Spotlight on Issue 27: Modern History

Kevin McMahon writes on the growing appeal of modernist architecture, and preservationists’ efforts to get buildings from the ’50s and ’60s onto historic registers.

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This article appears in Issue 27 of Next American City. To subscribe, click here. To see a list of newsstands, click here.

In a lecture last July, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger stated that historic preservation battles will increasingly be “fought on the grounds of modern landmarks — those buildings that were constructed in the years after the preservation movement rose to become a major force, those buildings that many of us, myself included, grew up disliking — even believing were the enemy.” Indeed, many preservation ordinances require that a building be at least 50 years old to be considered “historic,” meaning that buildings constructed in the 1950s and ’60s are or soon will be eligible for historic registers, lists of buildings determined to be eligible for tax credits and, in some cases, protection from demolition.

Popularized in the U.S. by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the modern movement sought to bring a sort of universality into the built environment. It was all about the expression of the age, largely characterized by technology and materials. Architects wanted cities and buildings to function like machines, a goal that streamlined, simple forms and structural clarity accomplished with the help of steel, concrete and glass.

But modernist buildings have not traditionally been considered an important part of our cities’ fabric or our architectural heritage — if part of it at all. The country’s collective ambivalence toward modernist architecture has resulted in the destruction of countless landmarks of modern design. Goldberger thinks this is because “there was no modern equivalent of the brownstone, or the exquisite colonial houses of our landscape, or of any other style whose average buildings everyone could jointly admire and feel comfortable about preserving.” Although this attitude is beginning to change — slowly — advocates of modern architecture across the country are fighting battles to prove that modern can be historic.

Several midcentury architectural landmarks appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2009 list of endangered buildings, including the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, built in 1966 and designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki. It’s an elegant 19-story building with a sweeping glass and concrete facade. The hotel has hosted celebrities and presidents, and was once known as the West Coast White House, being a favorite retreat of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

It therefore shocked preservationists when the hotel’s owner, Next Century Associates, announced plans in 2008 to replace the building with two 600-foot mixed-use towers. Many were disappointed at the lack of consideration the developers gave to the hotel’s historical status and aesthetic appeal. In addition, it was a perfectly fine, functioning building that could easily be adapted to a new use or rehabilitated. The developers, though caught off guard, ultimately heeded the outcry: In February Next Century reached a deal with the National Trust and the Los Angeles Conservancy to incorporate the existing hotel into their project.

Not all outcomes have been so successful, however. In Philadelphia the fate of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, a small midcentury hospital, remains uncertain. According to John Gallery, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the Hillman Center is an unconventional building because it combines modern form with high-quality materials normally associated with earlier classical buildings (in other words, it’s not one of those concrete block eyesores). Rather, it utilizes a warm orange limestone for its upper stories and sleek, polished granite on the ground floor. “It’s not a flat wall like many modernist buildings,” Gallery says, “but an eye-catching composition of angled forms.”

All of this could be lost very soon, however. A Chicago developer has proposed to replace the four-story building with a 32-story apartment tower. Gallery and others have objected not only to the demolition of the Hillman Center but also to the proposed building’s scale; they argue that a tower would be incongruous in a neighborhood of low-rise townhouses, churches and schools.

But apart from concern about the new building’s height, there has not been much local opposition to demolition, except from the preservation and architecture communities. In the past, significant public outcry has often derailed demolition projects, but local residents don’t see the building’s historical significance — as they might, for example, see that of the 19th-century gothic revival church across the street. But Gallery sees Philadelphia as a museum of architecture. “You want an example of every style or period,” he says. “The public doesn’t understand that the Hillman Center is one of these museum pieces — it’s one of the most important examples of midcentury architecture in Philadelphia.”

In New York the future of the Donnell Library Center remains in doubt. The Donnell, an elegantly spartan five-story concrete building in Midtown Manhattan, was completed in 1955 as a branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL). But in 2008 the library announced that the property had been sold to Orient-Express Hotels for $59 million, and would be demolished. Some may disagree that the building is visually appealing, but few could argue against its benefit as a community space. In fact, interest in the library soared once the demolition plans were announced. Although the initial deal with Orient-Express fell through and the shuttered library remains in the hands of NYPL, plans for its sale have been renewed.

What will it take for the public to gain a better appreciation of midcentury architecture? Time, most likely. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that even the architectural community began to appreciate Victorian buildings, for example. “To one generation,” Goldberger says, “the excesses of Victorian architecture that we now so treasure were the height of vulgarity. To another generation, the zestful lines of art deco and art moderne were mere commercial expedience, not real architecture. Now we value both, and struggle to preserve them.” Until the time comes when there is a wider understanding of how modernist buildings contribute to the architectural legacy of our cities, we will have to rely on the efforts of advocacy groups to save our museums of architecture.

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Tags: new york cityphiladelphialos angelesbuilt environmentarchitecturehistoric preservationlibraries

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