Modern Architecture

JetModern: Preservation + Community Identities

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

South Portland

Although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse, featuring structures that range from commercial buildings, to public buildings, to private residences.

Despite its name, historic preservation is as much about the present as the past. That being said, there are a number of incentives to emphasize or deemphasize particular aspects of the past as recorded in the built landscape around us.

Since citywide preservation organizations typically help communities see their built heritage as part of their identities, they can also help communities negotiate an identity that broadly incorporates all of their built history. In Portland, Maine, I met with Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks. We talked about some of the ways that preservationists in Portland are helping to balance how the city presents itself to visitors and residents.

She explained that, although limited, Portland’s mid-century building stock is functionally diverse. During the 1970's, the city was recovering from a break in new building construction that lasted from the 1920's until the 1960's. This long break in new building seems to have meant a lower volume of modern structures, but not a smaller variety. Portland’s mid-century modern structures range from commercial structures, to public buildings, to private residences. I was particularly interested in the challenges to preservation of modern buildings in Portland, as these buildings seem well integrated into older structures and streetscapes.

Bassett said that Greater Portland Landmarks has noted two economic changes that may challenge the protection of mid-century buildings. A less expensive alternative to Boston, she suggests that the growth of a “creative economy” in Portland is driving new construction. When coupled with the city’s desire to tap cruise visitors eager to see a port city from the 1800's, these two forces are a challenge to the city’s modern heritage. While Greater Portland Landmarks supports sympathetic new construction in historic areas, the key issue, according to Bassett, continues to be getting residents and visitors into mid-century structures. This would seem to be an approach that would work well for both visitors and residents. She does report, though, that there has not been much progress, yet.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a sensible renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows.

In addition to increasing contact with modern buildings and emphasizing the historic content of these structures over their aesthetics, there have been successful adaptive reuse projects downtown. While not a newer building in any sense, a good example of this is Grace, a church turned restaurant. Further, Portland’s public library, a modernist structure, is undergoing a renovation which covers formerly open areas with glass windows. While not part of the building as built, these windows do provide shelter from the Maine winter while still allowing the original voids to be read. Openness to both reuse and sensible alterations seems to be a good start to me.

There are, however, some ways in which the state government also supports the protection of mid-century resources. To learn more about this, Hilary Bassett suggested I visit Barba + Wheelock, an architecture and preservation practice in Portland.

On a late Friday afternoon, I stopped by Barba + Wheelock. Much to my surprise, it was explained to me that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has developed (with assistance from Barba + Wheelock, I believe) a supplement to statewide historic structure survey forms. This supplement has been specially designed to allow for the unique structural and layout elements which characterize newer buildings. The additional questions document:

  • a garage (attached to or below the structure, for example);
  • a porch;
  • a car port or driveway;
  • mid-century architectural elements and outbuildings like, to quote directly from the form, planters, screens, patios, retaining walls, or an upper story overhang.

What a good tool with which to capture some of the defining characteristics of newer structures. Have other states, cities, or localities developed additional questions for survey forms? I would be very interested to know how state- or local-level surveying includes modified documentation based on the age of the structure.

An influx of new building fueled (formerly fueled?) by new businesses leaving Boston and a tourism industry built around an older image of the city are assuredly threats in Portland. However, a combination of programmatic outreach to increase contact with newer buildings and inclusive statewide documentation efforts will hopefully help save the city's threatened mid-century buildings.

Next stop: Chicago.

Seth Tinkham is 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.

Jet Modern: Partial Preservation Pressure?

Posted on: September 21st, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

The staff of the Glass House have made the choice to position the property as both a house museum and a center for modernism. In doing this, they have made the decision to set the property as a space that is both part of the past and actively involved in the present. For example, local high school students were invited to tour the property and make videos of certain elements as a part of their coursework. In this way, the property is captured as part of the historical record, but used as the backdrop for new projects.

Coming out of my visit to the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, I headed to Boston to speak with an architecture firm looking creatively at what preservation and adaptive reuse might mean for newer structures. Together, Jason Hart, Chris Johns, and Aaron Malnarick are the architectural firm Cube. Our conversation raised a number of interesting points about how preservation of newer structures might differ from the presentation and preservation of older buildings.

Many mid-century modern buildings used experimental materials to a much higher degree than is common today. As a result, it is worth considering what the intended lifespan of some structures is and what preservation of these structures might mean. While a question not unique to mid-century buildings, if major components are regularly replaced because of material failure, how authentic is the structure as a whole?

We spoke about the possibility of partially preserving some newer structures – keeping central features while razing other parts and replacing them with new additions. This brings up an interesting question: are there elements of a structure that are more “historic” than others? That is, are there parts which better represent a defining historical characteristic than others? Would less than 100% retention of original features still constitute preserving a mid-century building (or, I suppose, any building) so long as these defining parts are retained?

They took the point even further and suggested that preservation of our built heritage can be advanced by looking beyond the building itself and by setting its parts as representations of larger themes. In doing this, the whole of the building is reduced to an element of the story told through preservation, which suggests that it might be possible to consider saving some portions while adding on through new construction as the condition and “saveablity” of structures warrants. Much of this conversation took place within considering possibilities for Neutra's Cyclorama (1961) at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

For my own part, I tend to think that most modern structures are carefully sited, and that it would be difficult to add on to extant structures without altering both the structure and the relationship to its surroundings. However, I am certainly willing to admit that there must be cases where, through saving some character-defining element that is later incorporated into more contemporary construction, it’s possible to have a solid suggestion of the past while allowing a structure to grow and adapt to a new context. As Jason, Aaron, and Chris put it, this second life would still allow people to interact with the structure, perhaps even more than if it were a hermetically-sealed, 100% intact preserved resource.

