The Past is Hideous

From the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

“We shall be guilty of serious malfeasance if we do not seek to preserve for later generations the best and the most typical examples of those decades, using the same regard that we give to distinguished examples of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Everyone thinks that the architecture, decorative arts, costumes and similar products of their immediate predecessors are hideous…”

Question: What is the date of this article and what decades is the author referring to?

I asked this question on Facebook and got the expected response: someone referring to Modern or Mid-Century Modern, perhaps pioneering efforts by Richard Longstreth or Chester Liebs in the 1970s or 80s, as my colleague Jeanne Lambin suggested. And indeed, as I prepare to head to Palm Springs to talk about Preserving Modernism in Chicago next Friday, the words above can serve as a kind of mantra for the disregard that Mid-Century Modern still gets from many people.

But if you look closely at the statement, you can see the answer, because the contrast is with the 17th and 18th centuries. Historic Preservation editor Richard Howland was pleading with his fellow preservationists not to consider VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE (1837-1890) as a “bad” period, which is how it was characterized in all of the early architectural histories written in the 1920s through 1940s. The article, actually a review of a pioneering book that dared to value Victorian architecture, appeared in 1957, and was illustrated by the Chicago Water Tower, which we might recall was labeled “a castellated monstrosity with salt and pepper boxes stuck all over it” by Oscar Wilde even before the 19th century had ended.

Architectural historians and preservationists were mostly concerned with Georgian architecture for much of the first two-thirds of the 20th century. I have previously noted how the architectural tastemakers were scandalized that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save Calvert Vaux’s absolutely hideous Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961. The survey that Brooklyn Heights residents did in the 1959 to prove the value of their neighborhood was focused on buildings constructed before 1860.

Greek Revival was an acceptable style, after all, and although Italianate ushered in the emotional excesses of wanton architectural abandon, the New York brownstone was a relatively sedate expression of this style, although lambasted by native daughter Edith Wharton as “little, low-studded rectangular New York, cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.”

Early preservation efforts in the pioneering municipalities of New Orleans and Charleston initially focused on 17th and 18th century architecture, and even when Charleston’s famed 1931 ordinance was updated in 1959 to include demolition delay, it only applied to pre-1860 buildings.

We are always to some extent guilty of presentism, and I think we need to keep Howland’s words in mind ALL OF THE TIME so we don’t fall into the trap of finding our recent past “hideous.” I am always struck by the names given to various architectural styles over time: these labels come from the next generation and are often insults meant to convey the “hideous” nature of the recent past. GOTHIC was a barbarian label for a style seen as completely degenerate in the light of Classical beauty. BAROQUE was too exuberant, too saucy, too free and frivolous with its Renaissance antecedents. BRUTALISM and POSTMODERN are similarly derogatory, although in keeping with 20th century identity politics they were perversely adopted by their practitioners, a “punk” attitude that can probably be traced to the Wiener SECESSION of the first decade. And if MODERN is a problematic term as I opined recently, it has also served as an insult, well into the contemporary period.

When I came across this building I just had to take a picture of it because it appealed to my aesthetic and historic impulses. But a lot of people have hated since it was built in 1970, so it shall succumb to that and be no more, despite 18 years of efforts to save it.

The same 1957 issue of the National Trust’s magazine covered the effort to save Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, “the first building erected in this century the National Trust ever moved to help protect” and one whose potential demolition inspired architects and students from across the country – and even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – to plea for its preservation. “The fight also brought into existence a Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks…” which is part of the UNUSUAL preservation history in Chicago I will outline on Friday.

It seems Chicago got it backwards: in 1957 we landmarked BRAND NEW buildings while at the same time IGNORING early 19th century buildings that may have survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 but didn’t need to be saved because they weren’t part of the Chicago School of Architecture story. Our approach has broadened, and arguably the biggest issue in Chicago preservation today is the 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital (If you go on Google images, you will get the picture below which I took).

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One Response to “The Past is Hideous”

  1. Palm Springs Modernism Week « Time Tells Says:

    […] Time Tells Vince Michael on history, preservation, planning and more « The Past is Hideous […]

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