also important for the doors it opens. If we can understand why people did things, does it change our perspective? Does it change the way we treat the buildings they created? Can we see beauty in concrete block, aluminum, and raw concrete? Can we (please) preserve them in recognition of their role in our history?

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