Modern Architecture

Preserving the Birthplace of Hip-Hop

Posted on: August 16th, 2010 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Written by David Gest

Preservationists, hip-hop aficionados, and Sedgwick Towers tenants celebrated when the New York State Historic Preservation Office determined that the building was eligible for National Historic Landmark status. They now continue to advocate for its protection. (Courtesy of Urban Homesteading Assistance Board)

On May 21, 2007, the New York Times’ David Gonzalez wrote an article entitled “Will Gentrification Spoil the Birthplace of Hip-Hop?” It described the plight of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, a low- to middle-income housing development built in the late 1960s as part of New York State’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. As a fan of urban history, hip-hop, and historic preservation, I had always marveled that oral histories pinpointed the exact genesis of hip-hop music and culture to a series of parties held in a Bronx housing complex in the early ’70s. Now that the state’s contract with the landlord (a management corporation) permitted it to opt out of Mitchell-Lama, the corporation sought to abandon its tax breaks and subsidized mortgage—which had allowed for 20 years of affordable housing—and sell the property.

After reading the article, I contacted the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a nonprofit group organizing the tenants’ opposition to the proposed sale and likely loss of affordability under new ownership. I tried to help the cause by writing a narrative description of the building’s historic significance, drawing from my experience working for a preservation consulting firm in Los Angeles and my love of old school hip-hop that blossomed during junior high school in Washington, DC. Based on my research (composed in 2007, some of which is presented in the version published in Forum Journal), the New York State Historic Preservation Office determined that 1520 Sedgwick is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, possibly even as a National Historic Landmark. Better yet, at a July 2007 press conference at the building announcing the finding of eligibility, I had the honor of meeting (and yes, asking for autographs from) a who’s who cast of original hip-hoppers, including DJ Kool Herc (who manned the turntables at the 1520 Sedgwick parties), Afrika Bambaataa (founder of the Zulu Nation), Grand Wizard Theodore (the original record scratcher), and Melle Mel (lead rapper of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five).

In the fall of 2008, the building was sold to a private real estate developer for $7 million. However, the economic recession has temporarily made conversion of the building to market-rate units unfeasible, and according to a January 2010 New York Times article, the new owner has let the building fall into disrepair, with a dramatic increase in the number of housing violations since the change in management (from 82 to 598 violations).

While a museum at the site probably would not be appropriate – the current residents would like to continue to be able to use their recreation room, where DJ Kool Herc hosted the first ever hip-hop parties – some kind of publicly accessible historical documentation, or perhaps a series of hip-hop concerts, could benefit the building, local neighborhood, and fans of music history everywhere. Most importantly, a philanthropist (possibly one or more of the numerous millionaire hip-hop recording artists) could purchase the building and promote a new dimension of historic preservation: in addition to preserving the building’s bricks and mortar, such a benefactor could aim to preserve the socioeconomic conditions that helped give rise to hip-hop in the first place: housing affordable to the low- and middle-income community of the South Bronx.

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This post presents highlights from David Gest's article of the same title in the Summer 2010 issue of Forum Journal, which confronts the challenges of preserving modern and recent past resources. Articles in this issue ask readers to re-examine the sixties, reconsider the 50-year rule, and branch out in defining and identifying cultural resources deserving of preservation. You can now read the introduction by Christine Madrid French (director of the National Trust's Modernism + the Recent Past program) and David Gest’s full article for free here. Abstracts of additional articles by Theodore H.M. Prudon, Elaine Stiles, Alan Hess, Paul Goldberger, Senya Lubisich and Cheryl Dos Remedios are also available.

If you would like to purchase a copy of the latest issue of Forum Journal, visit www.preservationbooks.org and don’t forget to take advantage of Preservation Books’ Annual Summer Sale where you can get 10% off (in addition to regular discounts) when you use the code SALE10 at checkout. Sale ends September 3rd.

