Modern Architecture

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.

... 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.

Corpus Christi Council Votes to Demolish Modern Coliseum

Posted on: March 4th, 2010 by Guest Writer 6 Comments


Written by Krista Schreiner Gebbia

Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum (Photo: Eddie Seale)

Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum (Photo: Eddie Seale)

As preservationists, we believe the reuse of historic resources is a key component in a healthy community. When faced with a potential demolition, we give all the arguments: demolition is wasteful, the architecture is significant, preserving the building retains a link to heritage for future generations, preservation makes good economic sense, and so on. In the case of the 1954 Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum, none of those arguments have convinced the mayor and the majority of the city council that preservation was the right decision.

Both the architect and the architecture of the Coliseum are impressive. In 1952, Richard S. Colley (1910-1983) designed a Civic Center complex that included the Coliseum, Exposition Hall, and City Hall on Corpus Christi Bay. In the late 1980s, the Exposition Hall and the City Hall were demolished after the buildings were vacated. The coliseum’s defining feature, its curved roof, contains 260 tons of structural steel in a lamella space frame. Colley was a prolific and innovative architect in Corpus Christi starting in 1936 and until his death in 1983 and his work was often noted in Progressive Architecture. He collaborated with O’Neil Ford (1905-1982) on several occasions before they completed the Texas Instruments Semiconductor Components Plant No. 1, Dallas, in 1958.

The lamella roof structure c. 1953 .

The lamella roof structure c. 1953. (Photo: Columbia Iron Works 50th anniversary brochure)

Local politics always play a role. In 2004, American Bank Center was constructed about a mile north of the Coliseum along the Bay and the Coliseum was closed. There was a public debate over the future of the waterfront and the future of the Coliseum. Residents spoke out but the city council never made a decision.

The city solicited bids for redevelopment with private entities but negotiations fell through several times. Recently, local architect George E. Clower, AIA, designed a compromise to retain the innovate roof and initially received a favorable response from the city council. In the end, the council voted on February 23, 2010 to demolish the building.

It will cost the city at least a million dollars to demolish the Coliseum and create a vacant lot with no plans for the future use of site. The loss of this structure will have a profound impact on the city and its bayfront. Stay tuned, however, for there some last moves afoot.

Please join supporters at a rally in support of the Coliseum this Saturday, March 6. Visit the event page on Facebook for more information.

Krista Schreiner Gebbia is the executive director of Preservation Texas. She would like to extend thanks to Carol Wood, historian, and George E. Clower, AIA and Monica Penick, architectural historian, for much of the history provided in this post.

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.

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How to Save a Modern Landmark

Posted on: February 11th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Brian Turner

Century Plaza Hotel

Today, Next Century Associates announced that it will scrap plans to demolish the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, one of America’s icons of modern architecture. The hotel was placed on our list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places last spring after the demolition plan was released, prompting a spirited advocacy campaign by the Los Angeles Conservancy, City Councilmember Paul Koretz, and the National Trust. Late last year the developer sought the preservation groups’ counsel on how it could make preservation of the hotel compatible with adjacent site development. Fundamental to the discussion was how to define and protect the key features that make Century Plaza unique.

Since it opened in 1966, Century Plaza Hotel has been the gathering place for U.S. Presidents and distinguished guests (in fact, just last week, the tabloids gasped when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie appeared at the hotel together for the Director Guild of America Awards). But it is most notable for its architectural grandeur. Architect Minoru Yamasaki, who would go on to design New York’s World Trade Center Towers, pioneered a new age of hotel design at Century Plaza. The hotel’s distinctive and graceful curved shape eliminated the endless vistas along straight boulevards that had previously characterized Century City.

The new plan includes several notable protections for the hotel. First, a set of treatment protocols has been developed that contain design development methodologies for the character-defining features of the building. The protocols, developed by Marmol Radziner and Associates, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Conservancy and the National Trust, are based on best practices in preservation and will hopefully serve as a template for future preservation projects for modern buildings. Additionally, a preservation advisory group will be consulted throughout the planning process and be able to comment on new design and other issues as they emerge. Finally, the developer has agreed to prepare a historic evaluation for review by the Los Angeles City Cultural Heritage Commission, which will outline how the new site plan will respect the eligibility of the Century Plaza as a city landmark. That report, as well as a draft Environmental Impact Statement, is expected this spring.

