Modern Architecture

A Civic Discussion in Pittsburgh: Unwinding the Legacy of Urban Renewal

Posted on: May 26th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena (Photo: Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP)

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena (Photo: Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP)

Last week, I was invited to serve on a panel of experts (hosted by cityLIVE!) to debate the merits of saving, or not saving, a mid-century stadium located at the edge of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The panel also included an historian, a community activist, and an architect. About 150 citizens ventured out in the rain to participate and discuss the relative significance of historic resources, both extant and already demolished. As preservationists, we are practiced in deliberating between “build new” and “save” arguments, but here the case is far more complicated.

Few dispute the architectural significance of the building, which was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The 1961 Civic Arena, designed by James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey -- and funded in part by Edgar Kaufmann -- was one of the most successfully engineered feats of its time. The stainless steel dome, divided into eight sections, slid open in just three minutes to reveal an open sky above and a stage and seating area below. A cantilevered arm reaching halfway across the span provided the sole support for the retractable roof, once the largest in the world.

What lies beneath the building is at the heart of the matter. The Lower Hill district was once part of a large farm tract owned by the grandson of William Pitt. In the nineteenth century, the area was subdivided and developed to provide housing for European immigrants. By the 1900s, the neighborhood was predominantly African-American, a place that bore life to artists and musicians, including noted playwright August Wilson. Eventually, the buildings began to fall to ruin and were targeted as part of an urban renewal plan to revive downtown. More than 8,000 Pittsburgh residents lost their homes and watched their neighborhood leveled to the ground in the 1950s, a shocking displacement that still resonates in the city today.

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena (Photo: Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP)

Pittsburgh's Civic Arena (Photo: Rob Pfaffmann, AIA, AICP)

Despite best intentions, the comprehensive new blueprint for the Lower Hill -- originally conceived as a mixed use area of high-rise housing and an arts district -- was never completed. The plan derailed early on, leaving the arena and one new I.M. Pei-designed apartment building isolated by a sea of surface parking. Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins (later owners of the arena) maintain development rights on the site and prefer to clear the area for new structures. The community is divided, with a good number calling for a restoration of the original street grid that was displaced by the arena construction (separating other parts of the Hill from downtown), while other Pittsburgh residents support new construction around the arena and a re-use plan for the building.

Ned Kaufman, in his new book “Place, Race, and Story,” asserts that historic preservation is “not fundamentally a technical discipline,” focused solely on material conservation for instance, but is instead “a social practice, part history and part planning.” What I hear from both sides is a need to repair the community. New development cannot bring back the past, or restore what was lost. Indeed, the continuing presence of the arena ensures that the lost Lower Hill neighborhood maintains its importance as a “story site” or a place where we can convey and relate meaningful memories. Removing this building, and therefore the last physical reminder of “what was” and “what could have been,” will undoubtedly produce more loss rather than a recovery. Continuing the cycle of demolition will erase our collective memories at the site. Ultimately, the next generation will have no physical framework to remind them of their ancestor’s efforts either to save or to build new. Yet, we still have larger issues to address along the way, including the repair of emotional injuries suffered by the community more than 50 years ago.

Our collected group onstage, with helpful input and questions from the audience, did not find an immediate resolution that night. We did feel, however, that we engaged in a meaningful conversation, one that we hope to continue as people and preservationists debate the future of this contested site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Wilde Again!

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

 

Written by Alicia Leuba

The Wilde Building in Bloomfield, CT

The Wilde Building in Bloomfield, CT

After more than 10 years, the Wilde Building in Bloomfield, CT has gotten a new lease on life.

In 1999, CIGNA, a global health services company, proposed the demolition of the Wilde Building, a pioneering example of International Style architecture designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and completed in 1957. In 2010, the Wilde Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and CIGNA completed an estimated $59 million renovation of the building using federal rehabilitation tax credits. But this happy ending did not come without a long struggle.

This story can be told if you look at newspaper headings about the Wilde Building over the past decade. They read: “A Corporate Icon That Should Be Preserved,” by Robert Campbell (Hartford Courant, 2001); “Wilde Building: An Old Piece of Junk” by Laurence D. Cohen (Hartford Courant, 2001); “Save the Wilde” by Wendy Nicholas (Hartford Courant, 2002); and “Collision of Cultures Over a Building” by Jane Gordon (New York Times, 2005) to name but a few.