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David Gest recently received degrees in law and city planning from Columbia Law School and the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, respectively. The author wishes to thank Dina Levy of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for the opportunity to prepare this context statement for the National Register nomination and architectural historian Francesca Smith for providing the building description and analysis of National Register eligibility.

The full article is reprinted with permission of David Gest; a longer version was originally published in Panorama 2008, Journal of the City and Regional Planning Department of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, pages 67-73.

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Aspen Modern II: The Past is the Future

Posted on: August 6th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

The Boomerang Lodge, constructed beginning in the mid-1950s, was the product of architect Charlie Paterson’s training at Taliesin. Paterson built and operated the lodge in Aspen for 50 years.

The Boomerang Lodge, constructed beginning in the mid-1950s, was the product of architect Charlie Paterson’s training at Taliesin. Paterson built and operated the lodge in Aspen for 50 years. (Photo: Sheila Babbie)

New visitors to contemporary Aspen are undoubtedly surprised at how much this small city has changed in the last 100 years. An online slide show of vintage photographs, hosted by the Aspen Historical Society, shows unpaved streets and hardscrabble miners, later replaced by Victorian ladies in long dresses waving to cowboys on parade. Looking at those quaint images, it is easy to forget that Aspen almost disappeared from the map before the turn of the 20th century. The “Quiet Years” – a forty year period starting in 1893 according to the Historical Society – nearly doomed the town until the promise of salvation arrived in the form of twin wooden runners and attached boots.

Aspen survived, where others perished, by becoming an early adopter of sport skiing, up to that point primarily known as an amusement for Europeans. The city and its spectacular surrounding environment are now synonymous with “the art of sliding;” indeed one cannot be separated from the other. Residents protect and embrace that legacy as their own. At recent architectural discussions in Aspen, one part of our Modern Module series of events across the country, we attempted to expand this passion for the past to include the built environment of the second half of the twentieth century. My previous post detailed the history of the buildings from that period and some of the controversies surrounding the preservation of these structures. Now, post- meeting, we can explore a few of the ideas deliberated during the symposium.

The evening panel discussion, held at the Swiss-style Mountain Chalet, was artfully moderated by Adrian Scott Fine, director of the National Trust’s Center for State and Local Policy. The panelists included State Senator Gail Schwartz, Harry Teague, AIA, of Harry Teague Architects, historian and Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur, Peggy Smith of Wake Forest University, and designer/builder Tim Semrau.

Teague, a prolific contributor to the built environment and aficionado of Aspen modernism, spoke eloquently in reference to architectural atmosphere in this mountain town, gained by early experiences observing sunlight filtering through lace curtains. He warned against the idea of “blanket preservation,” in which practitioners fail to delineate historic significance, but was encouraged both by the conversation and the turnout (more than 80 people braved the thunderstorm to attend). “This is a beginning,” he said, towards a new way of understanding Aspen and its landscape. Throughout the evening, the panelists referenced Aspen’s storied past, and the efforts of 20th century designers and patrons to incorporate the “mind, body, spirit” mantra of the city into their work. Attendees, including a city council member, two former mayors, and the current mayor Mick Ireland, participated in a lively Q&A, highlighted by one participant who challenged the panelists to invent a tagline for modern heritage tourists. Peggy Smith, author of a forthcoming book on American ski resort architecture, readily supplied her answer: "You don't have to go to Germany to see the Bauhaus. Come to Aspen."

Victor Lundy, FAIA, renowned modernist built a second home for his family in Aspen in 1972.

Victor Lundy, FAIA, renowned modernist built a second home for his family in Aspen in 1972. (Photo courtesy of the architect)

A roundtable gathering the next day followed up on the ideas forwarded during the panel event. Community members representing architects, artists, the Aspen Art Museum, the Aspen Historical Society, the Historic Preservation Task Force, and the Aspen Institute arrived ready to talk about this “front burner issue.” Barb Pahl, director of the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office in Denver, skillfully led the participants through a focused agenda targeting the opportunities and challenges inherent in the preservation and interpretation of historic modern structures.