Most importantly, saving Century Plaza represents an exciting victory for defenders of modernist architecture around the world. The National Trust’s  Modernism + Recent Past Program, housed in the Western Office in San Francisco, has led the charge to defend our shared modern heritage, challenging us to change how we view, steward, and preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the recent past.

Read more:

Brian Turner is the regional attorney at the Western 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.

Teaching Preservation: Reading Up On Wright

Posted on: January 7th, 2010 by Guest Writer 3 Comments


Written by Ivan V.


My own illustration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Lillian and Curtis Meyer Home.

Happy 2010 from Boise, where it currently feels like a crisp 19 degrees. The Boise Architecture Project is fresh from winter break and ready to get back into the swing of things – and I’m first up!

After studying architecture for a few years, I’ve found that I’m extremely interested in modernism. I recently took a trip to Chicago, where I was introduced to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’d like to use my first-ever blog post to talk about some of my favorite Wright buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright is, of course, one of the most well-know architects in the world. He’s also someone I now deeply admire. While reading up on him, I was surprised by his extensive body of work, especially the residential projects. I learned that, after he completed one of his most famous works, Fallingwater, Wright’s popularity grew across the country. The result? Commissions to design more and more buildings.

Another view of Wright's studio.

Another view of Wright's studio.

Most of those new projects ended up being residential homes, and most became part of what Wright coined the Usonian movement – a new and unique American style that brought with it more modest floor plans. While not all of them are immediately recognizable as Wright homes, his simple aesthetic, his use of natural forms, and his modern designs of interlacing wood, brick, and steel are always there.

In my opinion, his houses that were built during the 1950’s are especially elegant examples of his work, and they can easily be mistaken for homes built within the past 15 years. Regardless, it still stuns me just how many homes he built during his career – I counted 154 within one of the books I recently read about his life.

Many of his homes – especially the Craftsman-style ones – are constructed of brick and incorporate cantilevered roofs/ balconies. They feature simple, repeating designs, and all have unique motifs and layouts. The interiors of the Usonian- and Prairie-style homes are always rich examples of stone and woodwork coming together. Many have a solid wall opposed by a large wall of windows. The solid wall often has a row of long windows at the top to bring in light. These can be long rectangles or repeating motifs. Also, great attention is given to the furniture and carpeting, all of which were designed specifically to fit each home. Regardless, the spaces are quite comfortable looking – perhaps a little too comfortable!

A house not classified as a Usonian (though it incorporates many of the same design principles) but nonetheless quite modern is the Gloria Bachman and Abraham Wilson Home. Its windows are decorative on the street-facing side and high against the roof to provide privacy but still bring in light. The interior is extremely clean and well designed.

A close-up shot of "The Boulders."

A close-up shot of "The Boulders."

Along with the Usonians, Wright designed several hemicycle-shaped homes, or buildings that incorporate a half-circle structure that is often the living area with windows being part of an arc. His first example of this is the Wilbur Pearce Home, which was built in 1950. The Lillian and Curtis Meyer Home is probably my favorite. Its roof and windows are a rich brown color that is perfectly offset by simple white siding. I still can’t believe it was built so long ago!

If you want to do some Wright reading, I recommend “Frank Lloyd Wright Mid-Century Modern,” as it's the book that inspired this post. Another good (and shorter) reference is “The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog.”

In this post, I’ve included several pictures that I took while in Chicago, as well as my own drawing of Wright’s Lillian and Curtis Meyer Home. In the illustration, notice the octagonal theme; using geometric units and/or shapes is common in many of Wright’s projects. You’ll also see a picture of two figures called “The Boulders.” These were designed by Richard Bock and are meant to convey the struggle of the oppressed. I thought they were pretty cool.

Please stay tuned for future posts about modernism – I don’t plan to stop here!

Ivan V. is a student at Boise’s Timberline High School and is participating in the Boise Architecture Project. You can follow the students here on the PreservationNation blog and on their Flickr photostream. Also, get daily updates from their teacher, Doug StanWiens, on Twitter.

Are you an educator interested in teaching preservation in your classroom? Visit for resources, tips, and ideas to enhance your curriculum with lessons that will teach your students to recognize and appreciate the rich history that surrounds them.

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.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at