Modern Architecture

Modern Architecture in the National Parks: Living in Harmony

Posted on: April 16th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Mission 66 Zion National Park Visitor Center, Utah, before remodeling

Mission 66 Zion National Park Visitor Center, Utah, before remodeling

The National Park Service credo for architects is simple: produce designs that work in “harmony” with the surrounding landscape. This straightforward directive cannot be applied wholesale to the collection of remarkable places that make up the national park system, however, which counts over 400 sites encompassing the cultural and natural stories of our country from pre-history through today.

In seeking direction and inspiration for their designs, architects drew upon the unique identity of each park area. The resulting building and landscape collection – visible at sites as diverse as Little Big Horn in Montana and the Everglades in Florida – is a singular opportunity to study each generation’s interpretation of this notion of “harmony.” Now, as the Park Service nears the 100th anniversary of its founding, the agency is coming face-to-face with sometimes difficult preservation questions, including saving its own resources from the recent past.

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Far View Visitor Center, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

I recently spoke at the Yosemite Forum, a monthly gathering that promotes park studies and science, on the topic of modern architecture in the national parks. In 1956, Congress approved a billion-dollar building project to “improve” the national parks through new methods of interpretation, increased visitor safety, and widespread infrastructure upgrades. The ten-year initiative was dubbed “Mission 66,” with the ending timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Park Service. Whereas rustic-style buildings of rock and timber (known as Parkitecture) had prevailed throughout the 1930s, Americans of the 1950s wanted buildings that expressed their own relationship with nature and history, yet fully recognized the needs of the atomic age generation. Mid-century modern buildings popped up throughout the parks, noted by the introduction of a flagship structure: the now ubiquitous visitor center (100 were built).

Yosemite is home to one of these Mission 66 visitor centers, an appropriately understated building situated close to the valley’s granite walls at the center of an in-park community. Though many of the original visitor centers are aging – with a few targeted for demolition or lost already -- the Park Service is beginning to realize that these buildings can still serve critical visitor needs, albeit with some changes. At Yosemite, a recent interior remodeling has brought the rock-façade structure back to life, with new exhibits inside that enticed my children and engaged the tourists I saw there. Zion National Park in Utah needed a larger facility in a “less sensitive” area, but kept their Mission 66 visitor center and repurposed it as a museum. Grand Canyon incorporated a similar plan into their re-use of vintage buildings and I hear Mesa Verde in Colorado is following suit. We are collecting more of these preservation success stories nationwide as part of an overall effort to demonstrate the continued value of historic buildings in the parks.

Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is headquartered at the Western Office in San Francisco.

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.

County Funding Turns the Tide for Miami Marine Stadium

Posted on: April 7th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

 

Written by John Hildreth

Miami Marine Stadium, corner view

Miami Marine Stadium, corner view

How is waging a major preservation battle like watching the tide at the beach? Well, you can tell if the tide is coming in or going out, but you never really can see that moment when the tide turns. So it is with some of the major preservation battles we fight. Hindsight may tell us when the tide turned, however, it is very hard to identify that moment when you are in the middle of the battle.

The Friends of Miami Marine Stadium are in the midst of a major effort to bring back to life the modernist Miami Marine Stadium, included on our 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2009. The stadium, abandoned and neglected since Hurricane Andrew, has steadily seen support grow for its rehabilitation. The friends have been working for more than a year to turn the tide of public opinion and local government plans for the stadium. Yesterday was one of those days when we might say the tide has turned.

The Miami-Dade County Commission voted to allocate $3 million from the remaining $10 million of their Historic Preservation Fund towards the rehabilitation of the Miami Marine Stadium. It is a huge victory for the Friends of the Miami Marine Stadium and the Miami community. The money is conditioned on the development of a viable business plan for the stadium but will provide a huge shot in the arm towards the anticipated $5-$8 million price tag for rehabilitation of the concrete and steel structure.

Miami Marine Stadium, side view

Miami Marine Stadium, side view

“Yesterday’s vote is an enormous step forward in the effort to resurrect the iconic Miami Marine Stadium and return it to its former glory,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The National Trust for Historic Preservation commends the Miami Dade County Commission for its commitment to saving this Modernist treasure.”

In many ways the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium are waging a model campaign. Check out their web site for information on the stadium, their ongoing efforts, Jimmy Buffet’s public service announcement for the stadium, student designs for the stadium’s reuse and other interesting content.

John Hildreth is the director of the Southern Office of 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.

Who Remembers In East LA? : Building a Preservation Community Through Social Media

Posted on: April 5th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 5 Comments

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

A store on 1st Street in East LA.

A store on 1st Street in East LA.

In 1853, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association coalesced around the effort to save George Washington’s Virginia estate, the founders of the American preservation movement never imagined that their ideas might someday be applied to the modern cityscape of East Los Angeles.

