Written by Karen Nickless
For more than a decade, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has worked to preserve the resources of the post-war and modern era and raise awareness of their importance. It’s been a challenging task, even with some long-time preservationists. I have a confession to make—before joining the National Trust Southern Office staff as a field representative for Florida, I was one of them. I liked some modernism, but as a whole it left me cold. Modernism was simply more proof to this historian of the nineteenth century that, with a few exceptions (the Progressive Movement, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights), the twentieth century was just a big mistake.
That all changed because of Florida. In my work as a field representative there, I have had the opportunity to be inspired by people who helped form the modernist aesthetic in Florida and tutored by those committed to preserving it. Call it my own “Great Awakening.” (Those of you who know the nineteenth century will get this reference.) My awakening is not shared by some in the preservation field and many in the general public, who just “don’t get it.” Some struggle with the aesthetic itself, some with reconciling that, yes, something can be historic even if they remember when it was built or new.
My teachers have included modernist architects Peter Jefferson, Alfred Browning Parker, Hilario Candela and Jorge Hernandez. Parker, in his early 90s, impressed me with both his residential designs and his philosophy of building: 1) Build strongly; 2) Build as directly as possible with no complications; 3) Let your building love its site and glorify its climate; 4) Design for use; make it beautiful. Parker’s homes were designed to take advantage of Florida’s climate. The materials are strong and organic, and his residences seem to have grown on their sites. Not everyone appreciates this. In 2008 his Manus House in Palm Beach was demolished to make way for a “British Colonial style” house. Parker hoped to salvage some materials to use in the house he was building for himself, but the demolition crew arrived first.
Hilario Candela, the architect of Miami Marine Stadium (one of 2008’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places), is a soft spoken but passionate man. A 28-year-old Cuban immigrant when he designed the Stadium, he recently worked with Jorge Hernandez (National Trust trustee and professor of architecture at the University of Miami) and his graduate students to develop creative plans to reopen the Stadium as the centerpiece of a revitalized Virginia Key. With luck and the continuing efforts of Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, I think this story will have a happy ending. Support is widespread—just a few weeks back, Jimmy Buffett called on all parrotheads to help save the stadium.
I’ve been tutored by preservationists as well. In May of this year I was in a car with Kathleen Kauffman (Miami-Dade County Preservation Chief) and Kara Kautz, (Coral Gables Historic Preservation Officer), searching for the Meier house, which the Palm Beach City Council had just declined to landmark, opening the path for demolition. The house wasn’t difficult to find, with its white façade glistening in the hot Palm Beach sun. Why the possible execution order? The owners say it is a “maintenance nightmare” and the architect that designed an addition in 1990 declared, “It’s not the texture of Palm Beach.” Plus, it is a youngster—at only 32, it has not met the 50 year mark that has often been used to determine whether or not a property is historic. The Palm Beach Landmarks Preservation Commission is working to landmark remaining Modernist structures and convince the public that there never has been a “50-year rule.”
I’ve also been taught to appreciate Modernism by grassroots activists, such as Teri D’Amico, an interior designer who coined the term MiMo (Miami Modern). Teri took me on a whirlwind tour of MiMo. Touring the Biscayne Boulevard Historic District in Miami, surrounded by 1950s motels with enticing names like the Vagabond, Motel South Pacific, the Sinbad, the Shalimar and the Stardust, Teri is an enthusiastic ambassador for the recent past. She showed me the interior of the Bianco Motel (formerly the Biscayne Inn), where she is working on a tight budget to bring back the original feel of the room interiors. We drove by the Bacardi Building, which will make even the casual observer turn for a second look, and was recently listed as a local landmark. Then Teri showed me her home, the town of Bay Harbor Islands.
Bay Harbor Islands is a little-known gem of a community, built in 1947 and connected to the mainland via causeway. The West Island holds single-family homes and the East Island multi-family dwellings, public buildings and businesses. Buildings by Igor Polevitzky and Morris Lapidus line the small commercial district, and the West Island is a mix of small “housettes” and impressive apartment buildings. It's the details that catch your eye—the railings, the use of tile and glass, the stark relief of the sunlight streaming through a white screen block wall into a shaded walkway.
It was that play of light on the Richard Meier house and the architectural elements at Bay Harbor Island that finally made it “click” for me. It’s about the elements, stupid! Modernism for me is more about graphic art and abstraction than about the whole piece. It takes me by surprise with an open space or a sudden curve or a shadow cast. Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe that’s why some people don’t get modernism—they can’t read the building and they are not appreciating the details.
The National Trust and its partners will continue to educate the public and preservationists about the language of Modernism. And while I’m not ready yet to look at much of the twentieth century’s history, I’m beginning to “get” Modernism, thanks to some special people. Maybe one day it will be familiar enough for me to see a building as a whole and understand the vocabulary of the structure, as I can with Art Deco and Georgian. For now, I’m enjoying the “aha” moments.
Karen Nickless is a field representative in the Southern Office of the National Trust. As a member of the recently formed Modernism + The Recent Past Cross-Trust Team, she is looking forward to learning from her colleagues, especially Chris French, new director of the Trust’s Modernism + The Recent Past Initiative.