The National Preservation Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has concluded, though staff members from around the National Trust for Historic Preservation are still sending in field reports. Adrian Fine, director of the Northeast Field Office, looks at some of the conflict that surrounds architecture from the recent past.
The 1950s and 60s-era built environment evokes strong reactions… those that really love it and the rest that struggle with places that came at the expense of an earlier era of architecture, that represent something antithetical to smart growth ideals, and architecture that doesn’t always come in first place in a beauty pageant. The National Preservation Conference in Tulsa was a great lab for testing out this ongoing debate.
The Mid-Century Tulsa field session immersed conference-goers in the city’s Post-War neighborhoods like Lortondale and Ranch Acres, featuring tours of humble ranches to truly one-of-a-kind modernist icons that could easily pass for the I Dream of Jeannie bachelor pad. Deciding what to save and figuring out how to do it was also the theme of the educational session, Teardowns in Suburbia: Preserving 1950/60s Neighborhoods. Postwar residential housing is unfortunately rarely considered historic, much less protected or bestowed with any type of designation; and we’re losing some of the very best examples of our postwar era ranch houses, spilt levels, icons and entire neighborhoods to teardowns and the resulting over-scaled and out-of-character infill homes.
In an already rabid private property rights environment, it’s a tough sell to put in place local historic or conservation district designation anywhere these days, let alone to do it for a 1950s ranch house neighborhood. A big part of the problem is us and our need to get over ourselves. The idea of saving places which are from the period of our living memory is affected by a number of prejudices, where taste all too often trumps judgment. History didn’t stop in 1945 or in 1975. We cannot pick and choose arbitrarily which era of our past to deem more important. In Tulsa and all over the country, we’re hearing about the need to identify this era’s resources and how to apply criteria to make good decisions about what to save.
Like a lot of others, my family grew up in the 1950s ranch, a 1960s raised ranch and a 1970s French Provincial catalog knock-off. While none of these houses are particularly noteworthy or significant, they represent something important to me. It’s the same for others who are drawn to this era for its design, but also for its story of innovation and experimentation. These places are symbols of a country that was all about growth, breaking down barriers and exploration. It is more than architecture alone but also Civil Rights struggles and advancements, the Sputnik race to space, and the misguided vision for Urban Renewal. Through a radical shift in our focus, we abandoned our cities or “modernized” them beyond recognition, pushed out our development, and defined suburbia as the goal for every American family.
History is not always supposed to be pretty or inspirational, but it should be honest. We cannot afford to erase our Post-War past or choose to only save the very best icons as if we’re in an architectural petting zoo. We’ve done that already and now know better. Tulsa is just now starting to have these discussions and, like a lot of places, will likely lose some landmarks before it gets a handle on this issue. A new online resource from the National Trust for Historic Preservation is on its way to help. Teardowns in Suburbia: Tools to Preserve 1950/60s Neighborhoods will soon be launched on PreservationNation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on the list and be the first to receive this resource.
-- Adrian Scott Fine