Modern Architecture

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.

How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists

Posted on: July 1st, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

 

The kids are all right … but they’re not becoming preservationists.

Wayne Donaldson, the new chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and current California State Historic Preservation Officer, was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me after his appointment in May to discuss one of his stated goals – attracting young people to preservation.

My ears perked up, so to speak, on reading this in his announcement since one of the Modernism and Recent Past program’s areas of emphasis is also to engage this group. The Trust’s membership remains largely comprised of those over age 40 and the M + RP initiative aims to reach those under.

As the owner of a rare 1960s Futuro home, Donaldson is a friend of our program. So I wanted to know his thoughts on how M + RP resources are particularly suited to appeal to a new generation of preservationists, and what specific messages and practices we should rethink to attract the younger set.

Donaldson said the connection between modern and recent past buildings and young people dawned on him during the National Register nomination process in 2005 for two Eichler neighborhoods – Green Gables and Greenmeadow in Palo Alto. Constructed in the early 1950s, they were the first of the now well-known California mid-century homes to be listed as historic districts on the National Register.

The residents who came to speak at public meetings were in their 30s, and they were passionate about owning a piece of designed architecture. They were in these homes in part because the properties were affordable to young buyers at the time, and in part -- as Donaldson believes -- it’s a return to an identity.

Kids born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a “shopping mall culture” where places are indistinguishable and quality architecture for the everyday does not exist. In contrast, Donaldson describes M + RP resources as design – not a style, not a movement – and we, the hip younger set, can get into design.

So how to make the connection between historic preservation and the shopping mall generations? I admit it’s difficult to distract us from our iPhones and coffee. Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live. We move all the time, we do all our business online, and we depend on networks that stretch far beyond our immediate neighborhoods. Historic preservation won’t cross most of our minds until we think about “settling down.”

And when we do that, a ranch home in the Midwest (I can see my friends cringing now) may be all we can afford to buy. If we’re lucky, a helpful real estate agent might point out that this neighborhood is one of the state’s best examples of mid-century modernism and that we shouldn’t rip out the pink tile.

Before long, we’re casing flea markets for the right furniture and going to neighborhood association meetings. Now WE are now those people Donaldson noticed at the public hearings. We care because we have a sense of ownership -- and by accident, we’ve become preservationists. Who knows, we may even rally to save that old stadium and the city hall nobody seems to like either.

As Donaldson points out, modern and recent past architecture is the last era of good design to which we can attach emotion and form an identity around. It remains representative of an American lifestyle before everything looked the same.

Many of these buildings are also the backdrop for our childhoods – schools, banks, libraries, even the visitor center in the summer vacation photos at Yosemite. We already have memories of these; therefore we should care. And once we care, we’ll preserve.

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.

Modern Views: Impact of the Icons

Posted on: June 25th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe are two of the most significant architects of the twentieth century, designers that impacted the lives and work of thousands – if not millions – of people. Though their approaches to design differ, the works of both men are critically important to understanding and interpreting the context of modern architecture. Within their respective oeuvres two buildings stand out: the Edith Farnsworth House outside of Chicago, designed by Mies in 1951, and the Glass House, created by Johnson on his New Canaan, Connecticut estate in 1949.

These modern homes appear similar at first glance, marked by all-glass walls, flat roofs, and steel frames. Though the Glass House was completed first, Johnson was inspired in his work by Mies’ evolving design in Illinois. This close architectural dialogue originated from entirely disparate circumstances, however. Mies created the Farnsworth House in close consultation with his private client, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Their long-term relationship was marked by frustrations on the part of both architect and patron as the deceptively simple house took shape.

The Brick House at Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

The Brick House at Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Philip Johnson, by contrast, had only one client in mind – himself – when he began the process of designing and building the many structures that dot his property. He countered the transparency of the Glass House with a nearby building known as the Brick House, creating a yin-and-yang composition of materiality in architecture. The sublime character of the buildings differs as well; where Farnsworth as structure floats above the land, a third-party observer rather than participant, the Glass House grounds itself with its solid, fraternal twin, and becomes part of the verdant grounds. Whitney French, Executive Director at Farnsworth, sees the two buildings together as a singular “composition of earth and heaven.”