The entire CIGNA campus was listed on the Trust’s 2001 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Over many years, the Trust's Northeast Office worked with National Trust President Richard Moe to create a dialogue with CIGNA. We worked closely with the Campaign to Save Connecticut General, the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office and many others across the country to raise public awareness and generate support for this iconic building. Together we proposed alternatives, did economic feasibility studies, fought state legislation changes, provided information on historic tax credits and access to expert consultants, including the National Trust Community Investment Corporation. And we waited.

Time was on our side. CIGNA’s business needs changed. New leadership was willing to explore alternatives. The economy changed. A company that once stated that the Wilde Building had “outlived its usefulness” decided to stay in the building and rehabilitate it to the Secretary of the Interior's Standards. Systems and interior office upgrades have ensured that this mid-century modern masterpiece will continue to serve its original purpose for many years to come.

“The Wilde Building represents one of Connecticut’s most important preservation success stories of the past decade,” writes the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. For more information on the Wilde Building, click here.

Alicia Leuba is the director of programs at the Northeast 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.

Chicago: The Challenge of Preserving Public Housing

Posted on: May 3rd, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

Written by Christine Madrid French

View of Julia C. Lathrop Homes

View of Julia C. Lathrop Homes

The Society of Architectural Historians, celebrating its 70th anniversary in its home town of Chicago, hosted a large and energetic gathering of scholars and practitioners the week of April 21. The annual conference featured expected studies – one session explored Roman architecture after Hadrian – but also delved into new areas, marked by a historic preservation colloquium dedicated to public housing.

This topic is perhaps outside the range of “typical” preservation interests, but is worthy of our attention for a number of compelling reasons. As conservators of the built environment, we are interested in finding new ways to use historic structures. The greenest building is the one already built, right? Well, in the case of public housing there is a both a community need for this type of structure and a nationwide inventory of solidly constructed buildings available for renovation and re-use.

A series of three speakers tackled both the challenges and opportunities for restoring public housing during this day-long discussion and tour. Our own Elizabeth Milnarik, associate architect in the Stewardship of Historic Sites department, opened up the day with an astute analysis of the motivations behind the public housing movement, dating back to the industrial revolution. With a series of illustrations, she demonstrated the transition from tenements (often overcrowded with no running water and windowless rooms), to modern facilities incorporating communal areas, parks, and libraries.

Julia C. Lathrop Homes, 1937

Julia C. Lathrop Homes, 1937 (Photo: Photographic Records of the National Archives II, Record Group 135, records of the Public Works Administration)

Michael Jackson, chief architect of the Preservation Services division at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, followed up with a particularly compelling discussion of good buildings awaiting new stewards. His comparative study countered the idea of the “throwaway building,” by proving that public housing (dating from as early as the 1920s) can be effectively renovated. At the Trumbell Homes project in Chicago, residents advocated for preservation of original kitchen elements during the renovation process, intent on keeping their oversize cast-iron sinks from the 1930s. In Memphis, the city redeveloped Lauderdale Courts as market-rate housing (promoted with the tagline “Everything Old is New Again”) and listed the complex on the National Register of Historic Places. As a special addition, visitors can rent the unit where Elvis and his family resided from 1949 to 1953, decorated in a vintage style.

Sunny Fischer, board member of the National Public Housing Museum (and executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation) closed out the program. She eloquently interwove the goals of the museum -- to preserve, recover, and reveal stories of community building in the face of adversity -- with stories of her own childhood years as a resident of a public housing project in New York City. Discussing the past, and the future, of public housing, she asserted, helps us “think through our own stereotypes and prejudices,” and reveals the “full story of the American experience.” The museum is in the planning and fund-raising stage at this point, but does have a location in hand – the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes of 1936 (most of the other structures were demolished in 2002).

After lunch, participants hit the road for a tour of Chicago’s own housing sites, a one-of-a-kind experience. Everyone walked away with a greater understanding of the significance of public housing within the history of our country and the realization that this study can thrive only if we stop “drive-by demolitions” and take the time to analyze, understand, and appreciate these urban buildings and landscapes.

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.

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.