During the course of a few hours, nearly a dozen “hindrances” to preservation were delineated, including the economic incentives behind teardowns, perceived inconsistencies in preservation principles, and a general lack of awareness of the significance for this period of building. “Prospects” in this area included the and rise of new—and generationally younger—leaders in community planning and a long-needed streamlining of historic preservation regulations and guidelines to enhance public understanding of the process. Georgia Hanson, director of the Aspen Historical Society, noted a dismal and dismaying study: less than five percent of Americans are interested in learning more about history and visiting museums. With that in mind, the society developed an exhibit exploring Aspen in the early 1970s, an expansion of context that effectively reaches out to new constituencies in terms of both history and preservation.

Most participants at the roundtable agreed that what is most needed in Aspen is a third-party preservation or “friends” group to help triangulate the sometimes tense discussions between the city and the community about what to save and how. A number of cities are now sponsoring Community Design Centers (see Charlottesville, Virginia, for a successful downtown model) to raise consciousness, find common threads, and initiate the exchange of ideas. Perhaps this is the answer for Aspen. We ended our brief discourse on that day with optimism, confident that this consortium of engaged citizens can work together to develop the tools needed to address these ongoing preservation issues.

Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Aspen Modern: Debate and Discuss

Posted on: July 26th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

Skier's Chalet, 1950, sits at the base of Aspen Mountain and is characteristic of the area's mid-century architecture. (Photo: Aspen Community Development Department)

This week, TrustModern travels to the mountain state of Colorado in a continuation of our Modern Module event series. Aspen will be the fourth stop in our nationwide pilot project to identify both challenges and opportunities in ongoing efforts to preserve modern and recent past architecture. We went on the road to ask questions, and did we get answers! So far, more than eight hundred people signed up to attend our events in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. We have heard about great successes, innovative strategies, and unexpected hindrances from the collected audiences.

Let’s get back to Aspen. Though the site selection appears random, the Mountains/Plains office of the National Trust (headquartered in Denver) and TrustModern determined that Aspen was the ideal location for a focused discussion on the place and purpose of modern architecture. Established as a mining town in the late nineteenth century, Aspen’s fortunes rose with the price of silver. Economic collapse and political wrangling led eventually to an almost total abandonment of the city by the 1930s, when only 700 people lived amongst the remains of the once-prosperous community.

Ideas to jump start the local market with a ski resort stalled at the onset of World War II, though it was probably only a matter of time before people recognized the potential of this bucolic mountain town. A new patron emerged in Walter Paepcke. In 1946, Paepcke and partners established the Aspen Skiing Company and opened the world’s longest chairlift at Aspen Mountain. He lured Eero Saarinen to design a tent for the 200th anniversary celebration of German writer Goethe’s birth in Aspen, followed by the founding of the Aspen Institute, designed by Bauhaus-trained architect Herbert Bayer. The influence of these major works set the design tone for Aspen’s building boom during the mid-twentieth century as skiing became a mainstream American pursuit. But modernist architecture did not completely overwhelm the town. Half-timbered Swiss chalets, interpreted 1950s style as motels and tourist accommodations, as well as pre-fabricated log-cabin kits for vacationeers, joined their high-fashion neighbors to create a uniquely Aspenesque mix of buildings and landscapes.

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition.  (Photo: Ziska Childs)

The Given Institute, 1972, by modernist Harry Weese faces demolition. (Photo: Ziska Childs)

As Aspen enters its second century, these buildings now mark more than half of the town’s total history. Despite that lineage, there is still resistance to recognition and preservation of this period of design. For instance, the Given Institute, designed by Harry Weese in 1972 and donated to the University of Colorado by Mrs. Paepcke as a place for public discourse and innovation, is in immediate danger of demolition. The University intends to sell the property for $20 million to a private buyer. The catch: the property must be empty, in other words no building. How can this happen? Perhaps you are familiar with Weese and his nationally recognized work, such as the critically-lauded underground Metro stations in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, sites like the Given Institute are generally unprotected and in need of new patrons to ensure their longevity.