Unfortunately, it is the very earth and the heavens that are now working to reclaim these modern architectural icons. Degradation of materials due to weathering, flooding (at Farnsworth), and mold infestations (at the Brick House) threaten the longevity of these precious works. Luckily, both are stewarded and protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which counts 29 historic sites under its supervision across the country, ranging from nineteenth-century Virginia mansions to California adobe pueblos.

... Read More →

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.

Tracking Down Wyoming's Modern Gems

Posted on: June 17th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Emily Koller

The Gateway Motel is on the road to Yellowstone and is one of the last classic Wyoming roadside motels from the 1950’s and 1960’s standing in Park County.

What makes Wyoming special is more about what isn’t there rather than what is. There are few coffee shops, parking lots, malls, four-lane highways, cell towers, and various other normal places and structures that help the rest of the world function.

There are blissfully few people, too. If you are vacationing there, you’re probably on your way to Yellowstone National Park, anxious to see working ranches, rustic lodges, and false-front commercial buildings lining small Main Streets with mountains hovering behind. Chances are you are not headed to Wyoming to check out modern architecture – and residents there aren’t particularly interested in it either.

I tried to track some of that architecture down on my short vacation back home last week (I’m a Wyoming native). I’ll tell you what – it’s far easier to find antelope out there. The state is barely 100 years old, so the recent past is half our history. It is not a modern place and it doesn’t need to be.

The state’s early economy depended on cattle ranching, mining, and the railroad, with architecture reflecting the needs of those industries. Then between 1950 and 1970, the economy transitioned from one supported by ranching and farming to one that became a national force in oil and gas production. (The state ranked as the fifth-largest producer in the U.S. from 1960 to 1970.) These were boom years, and residents enjoyed good times like they never had experienced before.

The result was a massive amount of wealth in a region not accustomed to it. People aren’t showy there, and the architecture in this period reflects their hard-working, practical Western ethos. So, while oil money produced lavish neighborhoods, Art Deco masterpieces, and cultural centers in other parts of the U.S., in Wyoming it created understated modern libraries, courthouse additions, schools, and round banks. Modern simply meant new; after years of the depression, recessions, materials shortages and more, the state could finally enjoy some stability and prosperity.

The famed Buffalo Bill Historical Center began as the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in 1959 in a modern stone building which the later additions emulate.

With six of the state’s 23 counties producing the majority of the oil, money flowed back mostly by county. To this day, there are large economic disparities visible by county line. Park County produced the largest amount of oil in the 1960's. Located in the northwestern corner of the state, it acts as the gateway to Yellowstone. Cody, a well-known Old West tourist town, is the county seat.

If you aren’t too distracted from the re-created gun fight in front of the Irma Hotel (1902) or the many new faux lodge shops, you can actually spot some modern architecture. A round bank a block off Main Street has escaped renovation, along with the county library with its lovely large decorative concrete blocks. And the famed Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s original building is the 1959 Whitney Gallery of Western Art, which later additions emulate in style.

Then there’s roadside architecture outside the towns. The good times in Wyoming meant a dramatic increase in tourism. Revenue more than doubled between 1950 and 1965, with those "darn out-of-staters" spending nearly $110 million per year in the mid-60's.

With the interstate slow to come to Wyoming, two-lane highway travel ruled the day. This led to handfuls of iconic roadside motels and gas stations with pony rides and western trinkets. The Gateway Motel with its A-frame office, neon sign, and little cabins on Highway 20 – 50 miles from the entrance to Yellowstone – is one of the last great examples of Wyoming roadside architecture from the 1950's and 1960's. (Sadly, it’s currently for sale and likely won’t survive.)

So, though I don’t want to watch a gunfight in front of a 1960's poured-in-place concrete hotel, the flat-roofed functional buildings that surround the great old west architecture represent the most prosperous point in Wyoming’s history and mark its pivotal transition from a cow to an oil economy. And though oil is a sensitive conversation-starter at the moment, its role in the growth and development of the West is indisputable. Many little modern buildings are hanging on as proof.

Emily Koller is a summer program assistant for the National Trust’s Modernism + Recent Past program. She is a graduate student in community and regional planning and historic preservation at the University of Texas at Austin.

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.

