Reinvention Reinvented: Hope for Modernism
A new outlook on traditional preservation standards could help preserve Postwar Modernism
Columbus, Indiana, is something of a modern marvel. It boasts more than 70 buildings by some of the architecture world’s greats, including titans of Modernism such as Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier. Schools, churches, a library, a post office, and even a fire station stand as examples of the distinctively diverse architectural styles spanning the decades from World War II through Vietnam.
Crisp lines, sharp angles, connected like Lego blocks. Nearby: a 192-foot spire aims toward the heavens like a laser.
The buildings’ variety should come as no surprise. The period from the 1940s through the 1970s saw double-breasted suits and pencil skirts give way to bellbottoms and micro-minis. The era included Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Small wonder, then, that a wide range of building styles developed as offshoots of, reactions to, or variations on Modernism including Brutalism, New Formalism, and Googie.
It is unusual to find so many well-preserved Modernist structures in a single place, especially one as small as Columbus, with just 45,000 residents. Even more extraordinary, though, is the fact that these buildings are respected and even revered. The townspeople recognize them as functional pieces of art -- places of worship, work, and study that not only serve their intended purpose, but also drive a thriving tourism industry attracting thousands of appreciative visitors every year.
Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood, too, shows what Modernism can be. It’s practically a museum of Mies, home to the largest collection of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe buildings in any single place in the nation. But it’s more than just Mies. The 78-acre urban renewal project was a 1961 to 1965 collaboration among Mies, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. The well-maintained result includes elegantly spare townhomes and apartment towers, all exalting Mies’ belief that “less is more.”
Few cities, though, can claim the type of widespread salvation success found in Lafayette Park or Columbus. In most places, Modernist buildings are conspicuously mixed in among more traditional architecture. Tastes vary, so as with platform shoes, Lawrence Welk, and other emblems of the postwar era, not all Modernism is universally beloved. “Modernism is an acquired taste,” says Dan Morrill. “It’s kind of like asparagus.”
Consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission in North Carolina, Morrill recognizes that because not everyone has acquired that taste, Modernist structures across the country face the wrecking ball. Many already have been torn down. But demolition isn’t the only form of damage. Morrill says some of the finest examples have been altered so drastically that “they might as well have been destroyed.”
In the Miami area, where restored South Beach Art Deco structures have become the signature regional style, Miami Modern—or MiMo—buildings are now facing a variety of threats including neglect, incompatible renovation, and demolition. The iconic brown facade of the Miami Herald headquarters is one example. It once stood prominently by Biscayne Bay, visible to the steady stream of cruise ships flowing into the port. But 50 years after it became the newspaper’s home, wrecking crews began clearing the site for a luxury resort.
Preservationist and author Randall C. Robinson Jr. actively campaigned to save the Miami Herald building. The book MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed, which he co-wrote with Eric P. Nash, describes it as epitomizing the “Subtropical Modern office building, with its eggcrate facades, sun grilles, and external expression of its interior functions.”
A groundswell of passionate support was not enough to keep One Herald Plaza from demolition. Across the bay from it, though, a similar effort appears on the verge of saving one of Miami’s most outstanding Modernist representations, the Miami Marine Stadium.
Unlike the Herald building, the 1963 marine stadium (and its gravity-defying aerodynamic roof) withstood years of abandonment and decay, with no definite plans to reuse the site. When its demolition seemed imminent, proponents of its rescue stepped in. The Miami City Commission approved the group’s site plan last July, and they are currently raising funds for the stadium’s restoration. (See our Spring 2013 feature story.)
As with most commercial preservation work, finding a financially feasible use for a property is key to a building’s salvation. The so-called “flying saucer” in St. Louis’ National Register–listed Council Plaza is one example. Topped by a curved concrete roof that juts out 40 feet from the central shop, the building looks, well, like a flying saucer. Despite its iconic presence, it showed minor signs of decay until new owners purchased the building in 2006.
“Preservation was the furthest thing from our minds,” says developer Hany Abounader.
The location, he says, was in a rundown part of the city. The building begged for upkeep. “We just thought, ‘It’s such a disgusting place, we can’t wait to tear it down.’”
But they weren’t prepared for what happened when they submitted their redevelopment plan: “All hell broke loose,” Abounader says.
Preservationists picketed. They started a Facebook page that gathered 13,000 followers. Local news channels started following the story. NPR picked it up.
“We had no idea people were so enamored of that building,” Abounader says.
He and his business partners decided to save it, and now, after a $2.8 million renovation, a Starbucks and a Chipotle occupy the 4,415-square-foot building.
Fans of postwar Modernist architecture hope to transfer the lessons learned in Miami and St. Louis to other buildings -- the marine stadium and the saucer prove that public outcry can make a difference. But the timing and the level of backing are crucial. “You can have a win if you can mobilize the right support at the right time,” says Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, which has worked to preserve Modernist buildings since 1998.
A noted save for Landmarks Illinois is Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 geodesic dome home in Carbondale. The group also fought for Farnsworth House, one of Mies van der Rohe’s most significant and luxuriously minimalist designs, when it was threatened with destruction in 2003. This masterpiece of residential architecture is now a National Trust historic site.
When Northwestern University revealed plans to demolish the Bertrand Goldberg–designed Prentice Women’s Hospital building in Chicago to make room for a new biomedical research facility, Landmarks Illinois stepped in again, forming a coalition of partners that included the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This time, though, they faced the challenge of a powerful property owner and a site located entirely within the school’s downtown campus.
