Posts Tagged ‘Recent Past’

The Past is Hideous

February 20, 2011

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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What is Modern?

January 27, 2011

In Beverly Hills they just demolished the 1961 Friar’s Club. In Chicago the big preservation issue is Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital. Yet for many people, the idea of preserving buildings of the Recent Past is anathema. Often the dividing line is a generational one: our historic preservation students in their 20s and 30s have been excited about 1960s and 1970s architecture for a long time. Many people in their 50s and 60s are not.

There is an old saw that you don’t want to preserve something you saw built, but that is certainly not true for me. I got a camera when I was eight and took pictures of the not-yet-complete John Hancock tower in Chicago, and just over 20 years later there I was in front of it helping with a press conference to save a 21-year old building, already an icon of its city.

We had similar consternation when we discussed the Modernism and Recent Past efforts at the National Trust. Most accept the great architectural moments of Modernism, such as the Trust sites Philip Johnson’s Glass House and the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Even the legendary John Lautner’s architecture in Los Angeles is more widely understood, and you would find few in Chicago who did not think Goldberg’s 1965 Marina City was a landmark.

But the effort to save the Huntington Hartford Building on Columbus Circle in Manhattan was rife with contradiction: many hated the building since it arrived in 1962 and still hated it when they proposed to reclad the façade (which they did).


I bet you know what I am going to say next: it was always like this. The sliding window that is the Recent Past has always been a preservation problem. No in the field even liked Victorian architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. The first surveys of places like Charleston and Brooklyn pretty much stopped in the 1860s. There were Georgian societies in England and America but no Victorian societies and even in 1961 the experts thought it quite nutty that Greenwich Village residents wanted to save a building as ugly as Calvert Vaux’s Victorian Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Modernity itself can include a vast swath of history. Steve Kelley once brought Wessel de Jonge, one of the founders of DOCOMOMO, the first international organization for the preservation of Modernism, to my house, an 1872 Italianate. In the basement de Jonge looked up at the floor joists and asked with great enthusiasm whether he was looking at a balloon frame (which he was), because for him Brasilia began with some two-by-fours and nails in 1830s Chicago.

When people decry such Brutalist landmarks as the Boston City Hall, they are recalling widespread reaction against the buildings when they were built, often combined with rue at what they displaced. The 1960s are especially tricky because American culture went through its fastest evolution ever during that decade and the pace of change in the landscape was literally shocking. About faces were common: In Chicago’s Old Town people were in support of urban renewal efforts from 1956 to 1966 and then quite suddenly in 1967 they turned against renewal and started trying to save the existing fabric of the neighborhood.

This lovely 1961 bank in Chicago was denied landmark status because it was the Modernist outlier in a thematic designation of neighborhood banks. The prejudice against is often stronger than the sentiment in favor.

Brutalism, which emerged in the 1950s, has the double challenge of a bad label (it comes from the French for raw concrete, beton brut) and an aesthetic insistence that can be perceived as a kind of formal bullying.

But Victorian had an even worse rep for even longer, its demonization beginning in the 1910s as crisper Progressive Era styles supplanted it and reaching an apogee in the 1930s when cartoonist Charles Addams successfully married Victorian Second Empire style to ghoulish antisocial and murderous behavior. And Halloween. With the exception of a brief flicker of acceptance courtesy Disney’s 1954 Lady and the Tramp, Victorian remained anathema until the 1970s and the arrival of the Painted Lady in San Francisco.

Heck, the Prairie Style went out of fashion after less than two decades, and its practitioners were forced into uncomfortable Georgian and Tudor outfits through the 1920s. We can watch the current attempt to repair the PostModern Thompson Center in Chicago, barely 25 years old, and recall that it was so reviled its architect did not erect a major building in his home city for almost 20 years.

But the most revelatory thing that has happened in my life is that I have witnessed buildings – their architecture and design – change without changing at all. There are buildings I saw built or knew shortly after they were built in Oak Park and when I looked at them in the 1970s and 1980s I knew they were ugly. But then in the late 1990s they were no longer ugly. By the early 2000s they were becoming beautiful, and of course nothing had changed about them.