In light of this, I wonder what some possibilities might be for a very public and often disliked modern building, Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, 1968), which could carry a demolition cost so high that perhaps some conditional reuse might be interesting to think about.

Next stop: Portland, Maine.

Seth Tinkham is 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.

Jet Modern: Coming Up Next Week

Posted on: September 18th, 2009 by Sarah Heffern 2 Comments

 

As Seth makes his way from Houston to Salt Lake City via JFK (because it's on the way?), I thought I'd share a couple of photos he took of Boston's City Hall -- one of the sites he'll be writing about next week. Enjoy the eye candy as you head into the weekend!

boston-city-hall-1

boston-city-hall-2

(By the way... It might not be proper to mention it here, since this is a blog and not Twitter, but modern fans in Salt Lake City can meet Seth at his "tweetup" on Monday night. Visit his Twitter page to get details on the time and location.)

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.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Jet Modern: George Washington Didn't Sleep Here…

Posted on: September 17th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

But maybe he would have wanted to...

Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut.

You wouldn’t think that New Canaan, a former farming town now a commute away from New York City, would house one of the largest collections of mid-century modern buildings in the country.

Beginning in the late 1940s, many of America’s most famous modernist architects settled in New Canaan, Connecticut. According Gwen North Reiss, my tour guide for one of the most famous houses here, Philip Johnson's Glass House, the architects were drawn to the area by Eliot Noyes who had moved with his family to then-rural Connecticut because it was affordable and had good schools. Soon after, though, others followed, inspired by Noyes’ leadership to build show houses, buildings that would be “calling cards” and help to generate new commissions. Many of the architects came from Harvard’s architecture school; Philip Johnson was one of the Harvard group. Selecting a site overlooking a hollow, he built the Glass House in 1949, placing it among the colonial cottages and houses already in New Canaan.

Philip Johnson's Glass House: Exterior view of the gatehouse known as "The Monsta." (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

Philip Johnson's Glass House: Exterior view of the gatehouse known as "The Monsta." (Photo: Carol Highsmith)

In the 1980s when Johnson gave the Glass House, outbuildings, and land to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he did so because he felt that, absent some protection, the structure would be torn down by a community that objected to modernist building forms.

I was curious to see what Christy MacLear, executive director of the Glass House, has done to help increase the visibility of the house and the way the property participates in life in New Canaan. The Glass House certainly is an active player in both the local community and beyond. To do this, the staff used traditional methods to increase the visibility of the property, share the context in which the house developed, and provide information to visitor.

Using a survey of surrounding structures, the staff turned what could have otherwise been a common tack into an interactive resource, posting the results online and in print and widening the scope to include communities beyond Connecticut. Building awareness of the property and modernism off this survey was a key in the plan to make Philip Johnson’s Glass House less about the house itself and more about the creating a center for modernism in a larger context.

... 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.

Jet Modern: Columbus Circle + Pennsylvania Station

Posted on: September 15th, 2009 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

 

Why wasn’t 2 Columbus Circle the next Penn Station? It’s not the first time a building in New York has attracted the widespread attention of preservationists.

2 Columbus Circle, c. 1964

2 Columbus Circle, c. 1964

In 1963 when Pennsylvania Station (NY) was razed, the outcry helped to shift federal cultural heritage laws toward explicitly and systematically including structures. The destruction of Penn Station also helped bring preservation from a local/localized effort to a nationally coordinated one.

When plans to alter 2 Columbus Circle (Edward Durell Stone, 1964) were drawn up, though many rallied around the structure, there was no widespread groundswell of support resulting in either a major shift in preservation policy nor general attitudes towards the preservation of mid-century buildings. To be clear, a number of individuals and groups (including the National Trust for Historic Preservation) advocated on behalf of preserving the building, or, at the very least, having the New York Landmarks Commission have a hearing on the matter. I do not know the full history of the Commission’s decision not to hear the case for preserving 2 Columbus Circle.

The point, though, is that while the loss of Penn Station engendered broad support for preservation protections, the major loss of the façade of 2 Columbus Circle and the renovations to the interior did not. At the time Penn Station was destroyed, it was about 50 years old. When Columbus Circle was altered, it was also about 50. With two buildings of approximately the same age, how is it that one became a touchstone for the creation of a protected status for buildings and the other was heavily altered?

2 Columbus Circle in 2009.

2 Columbus Circle in 2009.

The removal of the original Penn Station building from the landscape of Manhattan was driven in large part by shifting modes of transportation, a corresponding declining use of rail, and increasing property values (air rights) which put a premium on space, making generous waiting areas and separate arrival and departure areas ripe for re-purposing for revenue generation. This very shift shows a social progression documented in a structure – from train to jet to car. The station took on a symbolic role as a constructed space with meaning within a community as the building became a historical marker of the rail age. Its form (appearance), shaped by grand rail travel, documented a moment in history.

Are there some ways that 2 Columbus Circle could have been re-set as a similar marker of history, a history this time not of the early 1900s, but of the mid-1900s?

To help understand some of the obstacles faced by those in favor of preserving 2 Columbus Circle, and some successful strategies for community engagement in and with modern structures, I headed to New Canaan, CT to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a modernist residence set among colonial Connecticut farmhouses.

Next stop: New Canaan.

Learn more:

Seth Tinkham is self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, VA. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture. Follow Seth's JetModern adventures on Twitter @JetModern.

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.