The futuristic cluster of concrete towers, an innovative four-leaf clover pattern with striking curves arcing off a central core, served as a maternity and obstetrics facility for more than 30 years. As forward-thinking as its design was -- with small quads of patient-care areas bunched conveniently around nursing centers on each floor -- the bulky Brutalist building was a place with a face many found hard to love.
“Prentice, like other Modernist buildings, represents a time in American culture of great optimism, technological progress, and art,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin. “[These buildings] are exemplars of art, culture, and technology, but it’s a demanding architecture. Prentice was of a style that has really struggled to find acceptance among the public -- it’s really sculptural. My two children were born there, and if you’ve been inside, it’s easier to understand that the architecture isn’t willful; it’s functional.”
Kamin, who is an adjunct professor of art at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, contrasts Prentice with Farnsworth House, built in 1951. “We always end the class with a visit to Farnsworth. That’s not tough to love. I will never forget taking students into the house -- up the stairs, through the doors, into the space. It captivated them. Without me saying a word they all sat down, looked at the Fox River outside, and almost meditated. It’s a very easy -- I don’t want to use the word ‘sell’ -- it just spoke to them.
“You wish that Prentice could have been that easy,” continues Kamin, “but to many people, it seemed more fortress-like.”
Overcoming that common view structured much of the effort to save Prentice, says McDonald. “We were really running a public education campaign about Brutalist architecture and trying to find a way to make it relevant and interesting and lovable to people who might not see it that way.”
The answer was an awareness-raising push to demonstrate the building’s historical and architectural significance. A social media program reached 29 million people and attracted 5,000 Facebook followers. In the end, it wasn’t enough, and demolition of Prentice has already begun.
In a way, the loss is an example of preservation history repeating itself.
“This has been true for each style,” says Brian Conway, Michigan’s State Historic Preservation Officer. “There was a long period of time when nobody appreciated the Victorian structures. In the '50s we lost the fantastic city halls that existed in many communities. I see the same trend with buildings from that midcentury period, because it’s too close to us.”
Miami Beach’s South Beach is a perfect case in point. Today visitors are drawn to the resort town as much for its historic district as its warm, azure surf. But what most don’t realize is that just a few decades ago the area’s iconic Art Deco structures were rundown and marked for demolition. The architectural style that defined South Beach was no longer fashionable. Without intervention from a group of committed preservationists, who knows what the story might be today. Given the same chance, unloved Modernist structures now threatened with demolition could anchor the South Beaches of tomorrow.
Modernist residences often face threats similar to those of their larger commercial and institutional cousins. However, as preservation architect Andrew Phillips has noted, there’s a better chance a Modernist house will get restored. Phillips, who is also a board member of Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington, best known as Docomomo WEWA, says that “a house is sometimes the easiest sale when it comes to appreciation, simply because it usually only takes one person or a couple to recognize its value.”
In 2007, Michael McCarthy and Marcia Myers bought what is known as the Douglas House on the shore of Lake Michigan “without knowing how famous it was,” Myers says. To accommodate the steeply sloping site, architect Richard Meier created a design that is built into the hillside. The 1973 masterpiece integrates a spectacular architectural statement with reverence for the surroundings. The brilliant white structure combines dramatically sheer and expansive interior spaces with catwalks, ladders, nautical stacks, and decks.
When the couple first saw the house, Myers’ reaction was that “the place just looked really tired.” But once they learned more about Meier and the building, they realized they had purchased an icon of American architecture and recognized that restoring it was really the only option.
David and Darci Corner, who purchased the George Nelson–designed Kirkpatrick House in Kalamazoo, Michigan, tell a similar tale. The home’s streetside facade is a windowless wall of aluminum siding. “Unless you’re a real minimalist, there’s not a lot of attraction from the outside,” David says.
Inside, though, banks of windows offer secluded views of the surrounding trees. Nelson may be best known for his playful furniture pieces and for his tenure as the Herman Miller company’s director of design, responsible for bringing on stars such as Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi. But his groundbreaking Modernist architectural concepts include the family room and storage walls.
When Darci first saw the house, says David, she called it “a double-wide.” Still, the Kirkpatrick House is one of only two Michigan residences attributed to Nelson. The decision to purchase it was made, in part, simply to preserve that piece of Nelson’s legacy. “We decided that nobody is going to buy it unless they know what it is,” David says.
Modernist commercial buildings face additional challenges, suggests Phillips. Land-use patterns popular during the period in which they were built tend to conflict with current economically driven property use models. “Small-scale and multifamily residential and small office buildings are always endangered, because of the amount of land that they’re on and the size of the building,” says Phillips.
Saving Modernism is also, says Christina Morris, field director of the National Trust’s Los Angeles field office, a matter of vision.
“It’s a matter of will and sometimes just how much you are willing to be creative. I mean, there are always solutions. The question is: Are you willing to explore those solutions?
“It’s not that these buildings can’t be reused. It’s a matter of whether there is the will and the creativity and a desire to reuse them in [a] way [that will] keep them vital for another generation or many more generations.”
That may mean saving the building by completely redoing the interior, as in the case of the St. Louis flying saucer. Insisting on an uncompromising adherence to the original, suggests Morris, may cause more harm than good.
“When we insist upon the purity of preservation we are greatly limiting the options for the use of the building,” Morris says. “And that’s going to have to continue to be an internal debate among preservationists about what degree of change is acceptable to allow these buildings to have a new use or hopefully multiple uses over many, many decades.”
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