We are hopeful for a solution to this case and others. You can join our conversation on Aspen Modern this Wednesday evening from 6-8 p.m. at the Mountain Chalet. Chad Randl, a noted author of books such as A-Frame and Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings That Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, will be providing an overview to inform our discussion. Adrian Scott Fine, director of state and local policy at our office in DC, will lead a discussion amongst our distinguished panel which includes State Senator Gail Schwartz, Harry Teague, AIA, of Harry Teague Architects, historian and Aspen Times columnist Tony Vagneur, Peg Smith of Wake Forest University, and designer/builder Tim Semrau. I will be there too, and am looking forward to hearing your ideas, opinions, and perspectives.

Learn More:

Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Lake Tahoe’s Mid-Century Cabins are ‘In Season’

Posted on: July 15th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Emily Koller

Classic mid-century cabin in Rubicon Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe.

Classic mid-century cabin in Rubicon Bay on the California side of Lake Tahoe.

Architecture, like food, is seasonal. And right now, mid-century cabins at Lake Tahoe are in season.

On my first trip to the region a few years ago, I experienced one of those wonderful architectural surprises a critic will never forget. For some reason, I had this idea in my head that the Lake Tahoe shoreline would look like a mountain version of Las Vegas. While casinos hover in South Lake Tahoe and enormous new vacation homes surround the lake, much of the area looks like it did fifty years ago. Dozens of small roadside motels line the highways and many of the subdivisions miraculously have maintained a scale and feel from the late 50s and early 60s when the postwar vacation industry thrived.

Lake Tahoe’s story can fascinate many: environmentalists, planners, historic preservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and gold mine historians all find some portion of it appealing. Pioneers began to settle throughout Tahoe Basin in the 1840s with the area experiencing the widespread boom of the gold rush. Timber was big business, with much of the forests devastated by the end of the 1800s to supply lumber and fuel to the Comstock Mines in Virginia City, Nevada. Once the land lost value from the deforestation, entrepreneurs bought cheap and constructed exclusive hotels and vacation homes.

After World War II, more cars and improved roadways brought an influx of the middle class and Tahoe lost its exclusivity. Popular campgrounds and inexpensive motels sprouted up, while subdivided land sold for reasonable figures. Not surprisingly, this growth almost immediately impacted the clarity of Tahoe’s famous blue water. Grassroots efforts successfully led to the creation of the League to Save Lake Tahoe in 1957. In 1970, a group of preservationists and residents came together to form the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) to regulate growth and protect the lake, a textbook case study for planners.

An updated mid-century cabin overlooking the lake in Rubicon Bay.

An updated mid-century cabin overlooking the lake in Rubicon Bay.

I had the pleasure of staying in Rubicon Bay on the California side with a family that has been coming to this same subdivision for 50 years; in fact, they purchased their land and built the cabin in 1962 for about $40,000. Their memories from summers at Tahoe are rich – filled with salami sandwiches on the beach and long hikes with chocolate in the pocket. Many cabins have stayed with these families and the next generation has grown up together.

There are plenty of stories from residents about the stranger who bought the 1950s cabin on the water, tore it down, and built an enormous contemporary “cabin” replete with massive vaulted ceilings and too many moose antlers. The cabin will be used, at the most, one month a year. Many are also renovated to a point that no era is recognizable. However, there are a slew of fabulously intact and well-loved cabins built between 1950 and 1970.

The mid-century architecture around Lake Tahoe suffers from two problems the Modernism and Recent Past program works to address. The first is that the real estate is worth far more than the existing buildings. Due to the good work of many advocates and organizations at crucial points in history, most of the land around the lake is publicly owned. The small percentage that is private property – spread across many jurisdictions - is regulated closely through the TRPA. As the original owners pass away, it is difficult for families to hang onto the property facing the prospect of a very significant return if sold. The South Lake Tahoe market average home price is over $500,000; a prime piece of lakefront property in Rubicon Bay recently sold for $11 million. A tiny 1950s cabin on the water has very little chance of survival.