Our appreciation of the past is a sliding window. Like the act of conserving our built environment, it is not a standard or a rule or a fixed canon, but a process, wherein a culture and generations of people examine themselves and determine what elements of the past are important at that moment in time.

Green Preservation

November 4, 2009

Preservation is green. It retains the carbon footprint of structures that are already there, requires less materials, less expense of energy to construct – because it is already constructed. It is true that some older buildings (more likely those built 1940-2000) USE more energy than new “green” buildings, but the greenest new building will still take 30-40 years to pay off its carbon debt.

Two years ago, National Trust President Dick Moe made a speech at the National Building Museum about preservation and sustainability. It was epochal. He had the statistics that proved that “the greenest building is the one already built” but he wasn’t just preaching to the choir. He was making it known that there was a vibrant, multifaceted preservation movement, and that this movement was staking its claim to sustainability and moving even further in that direction.

The results are out there. Two sites you HAVE TO SEE are blogs linked at right: Barbara Campagna’s green preservation blog (Barbara is the Graham Gund architect of the National Trust) and Carla Bruni’s greenpreservationist.org blog. Carla is a graduate of our Master’s program in Historic Preservation and she has already made a mark. We had her speaking on her work in New Orleans and now she is teaching a preservation class at the Center for Green Technology.

You can’t consume your way to sustainability, folks.

Back to Dick Moe. He announced his retirement this week, and it reminded me of that epochal speech two years ago and how excited I was that he was leading the National Trust and the preservation movement into the future. And it wasn’t the first time he had done it. During his 17 years at the helm, the National Trust reinvented itself from top to bottom. The Trust, founded 60 years ago to save historic houses, nearly doubled its collection of historic properties, but much more significantly, it broadened that collection to more nearly represent the American experience and American architecture. From the commercial Gaylord Building to Philip Johnson’s modernist Glass House to the Acoma Sky City Pueblo, the National Trust’s collection of historic sites has been revolutionized. Not only do we own the two most famous modern glass houses, we also have a new Modern and Recent Past Initiative, a new Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, a more vigorous series of regional offices and a robust collection of statewide and local partners. There are three times as many statewide preservation organizations today than there were in 1992. Dick Moe didn’t simply grow the Trust, he expanded its relevance and helped make it the leader of an expanding nationwide movement. His leadership will be missed but his impact is visible everywhere you look.

LA Weekend

January 27, 2009

A great time was had by all at our Los Angeles meetings of the National Trust Board. There was a lot to be done, with a new Diversity Director (Tanya Bowers), an amazing story about the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where LSU wants to demolish a very solid 1930s hospital that was used all the way up to Katrina. They also wanted to tear down 200 houses for a new hospital. Fortunately, Trust Trustee Jack Davis and others demonstrated to the Legislature that the project would be more expensive, more wasteful and SLOWER than if they restored the building. Typical hospital planning, really. You can check it out on PreservationNation.
We also had a lively discussion in the Restoration Committee about “deconstruction” spawned by some irresponsible TV show that chronicles someone salvaging off all the bits of a perfectly good house before they demolish it for a McMansion. This is actually a great challenge in preservation – how do you convince people that things have great historic and artistic value without encouraging the dismembering of that value?
An invite to one Trustee’s lovely Spanish Colonial Revival courtyard house in Beverly Hills was a highlight, and her love of art and architecture was apparent from the appealingly laden bookshelves near the entrance and the consistency with which she applied the Spanish Colonial aesthetic of rough-hewn tables and chairs throughout the house.
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Saturday we had a fabulous tour all the way from the coast to downtown along Wilshire Boulevard, which includes one of my favorite bits, the Bruce Goff addition to LACMA, here lovingly photographed by Felicity Rich.
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LA is a great place for modern architecture (along with Victorian and Spanish Colonial) but it is often a challenge to get public support for saving it, a point that came up during our meetings and was very apparent when Landmarks Illinois’ Chicagoland Watch List came out and the modernist buildings (including those by noted architect Bertrand Goldberg) finished last in popularity contests. The bus took a swing through the Windsor Square historic overlay zone – LA has always created historic districts through zoning rather than the cultural department that deals with individual landmarks. This is an area of eclectic 1920s revivals and bungalows.
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BTW, photos here are by Felicity Rich.
The tour stopped in Little Tokyo, a place which inspired my interest in historic site interpretation almost nine years ago, and so I will be sharing my images with both my graduate and undergraduate students this semester. This is a 1995 project that included research on all of the previous business owners. (this one is my image)
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The tour continued through the Victorian district of Angeleno Heights
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We then saw another Trustee’s house, originally the Storer House by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of his 1920s textile block houses and I loved the resonances with Unity Temple and the interesting verticality (and generous ceiling heights) of the composition, which was exquisitely sited overlooking the city.
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The coup de grace was the Sheets-Goldstein House, a 1963 John Lautner design without a right angle or safety feature in it. Owned for the last 37 years by Jim Goldstein, he hired the original architect in 1980 and worked with him until his death. The thing is a giant triangle of concrete on a 400 foot cliff with a John Turrell sky room and glass walls being the only thing separating you from the edge of the cliff except for the many place where there is no wall, only cliff. Just stunning.
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photos by Felicity Rich

