Modern Architecture

JetModern: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

Posted on: October 2nd, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Freemont East in Las Vegas.

Freemont East in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, according to University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) professor Janet White, is a “suburb with no ‘urb.’” It is a city with few urban areas and many suburban features crowded together. Andy Kirk, another professor at UNLV and director of Preserve Nevada, noted that Las Vegas grew from roughly 80,000 in the 1950s to approximately two million today. The growth of the city has deeply shaped its appearance. The Strip was formed, as Kirk noted, from a group of motels placed outside the city of Las Vegas designed to trap motorists before they got into the town to what is today a surreal atmosphere of large hotels and resorts.

Los Vegas streetscape showing a hotel and diner.

Los Vegas streetscape showing a hotel and diner.

Many individuals and architects have been involved in the design and look of Las Vegas, whether that has been for large construction projects like the Venetian (1999, built on the site of the Sands) or the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign (1959). This sign, designed by Betty Willis (1924 – ) has become one of the more recognized emblems of the city, yet most do not know that it was created by a woman. As Anthea Hartig (Director, NTHP Western Office) noted, modern architecture and the architects of mid-century exist in a very gendered space. The role and contribution of what some called then “lady architects” is often overlooked.

Capitol Park apartment building, part of the New Southwest development in Washington, DC.

Capitol Park apartment building, part of the New Southwest development in Washington, DC.

The projects taken on by these architects included some showpieces of mid-century architecture in important settings. Chloethiel Woodard Smith (1910 – 1992), for example, designed several of the apartment complexes built as part of urban renewal in Washington, DC. These buildings, part of what was called the New Southwest, were designed to replace “blighted” older buildings with planned communities, some of which were racially integrated and included a mix of subsidized and unsubsidized housing. Like Willis’s sign, though, Smith’s contribution to the New Southwest (among other Washington locations) is not common knowledge.

In looking both at Washington and Las Vegas, I think we still see a skyline dominated by men; part of the ways in which preservation captures the past is also through highlighting the people behind the building. In this case, it means telling the story of a growing group of women who were also players in this literal field. Importantly, part of the mid-century was that this field began to have more players. Kirk Huffaker and the Utah Heritage Foundation are currently involved in forming an architectural family tree that will show the relationships between architects and their buildings. I think this is a great way to visually represent these relationships and to show the composition of the profession at mid-century.

I am curious to know what ways others have explored the social changes in the many professions behind the built environment (construction, planning, architecture, etc.).

Next stop: Los Angeles

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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 editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Tweetup, Tiki Style

Posted on: September 29th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

SF 001My stay in San Francisco included another Tweetup, this time held at the Tonga Room. The Tonga Room is the Tiki bar and restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel (1906). Complete with floating bandstand and half-hourly rainfall with thunderstorm, the lounge appears relatively intact and true to its late 1960s update on an early 50s-adopted Tiki style.

While I wouldn’t first think of leisure and recreation spaces as part of threatened mid-century resources, they clearly are. Whether it’s the external appearance of a structure or the interior, the use and form of built space does change over time. Recreation and leisure patterns certainly changed after the 1950s, and places like the Tonga Room do document that. Unfortunately, there was not enough light inside to take any good pictures.

The Tonga Room, though, is currently threatened. Despite an apparent uptick in business following the announcement of its contemplated closure, the hotel is considering turning the space occupied by the Tonga Room into parking spaces for the condominiums that are to be fashioned from the space currently with hotel rooms.

By way of highlighting the hodgepodge of preservation laws at the state, federal, and local level, I spoke with Andrew Wolfram, AIA who is the Commissioner of the  San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. He indicated that city of SF has a 30 year period of significance, which I thought was interesting given the range of other cities’ rules. He also wears hat of DOCOMOMO NOCA who have identified fifty significant buildings in San Francisco that are eligible to be listed. The local listing has only three!

I also spoke with Cindy Heitzman of the California Preservation Foundation. As a statewide group, their advocacy is primarily accomplished through education, such as their annual conference. Their programs are targeted to both the general public but also for local governments since, as we discussed, the best policies are those which are well thought out at the time they are first implemented, rather than altered piecemeal over time. The 2009 conference was held in Palm Springs and included a large amount of panels and programs on mid-century modernism. But it is important to remember, as Heitzman noted, that a statewide organization should not provide services better managed and coordinated on a local level.

Beyond a more formal conference environment, the California Preservation Foundation does other educational outreach. Corrine Ingrassia also joined our conversation to provide me with a sense of the youth-focused programs currently underway. While the foundation does not yet offer curriculum guides or educational tours like some other statewide preservation organizations do, they have begun a new program to build youth interest in their 2010 conference to be held in Nevada County. As part of this program, students are asked to develop videos to be uploaded to YouTube, conceived of as a unit within art classes. These videos would be part of short film competition to cover the same topics as the conference will address. Art teachers have apparently liked the idea so much they are trying to have a poster competition, too, also to advertise the conference. All of which I thought was a really cool idea.

