The Bradbury building Looking backward…to the future

Jeffrey Head
5 min readAug 7, 2021


I wanted to do my best to understand George Wyman and the design of the Bradbury building, so I decided to read Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887, by Edward Bellamy. This was Wyman’s source of inspiration, for the design of the Bradbury building, according to his daughters.

Due to various constraints, the following is a transcript of my interview with Prudence McBurney, a research scholar who specializes in Utopian literature.

The Huntington Library in San Marino has a copy of the book in their special collections.

There are no pictures and no table of contents inside the book’s green cloth cover. The book is about 5” by 8” and maybe an inch and half thick with almost 500 pages.

JH: After speaking with one of the librarians about what I’m doing, he recommended I talk with a research scholar named, Prudence McBurney, who is working on an academic paper about Utopian literature. I think the official title of her paper is, Lacan: The mirror that returns in a post-gender industrial age. I’m thinking is it a two-way mirror? One side is utopia and the other dystopia? Anyway, I don’t ask because I try not to broadcast my ignorance as much anymore.

I call Prudence and talk about my research.

JH: What can you tell me about Looking Backward and Bellamy?

PM: Bellamy was a young boy who grew up in Massachusetts during the Civil War and was brought up in a Christian household. He liked to read about war heroes and ancient Roman statesmen. He found refuge with an active imagination and books about compassionate, historic, moral characters, aspirational figures which may have led to his receiving a law degree before returning to his deep interest in literature.

He enjoyed reading George Eliot, Mark Twain, and Ivan Turgenev. Some of Bellamy’s other writing has been compared to Edgar Allen Poe, for the internal conflicts, inner-life experiences of his characters.

JH: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons…good book.

PM: It’s interesting you mention Fathers and sons. Although Bellamy was pro-industrialization, we cannot help but wonder how much he identified with both the father and son, in terms of living in the old world as modernity’s presence becomes more significant and his own way of managing the transition between the two and making a conscientious choice…when choice is an option. It also points to one of the autobiographical qualities of Utopian literature, as far how and what leads a writer to project himself into a different world through another character. Perhaps as an affirmation of an alter-ego or wish-fulfillment, desire. Escapism.

JH: Like “Rip Van Winkle”, by Washington Irving.

PM: There many references comparing Rip Van Winkle and Looking Back, since the main character in each story falls asleep and wakes up in the future. Irving’s book was written in 1819, about 70 years before Bellamy wrote Looking Back. It’s also worth mentioning that while Bellamy was conservative politically, “Looking Back did not espouse a call to action politically, instead he offered optimistic social and cultural ideas for the benefit of everyone.

Edward Bellamy. Undated. Credit: Library of Congress.

JH: Which makes sense, since I understand, the Nationalist Political Party grew out of Bellamy’s perspective.

PM: Right. In the book you’ll read about how, “worker’s income is the same in all occupations,” and about the creation of “public laundries” and “public kitchens.”

About ten years after writing Looking Back Bellamy writes a sequel called Equality.

JH: Hmm. I can sense where he’s going.

PM: For sure!

JH: As you know, I’m trying to figure out how the book influenced, or may have influenced, the design of the Bradbury Building. The paragraph from the book which is most often sited in the context of the Bradbury’s design is…well, let me just read these highlights:

“…a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above…The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior.”

PM: The first time I read that and hearing it again now, it still makes me think of Gare du Nord in Paris.

JH: I hadn’t thought of it before but maybe the train station helped him imagine a grand space, with glass, ironworks, a high roofline.

PM: He did travel to Europe and may have seen Gare du Nord…or another impressive station.

JH: In your reading of Looking Back, and Bellamy’s other books, can you offer any insight about how the book directly or indirectly relates to architecture or to the Bradbury?

PM: Other than the passage you read, I would say, the feeling of open, public spaces, interior courtyards, fits with Bellamy’s perspective of social use and interaction, which is ironic because Bellamy was not an out-going, social person but his ideas of bringing people together and imagining public spaces was not just he’s way of overcompensating, but also admirable and prescient, as open office buildings and public spaces contribute to people’s health, or sense of well-being.

JH: His ideas at the time must have been both fantastical and plausible given the book’s enormous appeal.

PM: I think so too.

JH: Prudence, thank you for talking with me.

PM: Of course. Let’s meet at the Bradbury Building when I return to Los Angeles.

Later that morning…

I’m back where I started, at the Bradbury. I can’t help but look at the building differently. It’s an odd feeling, knowing even more of its history and seeing so many people come in and out of the building, or simply walk past it. Should I stop people striding by and tell them to stop and look at the building? I want them to see the building differently too. For now, though, I think I’ll walk across the street to Grand Central Market and have an early lunch.