Modern preservation

February 28, 2006

Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)

The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)

A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.

Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).

17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price.

More distressing is the fate of the Melnikhov house in Moscow, those concrete cylinders with hexagonal windows that stick in my memories of architectural history – where did these come from? No precedents, no followers, sort of like Bruce Goff buildings – . It seems the Moscow mayor has been doing a lot of demolition by neglect, letting them flake and fail and then demolishing them even if they are landmarks. He’s not just picking on these modernist treasures – he’s sacked a few Deco and Stalinist Classical landmarks as well.

There is a lot if interest in preserving modern buildings lately – New York went agog over the Huntington Hartford museum at 2 Columbus Circle, trying to save a building that was critically body-slammed when built in 1962. In 1988 DOCOMOMO started in Holland to save landmarks of the Modern Movement and ten years ago we had the first Preserving the Recent Past conference in Chicago, which has led to the formation of several groups dedicated to modernist preservation.

Preserving modern buildings is harder for several reasons. Many people don’t want to save buildings they saw built – and hated for years. Many people don’t “get” the abstraction and sculptural quality of modern buildings – Classical and Gothic are more symbolic and referential and easier to “get,” which is why McMansions traffic in styles that were already crusty before Vesuvius buried Pompeii.

There is a physical problem too, one that is rarely talked about because it counters our intuitive understanding of progress. Post-World War II buildings may be built poorly due to several paradigm shifts in architecture and building. The Depression and World War II caused a break in material and construction knowledge. This breach was filled by science, so no longer was steel made by a guy who just “knew” when he had enough limestone and coke. Carpenters didn’t need to know their grains so well, and materials took a nose dive so there weren’t so many grains to worry about. New precision engineering meant buildings could be built to last not one day longer than the mortgage. You could probably add ten stories to a five-story 1870s building – they were “overbuilt.” You can’t even add one story to a one-story 1970s building. And polymers and plastics gave us buildings which are really just frameworks for an endless supply of sealants.

Modern also had several aesthetic attributes that complicate maintenance and repair. The continuous surface – very space-time, very cool, but impractical to maintain. Better brick pavers and shingles that can be replaced one by one as needed.

Plus, the postwar era was the ONLY historic period where energy was relatively cheap, hence less concern about insulation and energy efficiency. We now live in a world bombarded by hucksters of insulation and energy efficiency, and they have slobbered their twisted love on Modernist landmarks as well as the Victorians and Foursquares.

So, there are impediments to preserving Modern but that is no excuse for Moscow – political will sits on a separate plane from the fiscal and the physical.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: See 2011 entries on Modernism here!