Yet there is a vibrant, strong community here, engaging in preservation discussions. Recently, I met with Victor Felix, the originator of the Facebook site “Who Remembers in East LA?.” Victor, born and raised a block from his current home on Record Avenue, has long maintained an interest in his community’s history. When the recession cost him his job, he worked to expand his “outdoor movie night” enterprise at public parks and private functions. In his interactions with the public, he discovered that many of the younger people coming to the events were less and less aware of the “old days” in East LA. “I love talking with older people,” he said during our interview, “but the torn-down sites made it hard to remember the neighborhoods.” He was driven by a need to relate the past to upcoming generations. “People don’t see what is around them,” he asserted, “I wanted to combat the stereotypes of East LA while telling the stories.”

Traditionally delineated as anything east of the Los Angeles River (which runs adjacent to the downtown metropolis), East LA is well recognized for its historic importance in the development of the city. The oldest standing residence in Montebello—the Juan Matia Sanchez Adobe—dates from 1844 and is now the home of the Montebello Historical Society. Less frequently acknowledged is the significance of the everyday structures that mark important events for the citizens, such as the Silver Dollar bar/cafe where journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in 1970.

These sites – important for their cultural history – may not “look” historic at first glance. But, the significance of vernacular life in East LA is coming to the fore, noted by the recent formation of the Maravilla Historical Society (charged with preservation of the Maravilla Handball Court, the oldest in the area, and the El Centro Grocery, an unusual pair of sites that combine Japanese, Irish, and Latino immigrant histories), among a number of other local efforts.

A small corner market in East LA.

A small corner market in East LA.

Finding others with shared memories is one of the benefits of “Facebooking.” “Who Remembers in East LA” hosts hundreds of comments that demonstrate the depth of people’s affection and remembrance of the area, from the Golden Gate Theater (“such a shame that they want to make it a drugstore,” wrote Matthew M.) to the locally owned shops (”Does anyone remember a little market on Whittier Blvd. named McKeon Brothers?” asked Carmen S., quickly answered in the affirmative by Linda R.). The site also has cross-generational appeal, with senior citizens conversing with younger folks, and some people finding each other after decades apart, including Victor himself, who re-connected with the principal from his junior high through the site.

The success of Facebook “depends on how you use it,” mentions Victor, who is only now realizing his own contributions to the long tradition of storytelling, albeit through a modern medium. The site gains dozens of new people every day – more than 4,000 fans at last count. Victor is hoping to expand the reach of the site by experimenting with blogging, so that more commentary and photographs can be included, while still directing people to Facebook in order to build on those all-important personal connections. Victor also wants to encourage reinvestment in the community by encouraging local owners to steward their sites with care, many places which are discussed by the “fans” of his Facebook site.

When the effort to save Mount Vernon began, the State of California was only a few years old. Now, more than one hundred years later, we can say “Este Lugar es Importante” for a wonderful array of buildings, landscapes, and histories, expressing the full range of the American experience. The National Trust is working with the Los Angeles Conservancy to study a number of sites, including Self Help Graphics & Art on Cesar Chavez Avenue. In the late 1980s, Eduardo Oropeza (1947-2003), a Mexican-American artist, created and installed the color mosaics that adorn the 1927 building, transforming the structure into a community icon. We are also working together to assist in community efforts (in collaboration with El Comite de la Esperanza and LA CO MEDIA) to preserve Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, completed in 1939 and determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Other groups are active in the area as well, including Mothers of East LA and the Boyle Heights Historical Society, adding to the collective energy for history and preservation that “Who Remembers in East LA?” has successfully tapped into.

Learn more:

Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is headquartered at the Western Office in San Francisco.

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.

Umbrella Drinks and Tropical Downpours Threatened in San Francisco

Posted on: March 26th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 4 Comments

 

Written by Chris VerPlanck

Tonga Room, c. 1953

Historic postcard image of the Tonga Room in 1953.

Located deep in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, The Tonga Room has a long and storied history in San Francisco’s dining and nighttime culture. In a city that has become obsessed with flash-in-the-pan restaurants with celebrity chefs, The Tonga Room, in all of its incarnations, has survived for 64 years as a bastion of the city’s pre-dotcom nightlife, hosting political, literary, and cultural figures such as Herb Caen, Willie Brown, and Hunter S. Thompson. On the other hand, The Tonga Room has also remained a fixture for regular San Franciscans enjoying a night on the town, playing host to South Pacific veterans, homesick Samoan immigrants, and who knows how many high school proms.

Designed by MGM set designer Mel Melvin in a South Pacific/nautical theme, the original Tonga Room opened in 1945, reusing the hotel’s existing 1929 plunge as its centerpiece lagoon – the venue for the bar’s famous half-hourly tropical downpours. Remodeled once in 1953 in the “Hawaiian Tropical style,” the existing Tonga Room is largely the product of the 1967 redesign by well-known, Santa Monica-based interior designer, Howard Hirsch.

The lagoon today during a "tropical downpour."

The lagoon today during a "tropical downpour."