The second problem is that of the many layers of history surrounding the lake, the postwar boom and the resulting environmental degradation is not one that many care to celebrate. The gold rush and logging days evoke the grit of the old west while the success of the environmental battles is far more inspiring. However, the carefree vacation days of the recent past era represent a history that will continue to grow more appealing – that of family and community, and a deep connection to a place. Tahoe is not a Las Vegas; its campground culture still overwhelms the resort culture. Generating some awareness for the historical value of the subdivisions – both their architecture and the communities they created – may be all that is needed to save some of the great examples of Tahoe’s recent past.

Emily Koller is a Community and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interning as the M + RP’s summer program assistant in the Western Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Boston's "Spirit of Reinvention" Topic of Recent Modern Module

Posted on: July 12th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Boston's City Hall

Boston's City Hall

Once the heart of America, Boston faced an uphill climb after World War II. Many of the built resources of the city, a few dating to the eighteenth century, were viewed as obsolete or too difficult to update for modern needs. Large-scale solutions promised the best opportunity for new commerce and renewed civic life. This “Spirit of Reinvention” – and the architecture of that age – informed our latest Modern Module, held at the end of June.

New questions – and a few answers – were revealed during our two part event. The invitational roundtable, attended by 40 people from private and public organizations, centered on the threats, obstacles and opportunities for preserving modern and recent past resources. Wendy Nicholas, director of the Northeast Office of the National Trust, moderated the discussion.

In Boston, the push for development at mid-century brought in a proliferation of buildings and landscapes made primarily of concrete. Developed in antiquity, concrete proved to be a malleable, cooperative material that referenced the solidity of the older brick and stone structures in New England. But concrete, unlike brick and stone, could be expanded to accommodate any number of uses and sizes for a city eager to regain its competitive edge through new construction. Now approaching antique status themselves, these buildings are attracting advocates and critics in spirited debates about what to save and how. Innovative ideas arose as the participants brainstormed amongst themselves. People from each table came to the front of the room to post a series of large “sticky-notes” on a long banner, each color-coded page containing a separate thought on the subject.

During the review of these comments, Nicholas cited challenges familiar to all preservationists, including obsolescence of use, lack of broader public support, and development pressures for demolition. Participants observed that an inability for people to see design possibilities in renovation and re-use scenarios and, relatedly, limited knowledge about the way buildings work and how to repair them hinder many preservation efforts. A number of people also pointed out that the first hurdle in getting the public to understand and embrace modern architecture is to overcome longstanding negative impressions, accompanied by the ubiquitous rejoinder: “it’s too ugly to save.”

Are these resources ugly? Maybe, maybe not. I am not sure that that part of the discussion needs to take center stage in our preservation discussions. What is important is that these buildings and landscapes play an important part in our architectural story. Those that best illustrate our national narrative – big or small, wood or concrete, city or state – should be considered for conservation. Or, perhaps, for the sake of sustainability, if nothing else, communities can rethink the cycle of build and demolish that has marked American development in the 20th century.

Though we focused on modern buildings and landscapes at the Boston Modern event, we haven’t forgotten the social and cultural events and contributions of our recent past, which are also part of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust. By organizing these types of gatherings across the US, and producing our series of “modern” booklets (click here to download a free PDF of Boston Modern), the National Trust hopes to demonstrate the significance of all eras of architecture and celebrate the lineage of design that makes our cities so vibrant.

The Modern Modules program, funded by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Henry Luce Foundation, will continue in Aspen on July 29. The public forum features Sen. Gail Schwartz, architect Harry Teague, and Aspen historian Tony Vagneur as panelists. We hope to see you there! The event is free, but RSVP is required at: http://my.preservationnation.org/site/Calendar?view=Detail&id=35081.

Video

On the eve of the Modern Module event, Sarah Kelly, from the Boston Preservation Alliance, and I were interviewed on BNN News about preserving Boston’s Modern heritage.

Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.