Posts Tagged ‘Recent past preservation’

Palm Springs Modernism Week

February 27, 2011

Palm Springs tramway gas station, Frey and Chambers, 1962

I have seen the future of historic preservation, and it is Mid-century Modernism. It isn’t just the influence of Mad Men or Dwell, which recently celebrated its first decade. The writing was on the wall in the 1990s when Anne Sullivan, who replaced me as Director of the Historic Preservation Program at SAIC, started her class “From Lustron to Neon: Preserving the Recent Past” and within two years it was the most popular elective EVER. I managed to get my work on architect Barry Byrne into a Mid-Century panel in 2002 at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, thanks to Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French, and Chris is now the Director of Trust Modern, a supporter of Palm Springs Modernism Week, which draws quadruple digits to the desert oasis to feast on the glories of steel cantilevers, ribbed concrete and floor-to-ceiling glass.

Alexander steel houses, Wexler & Harrison, 1962

Everything here looks like Dwell magazine, which means my kids would love it. Thanks to desert sun and a climate that avoids oxide jacking, this stuff looks great always. Many thanks are due to head honcho Jacques Cassin, Modern maven Nickie McLaughlin, and Palm Springs Museum curator Sidney Williams, all of whom made my visit wonderful. Sidney and my friend and colleague Lauren Bricker curated a GREAT show on the architect Donald Wexler at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and I got to meet Wexler, who has done a lot of great buildings.

Donald Wexler House, 1955

In 1999 the Palm Springs Modern Committee was founded to promote the preservation of the modern architecture and neighborhoods of Palm Springs. In 2001 the Modernism Show started, and together with a symposium organized by the Art and Design Council of the Palm Springs Art Museum, the event became Modernism Week, which is now 11 days long and growing every year. It started as a show, but it is becoming s serious conference, and our lectures were very well attended.

House of Tomorrow, William Krisel, 1962
I missed much of the show, which started over a week ago, but I did attend the Saturday symposium, which featured architectural historian Thomas Hines, technology historian David Nye and a panel of three architects building steel houses, including Lance O’Donnell, Linda Taalman, and Barton Myers.

O’Donnell House – uses almost no electricity or heat
There were bus tours of the great houses by Albert Frey and Richard Neutra and of course Donald Wexler, William Cody, William Krisel and E. Stewart Williams, who shaped the look of this desert city.

Twin Palms Estates, William Krisel, 1959
I did get to see the Airstream exhibit over the weekend, and the colorful exhibit of Braniff airlines, with wild 60s stewardess costumes and Alexander Calder designs, and I laughed my guts out at the Friday night presentation of Charles Phoenix, who narrates a bizarre and FABULOUS collection of found mid-century slides.

There is a glamour to this era which many of the enthusiasts are latching onto, an atomic age optimism that has a refreshing aura in the face of current conditions – that is a description of nostalgia, but when it is causing this many people to invest in this many buildings, I’ll take it. Here’s the lovingly restored Sinatra house, replete with period photos and furnishings:

Frank Sinatra House, E. Stewart Williams, 1947

You can see my several recent posts on Modernism, like this one, this one and this one to get more details about my talk on Preserving Modernism in Chicago, which was presented to a very appreciative crowd. And I have to express great appreciation to all those who came up to me in the FABULOUS Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955) to complement me on the talk.

Jorgenson-Mavis House (William F. Cody, 1955)

The important thing, however, is how much enthusiasm and energy (and money) there is in this phenomenon. People tend to want to preserve the architecture of two generations past, hence early 20th century preservationists began with Greek Revival, and by the 70s they managed to get their arms and minds around Victorian and even Prairie. But there is still some resistance to the architecture of the 60s and 70s, especially because preservation itself – heritage conservation – began in some part as a reaction against urban renewal and postwar sprawl, so it somehow seems heretical to preserve it. But even in Chicago we are starting to preserve urban renewal, which I mentioned in my lecture here Friday.