Preservation Law Notes: Court Orders Park Service to Reconsider Razing a Neutra Gem

Posted on: June 4th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Julia Miller      

The National Park Service must reconsider its decision to demolish the Cyclorama Center.

Situated in Ziegler’s Grove in Gettysburg National Park rests a remarkable building designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra.     

Known as the Cyclorama Center, the half-century-old building was once used by the National Park Service as a visitor center and to display a 40-foot high, 365-foot long cylindrical painting of the famous July 3, 1863 infantry assault known as “Pickett’s Charge," which is credited with turning the Civil War in favor of the Union. The round mural, referred to as “the Cyclorama” and painted by Paul Phillippoteaux not long after the battle itself, has since been relocated to the nearby Gettysburg Museum and Visitor’s Center after a five-year restoration project. The now closed and fenced in Cyclorama Center has been left to decay, belying its once dazzling appearance.    

Despite the building’s architectural significance and its eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service has approved its demolition. The Cyclorama Center is perched on Cemetery Ridge, the site of the bloody attack depicted in Phillippoteaux’s painting. In the National Park Service’s view, the building stands in the way of its efforts to restore key landscape features of the park. Therein lays the conundrum.    

Dismayed by the National Park Service’s decision to demolish the Cyclorama Center, the Recent Past Preservation Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of buildings from the recent past, Dion Neutra, the son of the late architect, and Christine Madrid French filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the National Park Service from carrying out its plans. They charged the National Park Service and individually named defendants with violating both Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in deciding to raze the structure. The NHPA claims were dismissed on the grounds that they were time-barred and the plaintiffs had failed to establish any “deficiency” with the National Park Service’s “agency-side preservation program." However, the court, in a decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs under NEPA.   

The Cyclorama Center, under the court’s decision, gets a reprieve – at least for the time being. On March 31, 2010, Judge Hogan ordered the National Park Service to reconsider its decision to demolish the building. Specifically, the court ordered the National Park Service to conduct “a full implementation-level and site-specific environmental analysis on the demolition of the Cyclorama Center and non-demolition alternatives before any implementing action is taken on the Cyclorama Center.” (Cyclorama Center proponents have urged the National Park Service to consider moving the building to a new location, and have enlisted support from the company that moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for the National Park Service in 1989.)      

Judge Hogan essentially faulted the agency for failing to provide sufficient notice of its decision to demolish the Center, as well as its analysis under that decision. While the National Park Service had issued a final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (GMP/EIS), which provided a park-wide assessment in 1999, the plan and EIS failed to include any specific analysis of the Center and its removal. Similarly, the National Park Service’s 1999 Record of Decision (ROD) only discussed the effects of demolition and new construction “in general, park-wide terms.” Accordingly, Judge Hogan rejected the agency’s claims that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was time-barred on the grounds that the statute’s six-year statute of limitations had run, since the ROD did not provide notice of the Park Service’s final action with regard to the Cyclorama Center. He also rejected the claim that a 1995/1996 Draft Concept Plans/Environmental Assessments and the 1999 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established that a decision to demolish the Center had been reached, since the documents had not been incorporated into the ROD. He stated, “The court cannot countenance disregard for NEPA’s public notice requirements by considering unincorporated documents in its evaluation of the Park Service’s actions here.”    

Finally, Judge Hogan determined that the agency had violated NEPA by failing to consider alternatives to demolition of the Center’s in its 1999 GMP/EIS. While he acknowledged that the National Park Service may have “conducted sufficient analyses,” he faulted the agency for failing to provide adequate notice of that analysis, assuming it occurred. In March 2009, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Kay had recommended that the U.S. District Court rule in favor of the plaintiffs and order the National Park Service to prepare a full-blown EIS to evaluate the demolition of the Cyclorama Center and non-demolition alternatives. While Judge Hogan agreed with the Magistrate overall, he modified the recommendation slightly by directing the agency to perform an “environmental analysis,” in view of the fact that preparation of an EIS may not necessarily be required.   

At this point, all eyes are on the National Park Service.   

Download Judge Thomas F. Hogan's Full Decision »  

Julia Miller serves as special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Along with her colleagues in the National Trust’s Legal Department, she will be blogging about all things legal each Friday in our new series, Preservation Law Notes.

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.