Next stop: Las Vegas

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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 editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Power and Preservation

Posted on: September 28th, 2009 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

 

Space Needle, Seattle

Space Needle, Seattle

In one brief day in Seattle, I met with three great preservation groups, DOCOMOMO WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

If, as Eugenia Woo of DOCOMOMO WEWA and Historic Seattle noted, the region’s first population boom came at the beginning of the 1900s with the gold rush, the second wave came after the Second World War. Both booms had an impact on the appearance of the region as significant building projects had to be undertaken to support these new populations. It is no coincidence that one refers to some of mid-century buildings as “atomic.” Although the atomic age was driven to develop weaponry, nuclear research was also used to develop technologies to generate electricity. While weapon development programs were clouded in secrecy, the generation of “peaceful” electricity was, as Chris Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation suggested, a positive outcome of the Atomic Age that was significantly more transparent that the defense programs were.

Nuclear Reactor Building, University of Washington Campus (Seattle)

Nuclear Reactor Building, University of Washington Campus (Seattle)

As a major research university, the University of Washington in Seattle participated, I imagine, in both types of nuclear explorations. However, it is the Brutalist nuclear reactor (TAAG, 1961) that I toured as part of my trip that captured my attention. In addition to being one of the most unexpected Brutalist structures I’ve ever seen (next to our Brutalist fire station in Washington, Engine Company No. 2 in Chinatown, at 6th and F Streets, NW), this power plant is located in the heart of both the campus and a growing controversy over whether it should be razed. A number of people are fighting to save the structure, maintaining that it is a very important cultural and historical marker and that its unusual design makes it a structure of incredible significance.

In discussing the significance of buildings, from reactors to carports, it is important to position the structure as more than just something to look at. It is the cultural history of the reactor as much as its aesthetics that make it worth saving. The use of nuclear technology for power generation, and the incorporation of research into the possibilities for this power generation as a part of an engineering program at the University of Washington is part of the historical record of the structure, right? For this power plant, the atomic age was just as much about weapons as it was clean, cheap energy and a nation that looked to all things nuclear as a hallmark of the future. Wearing here DOCOMOMO WEWA hat, Eugenia Woo made the good point that programming for buildings needs to be based on thorough research and context explanation so that, as I’ve previously suggested, the message isn’t just about the visual appearance of the structure.

Preservation is more than skin deep. It’s about more than the façade.

Next stop: San Francisco

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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 editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Fifty Years

Posted on: September 25th, 2009 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

 

The first building built in SLC after the Depression.

The first building built in SLC after the Depression.

Like many of the cities I have visited, Salt Lake City saw a large break in new construction from the depression until the 1950s. Beginning then, though, construction restarted and mid-century modern buildings appeared scattered throughout town. Kirk Huffaker, of the Utah Heritage Foundation brought to my attention the first building built after the depression, which is pictured here. This building really helped bring Salt Lake City and Utah out of both an economic and emotional slump. Completed in 1955, it was a technological achievement for both Utah and the United States. It was also a stylistic gamble, as Huffaker suggested, with which to inaugurate new construction in Salt Lake, especially when viewed against structures from the 1920s.

Bound up in this newness, Salt Lake showed that it was willing to adopt a new aesthetic and to leave the depression behind. As a symbol of the break from the difficult years of the Great Depression, this building has become a powerful reminder of Salt Lake overcoming difficulty and beginning to participate in economic life on a national scale. Many consider this building to be as revolutionary as the United Nations Headquarters (1950) in Manhattan.

Is this building significant? Does, as the Trust often asks, this place matter?

... 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.

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 editorial@savingplaces.org.

JetModern: Mod at Home in Houston

Posted on: September 24th, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

A mid-century ranch in Houston with owner-designed front porch light in shape of Sputnik.

A mid-century ranch in Houston with owner-designed front porch light in shape of Sputnik.

I had a unique opportunity while in Houston to visit with a number of members and supporters of Houston Mod. While I saw mostly commercial and institutional buildings in Chicago, Houston was focused on residential architecture. While I will write more on the individual houses I saw, there are three larger issues here.

First, in my discussions with Houston Mod, I learned that Houston does not have zoning. That’s right, no zoning. Residential next to commercial? Sure! As long as the deed restrictions allow it. Are there other municipalities without zoning?

Second, in an unusual outreach effort, Houston Modders often hold happy hours (called “Mod of the Month”) in mid-century homes listed for sale. In addition to providing good exposure for the seller, these gatherings also provide a nice opportunity to see a variety of residential structures as well as to get together with like-minded folk.

Third, I spoke with Robert Searcy, a real estate agent and one of a growing number of agents who are increasingly focusing on mid-century properties. I was curious to learn from him how he pitches a mid-century modern house to prospective buyers. We spoke mostly about a specific neighborhood in Houston, Glenbrook Valley, but the idea of a targeted pitch for mid-century structures goes beyond a neighborhood. Searcy said that he tries to market properties as having a distinct architectural style that is interesting and has unusual features. Not the repetitive cookie cutter newer tract housing, mid-century modern residential properties, he says, have the ability to be outstanding houses even if they do not have the finest architectural pedigree. Solid design provides a good base on which to build as the new homeowners customize their own Houston mod. An added bonus is that established neighborhoods tend to be in locations that are closer to Houston, while new developments are a bit further out of town.

Next stop: Salt Lake City

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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 editorial@savingplaces.org.