I.M. Pei townhouses, Hyde Park, Chicago

But in 1990 we weren’t – I and others rejected Walter Netsch’s request to save the UICC campus in 1993, and very few were on the other side. If it was happening today, the answer would be different, because another generation has passed since 1993, just as preserving Victorian painted ladies was okay in 1975 but “hideous” in 1957. The big issues in Chicago today are from the postwar era, like this soon-to-be-demolished State Street shoe store:

Friday afternoon I served on a panel (moderated by no less than Alan Hess) with impressive colleagues from Miami, Sydney, Brisbane and Havana (sort of) to discuss the challenge of preserving the architecture of an era that many of us actually remember. This stuff was popular with the students and scholars before it resonated with the general public, although huge strides have been made in the past five years. Here’s a bank in Palm Springs that borrows from Ronchamp.

City National Bank, (Victor Gruen Assoc., 1955)

I spent a lot of time with my Australian colleagues – Chris Osborne from Brisbane and Annalisa Capurro from Sydney – and one thing struck me above all. During our panel Chris said that the biggest difference between preserving Mid-century Modern in Australia and the United States was: the presence of the National Trust and the great Trust Modern initiative. He said the Australian National Trust would never be that progressive.

It made me proud to be a Trustee of the National Trust, which has two of the most important Mid-Century Modern houses in the nation: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (above) and Philip Johnson’s Glass House. And Trust Modern, of course. Here I was in Palm Springs witnessing the future of preservation, witnessing an incredible gathering of resources and enthusiasm that has – according to those who have been coming each year – been growing consistently.

Fire Station #1, a Palm Springs landmark

Kaufmann House, (Richard Neutra, 1947)

This is where the interest is going, and I am very glad that the Trust has been key to that effort. The future is as bright as the shiny steel houses of the Coachella valley that have been lovingly and painstakingly restored over the last two decades.

Edris House, (E. Stewart Williams, 1954)

2012: For the latest on THIS YEAR’s MODERNISM WEEK, look here.

And I will return for 2015!


Chicago’s Gold Coast

September 24, 2010

I took my Archival Documentation class up to the Chicago History Museum on Wednesday to get started on their research there. On the way there and the way back, we walked through the Gold Coast, a National Register of Historic Places historic district that encompasses about a half-mile (4 blocks) of Dearborn, State, and Astor Streets and Lake Shore Drive. It is bordered on the east by the lake and on the west by Sandburg Village, a typically soporific postwar towers-and-townhomes urban renewal development.

Chicago’s wealthy lived first on the west side, near Union Park, then on the near south side, along Prairie Avenue, and only from about 1890 on did the north side Gold Coast evolve into the most privileged area. Launched by Potter Palmer’s 1882 mansion, demolished in 1950, the Gold Coast was originally Italianate and Second Empire townhomes of relatively imposing proportion, although decidedly a notch below similar 1880s homes on the south side.

The largest home was and is the mansion of the Catholic archbishop, which predated even Palmer. By 1900 the grand Renaissance-inspired palazzo of Patterson-McCormick by the majestic McKim, Mead and White had arisen, along with the stately French elegance of the George Isham House by James Gamble Rogers.

This latter would achieve another sort of fame in the 1960s and 1970s when it became Hugh Hefner’s first Playboy Mansion. In the late 1980s it was Hefner Hall of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on Wednesday nights I would pick up my then-girlfriend from class there.

The Gold Coast always had larger buildings, multi-story apartments arrived at the beginning of the era and by the 1910s and 1920s, many of the original low-rise mansions on Lake Shore Drive had given way to taller, but no less elegant and exclusive buildings.

But after Palmer’s mansion was replaced by a couple of bland slabs of artless brick-meat in the 1950s, residents started to take umbrage with the high-rise explosion which seemed to be cheapening as well as crowding the district. The National Register of Historic Places, as everyone outside of Kenilworth knows, provides no protection against private development, so in 1975 community residents created the Astor Street Chicago Landmark district, to preserve what was left of one of the Gold Coast’s most famous streets.

