Posts Tagged ‘Trust Modern’

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.

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.


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