In his ambitious reworking of the Tonga Room in the “High Tiki” style, Hirsch outfitted the bar using products from Oceanic Arts of Whittier, California, the state’s premier supplier of Polynesian-themed architectural and decorative products. Highlights of the 1967 remodel include the Canoe House, the Island Huts, The Wharf, the fore and poop decks of the S.S. Foerster, as well as a lava rock waterfall behind the Hurricane bar. Built toward the end of the High Tiki phenomenon, the Tonga Room thrived even as most of the nation’s Tiki idols were gradually toppled during the 1970s through the mid-1990s to make way for fern bars and dollar stores. Through it all, the Fairmont Hotel (when it was under local management) defied ephemeral trends in the hospitality industry by resisting the temptation to remodel or even significantly update The Tonga Room.

In 2009, the current owner of the Fairmont Hotel – Maritz Wolff & Co. – announced plans to demolish The Tonga Room, as well as the entire rear half of the hotel, to make way for a new podium and high-rise tower. The project comprises a multi-level parking garage, new ballrooms, and 160 luxury condominiums, ranging in size from 1,700 to 7,500 square feet. The condominiums, which are driving the project, will likely be marketed to international jet-setters seeking a pied-à-terre in “everybody’s favorite city.” In addition to adding to the glut of unsold luxury condominiums currently languishing on the market, this project will destroy The Tonga Room, one of a handful of America’s best-preserved examples of the High Tiki style surviving from the era in which it peaked. Rivaled only by Ft. Lauderdale’s Mai Kai, The Tonga Room is the largest and most architecturally significant Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant remaining in California, the state where the style was invented and that today is the birthplace of a thriving Tiki revival. It is perhaps ironic that the Fairmont Hotel’s very own website says: “Today, The Tonga Room is riding the wave of the tiki revival and recently has been recognized as one of the nation’s hottest bars…”

SOS Tonga logoFormed in early 2009 to foil the Fairmont Hotel’s intention to topple The Tonga Room, S.O.S. Tonga is a small, ad hoc group of preservation professionals, vintage auto enthusiasts, mixologists, and mid-century aficionados who are united by the belief that it is our job to convince the current management of the Fairmont Hotel that to destroy The Tonga Room is a staggeringly bad idea. In the meantime, we have been busy documenting the bar’s history and significance and we recently submitted an application to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to amend the existing local landmark designation for the Fairmont Hotel to include The Tonga Room as a significant interior space. Beginning in the fall of 2009, S.O.S. Tonga has been staging events at The Tonga Room and other Tiki bars throughout the Bay Area to spread the word and gather support for the nomination. We have been very successful so far and it has been lo`a lo`a, or “fun” in Hawaiian. Mahalo!

Learn more:

Chris VerPlanck, of Kelley & VerPlanck Historical Resources Consulting, is a member of S.O.S. Tonga.

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.

Go Mod: My First Visit to Palm Springs Modernism Week

Posted on: March 9th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

The Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel (a revamped Howard Johnson's) served as the main point of convergence for the conference.

“What recession?” was my first thought when I spied the long lines and overflow crowds gathered for the fifth annual Modernism Week in Palm Springs. Keenly timed to coincide with the worst of winter weather elsewhere in the US, the lucky attendees here bathed in the desert sun while enjoying a ten-day celebration of modern architecture that included tours, lectures, films, exhibits, and high-style martini parties.

The “week” is organized by a number of cooperating organizations and includes nearly 40 activities that appealed to everyone from the scholar, to the mod re-enactor, to the roadside enthusiast. Yet it was a series of events focused on interpreting and appreciating the designs of John Lautner that provided a common thread throughout.

Lautner worked as an architect for more than sixty years, including an early fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Taliesin. The Michigan native quickly developed his own vision, executed in diverse projects such as the 1960 Los Angeles Chemosphere house and Googie’s Coffee Shop of 1949 in the same city. (Googie has since been adopted as the popular name for exuberant mid-century commercial buildings, notable for their gigantic windows, angled rooflines, and impossible-to-miss neon signs.) The Palm Springs Art Museum is the first institution to organize a comprehensive exhibit of the architect’s work – unveiled during Modernism Week -- featuring drawings, models, and sketches in his own hand. The exhibit and related symposium provided a close look at his ideas and their creation, with an eye-opening analysis of his years working with the master Wright.

The Elrod House

The Elrod House (Photo: Scot French)

Earlier in the week, I met with board members of the John Lautner Foundation to discuss the future of Lautner commissions nationwide (a 23-page list of his buildings is available on their website). Karol Lautner, the architect’s daughter, harbored no illusions about the complications involved in preservation but was notably optimistic that changes are afoot. The glowing reception she received when introduced was just one indication of people’s rising appreciation for her father’s work and his lifelong dedication to architecture.

The Retro Martini Party, held at the 1969 Lautner-designed Elrod House, was the highlight of my visit. The owner generously opened the doors to host a fundraiser for the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation and hundreds accepted this rare chance to see the house. I can say without reservation that this is one of the most unusual residential designs in the US. The hillside home is known for its trademark concrete disc that hovers above a multi-level space that opens freely to the desert through gigantic glass doors and overlooks the star-studded paradise of Palm Springs.

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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.