The district also includes several individual Chicago Landmarks, including the Three Arts Club (1914, Holabird & Roche),the three surviving Houghteling Houses by John Wellborn Root and the Charnley-Persky House on Astor, an important work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan that is now home to the Society of Architectural Historians.

Perhaps the most exclusive part of the Gold Coast is technically a bit south and east of it in Streeterville, but the East Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark district is notable for being the first downtown Chicago Landmark, created by the City Council way back in 1985, despite some strong opposition. Thankfully, this block of buildings visible from a mile to the north and anchored by the incomparable Benjamin Marshall elegance of the storied Drake Hotel, remains intact today, the city’s finest lakefront residential face.

In the late 1980s I was involved when the City created the Seven Houses on Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark, linking the four surviving mansions on the 1200 block with the three surviving mansions on the 1500 block in a bifurcated district that nonetheless survived court challenges from an owner who wanted to put up a 42-story addition to a house they had been given for free many years earlier. Here are the homes on the 1200 block:

And here is an Astor Street highrise of the type that inspired the historic district but might have been an object of preservation itself had it not suffered a 1990s recladding that blunted its original 1963 Bertrand Goldberg design.

Some of the more felicitous touches were the 1930s Andrew Rebori buildings, small-scaled like their Victorian forbears but with curving brick and glass brick walls that give them a sleek modernity and a gritty handmade quality at the same time.

It is a rarefied neighborhood, but thanks to the preservation of human-scaled architecture from 1880 to 1940, Chicago’s Gold Coast is a worthy walk.

BTW: Another great post from Blair Kamin today here. And not just because he used my photo….


August 23, 2007

top secret2s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history.

But at the same time, it is preservationists who first got us interested in Googie architecture and it is preservationists who led the charge for things like the Recent Past and Route 66 and Times Square and all sorts of Wisconsin Dells-like Paul Bunyans and Sinclair dinosaurs and even upside-down White Houses like the one pictured at right.

But it was always the new generation. Eight years ago, most members of preservation organizations did not care much for the recent past – it was the younger enthusiasts who embraced it. My former student Jeanne Lambin has just published an excellent National Trust publication “Preserving Resources from the Recent Past” which even has a Dells-style motel on the cover.

Kitsch becomes cool after a certain amount of time. It has always been so. When preservation began to take off in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was all about Georgian and Federal architecture, the period that was just over a hundred years old. As late as the 1950s the National Trust would go begging their membership to try to develop a feeling for Victorian architecture, which was viewed with Charles Addams’ horror well into the 1970s. There is now a Victorian Society in England, but there was not one a few generations ago.

Early Modern had it a bit easier, only because the first generation of architectural historians were generally modernists, and thus linked the “pure” styles of Georgian and Greek Revival to Early Modern, jumping over what Thomas Tallmadge called the “parvenu” of Victorian. In contrast, William Sumner Appleton found Greek and Roman styles offensive to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Like fellow Bostonian Richardson, he liked the Romanesque, a 900-year old style being reinvented as the latest thing.

Every generation creates the illusion of “new” by rejecting what immediately preceded them, often in favor of an older style, far enough removed to be rendered inoffensive, or at least far enough removed in time to be “rehabilitated.” Picasso’s Cubism drew heavily on “tribal” cultural forms, which he rehabilitated and appropriated. Newness is always scary, but it is rarely new. And “oldness” is always comfortable, because it has been rehabilitated. There is a key element of time at play here, the kind of time that makes what was obscene or outrageous in 1975 relatively innocuous in 1995 or 2005.

On my way to Wisconsin Dells, I passed loads of shopping malls and guess what – they are all Victorian, or at least the 21st century version of the style. Modern is back again – if you read Dwell, they are apostles of mid-century modernist minimalism and they do a good job of that. Of course, in this milieu, the tacky 1960s restaurants and motels of the Dells look, well, special and irreplaceable, because by temperament and demeanor they are over and done with. And thus nostalgic.

“Nostalgia” is like “neuralgia,” a disease of longing for the past. It is an odd disease, because rather than requiring rehabilitation it causes rehabilitation – of buildings, of ideas, of culture.

My sister Clare suggested we pick up rubber tomahawks as appropriately tacky souvenirs of the tacky Dells. And it struck me as we passed Indian trading posts and Pirate Coves that these ultimately kid-friendly thematic diversions – cowboys and pirates – were of course once the most terrorizing and uncivilized elements of the world. And now they are child’s play, just as the architecture of the pretty brutal medieval world of 1000 A.D. appealed to the sophisticated elite of 1910 Boston.

But is is never what it was. My Victorian house is not what it was, it is not used the way it was (we have toilets, for example) it had to be rehabilitated and preservation is always that rehabbing of buildings and concepts and even styles. Does this mean someone will want to preserve our neo-Victorianism someday? Probably. The haters always like to say that they will replace a landmark with something that will be a future landmark, as if they could know that. You can’t know it – even Picasso failed in his first try at the Parisian art scene. Hell, the Victorians thought what they were doing was Free Classicism or somesuch. The names and the fame come later.

Rehabilitation happens in history, too. The reviled master planner Robert Moses was the subject of 3 exhibits in New York last year, perhaps expressing a longing for a similar builder/autocrat.

Whether anyone can turn the White House right side up again is quite another story. Sometimes, there is nothing left to rehabilitate.

Modern Mischief

June 24, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building.

Time is of course the dimension of historic preservation, which in its simplest sense is the proposition that previous architecture should be re-used rather than discarded. Hartray recognized that by designing a building very specifically for a client’s needs, you are trashing the concept that time will pass and needs will change and clients will change. He worked on Time-Life Building built precisely and exactly for a 1960s publishing giant but now used by others, including the Chicago Park District.

Le Corbusier was famous for this. He strived in the 1930s to develop the concept of “type-needs” that could identify all potential human uses so that buildings could be designed precisely and permanently. But time screwed him up: His “Modulor” of typical humanity actually changed over time – he lived long enough to see that time wounds all heels, and outstretched arms.

Preservation emerged together with Postmodernism in the mid-1960s, and one of Postmodernism’s cause celebrés and canards was the “decorated shed,” which denied the specificity and universality and unabashed might of modernism. A decorated shed is always useful as long as we need space protected from the weather. In preservation, there are no final uses, only (con)temporary uses. Like its running partner Preservation, Postmodernism recognized the fourth dimension, which brings all heroes to earth.

There are no eternal “programs” or “functions” so it might be better to design buildings that can grow, and learn. This is in fact one of the latest trends in architecture, that of interactive buildings and emergent technology: buildings that respond to your needs.

Take away the hubristic heroic blather and you might find a building like my house, which has responded to artists, dogs, infants, children and educators at various life stages in various activities and has seen studios become living rooms and bedrooms become studios and low-tech become high-tech not to mention the endless churn of fashionisms like granite countertops. It was built in about 1873, and lots of pieces have changed but not the floorplan.

Old hippie Stewart Brand recognized this in a lovely 1994 book called “How Buildings Learn”. The very title is emergent and interactive although it was written at the dawn of the web in a shipping container. He celebrated the unplanned evolution of buildings, recognizing loss in design but also recognizing that time is a key feature of buildings, more so than other arts. He said that “Preservationists have a sense of time and responsibility that includes the future.” Which is something the modernists thought they had, but that depended on their seeing the future with absolute clarity. Oops. The modernists had hubris in a bad way – the idea that you can solve problems with buildings is forever fugitive to the reality of identifying those problems. And hoping they stay still.

If you can’t see the future, you can’t build for forever.

Unless you recognize that fact. Then it’s easy.