Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Preserving Our Mid-Century Heritage

We walk around the hollowed out remnants of our old downtowns and wonder, “How did this happen? How could generations past have done this? How did they tear down all those wonderful 19th century buildings? Didn’t they know?” Yet I also wonder, will we ourselves bring the same thing into being?

It’s common for us to note the moral failings of the past. It’s less easy for us to imagine how future generations might find us wanting. Leslie Poles Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This betrays an all too common view of the past, a belief that the people who lived there were fundamentally different from you and me, that they are strangers to us, and that they represent a somehow more primitive stage in human existence. But the truth may be closer to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

I saw a blog posting about a redevelopment project that gave me pause to consider whether we stand on the edge of another great era of destruction of our architectural and cultural heritage, namely our mid-century modern buildings.

The proposal in question was to redevelop a small office building, in part by replacing the mid-century facade with something more contemporary. The reactions from readers of that post were almost unanimously positive. When I and a couple others suggested, not that the project was bad, but that there was nothing wrong with the old facade, and that we should take care not to destroy our mid-century modern heritage, there was push back even from people who are strong design advocates. The risk of damaging the architectural fabric of the city was dismissed, saying that the building was “run of the mill”. People were excited that there was finally some quality contemporary architecture coming to town.

I think this illustrates all too clearly how that great but irreplaceable stock of 19th century homes and commercial structures came to be destroyed. As one poster put it, “Mid-century modern architecture is now in the same danger zone chronologically that late 19th-century buildings were in during the urban renewal period. These buildings are old enough to be considered dated, but not old enough to be considered ‘historic.’ The exact same was true of all those buildings that got torn down in the 60’s and are now are so lamented by people in this forum.”

Exactly. Those buildings weren’t a hundred years old back then. They were considered functionally obsolete and they were in many cases in need of significant investment to upgrade. They were expensive to operate. They were no longer architecturally in fashion. And there was a large supply of them, most of them “run of the mill” or workaday type structures of little to no standalone significance. For every Penn Station or Marion County Courthouse demolished, dozens of unremembered buildings were razed.

What’s more, our cities were under economic pressure. In the post-war era there was a dramatic exodus from downtown and the traditional urban core, interestingly to new mid-century suburbs. Community leaders rightly were troubled by this and, like today, wanted to do whatever they could to pump new life into their dying cores. The study of downtown revitalization was in its infancy. Urban renewal (wholesale forced demolition of “blighted” areas in order to make room for parking lots or large modern developments such as the infamous public housing projects) was the urban planning orthodoxy of its day, supported by almost all “right thinking” people. The intellectual edifice for it was created by the likes of Le Corbusier and other “progressives” of the era. Cutting edge modern architects were in this up to their eyeballs.

Today all of these same things are true of mid-century modern homes and buildings. I’m not talking about the great signature buildings of the era: the Seagram Building, the First Christian Church, etc. Thankfully, I doubt well see many truly landmark structures destroyed, though probably some (especially Brutalist) ones will get hit. We’ve learned that lesson. No, I’m talking about the average structure: those homes in our aging suburbs, the bank buildings, the small offices. All that infill development that forms the core of the mid-century inventory in many places. These are often production buildings, of little note individually, but of great significance collectively.

Like the 19th century downtown before them, these buildings are obsolete. The homes are too small and require major upgrades. The commercial structures aren’t sexy and are out of fashion. They look dowdy and rundown even when well maintained because they seem dated. They’re expensive to operate, lacking, for example, energy efficient or green features.

And they are under enormous economic pressure. The inner ring suburban areas where these buildings are often concentrated are especially feeling the heat. Residents are fleeing to the boomburgs on the edge, and the businesses are following them. You see this decay in cities across America. I’ve said before this is one of the great challenges of our era. I’d argue that suburban revitalization is a much harder challenge than urban revitalization. And there are no proven strategies yet. I spoke with a neighborhood group in just such a place that was very eager to be put in touch with good examples around the country of how to improve areas like theirs, but I wasn’t able to help all that much. (Stay tuned to this blog on that matter, however). It’s not difficult to see how any development, even destructive redevelopment, would be viewed as positive, and that these neighborhoods could fall prey to the next failed utopia designed by “experts”.

When you see your neighborhood commerical district decaying, when houses are starting to show signs of lack of maintenance, when people are scared about the future of their neighborhood, saving “old” buildings, particularly those everyday ones, is simply not a priority. As the problems of inner ring suburbs become more of a national crisis, the pressure will only ratchet up even more and the balance swing even further in favor of destructive redevelopment. Especially as the suburban form is considered obsolete and unsustainable by “progressives” today just as old small buildings on a gridiron street pattern were once considered obsolete by yesterday’s generation.

As for mid-century infill in the central city, those buildings likewise are not viewed as important and often offer some of the rare redevelopment opportunities because all the older buildings are protected by historic districts or landmarkings. To the extent that the pre-war buildings are protected, this puts more pressure on the unprotected post-war ones.

It is easy to see how, in almost every individual case, the mid-century building in question will be considered expendable due to its lack of individual significance. And then one day we’ll wake up to find they are largely gone or mauled beyond recognition. If you’ve ever seen some of the horrible facade “improvements” done to 19th century buildings in years past, I think you can imagine what that might look like. This is what I mean by the ordinary spaces being as important as the special ones. This is what makes a real urban fabric instead of a few landmarks sticking out of an urban desert.

Today, it is difficult for us to appreciate and see the significance of these structures. We’re prisoners of our own age. It is incumbent for us to be able to step outside ourselves, to see us as people 50 or 100 years from now might. What might they value in buildings? Might they not see the mid-century period as historic in its own right? It’s easy to imagine that they could. Indeed, it seems rather likely.

This is a legitimate conflict of values and an area where trade-offs are necessary. I firmly believe that the world belongs in usufruct to the living. The people of the past have no right to bind us, nor we no right to bind our children. We have to use our own best judgement about the right decisions, accepting that we’re going to get some wrong. Yet part of that means trying to be a good steward, of taking care to try to leave our cities better places for our children and grandchildren than they were for us. This means finding a way to balance the legitimate needs of neighborhoods in distress with the long term goal of preserving every era of architectural and cultural history for future generations to benefit from.

This is where I think we as urban thinkers, architects, economic developers, planners, etc. need to get creative and think hard about how to make these buildings into redevelopment assets and change the perception of them by the public at large. To help resolve that conflict in a positive way. I’ve said that the strategic dilemma facing the inner ring suburbs is that they are selling an obsolete, older generation model of the same basic suburban product as the edge, but with higher taxes, more crime, and worse schools. That’s an unsustainable situation. But invert the world. Figure out how to make those old, “obsolete” buildings an asset the edge sprawl can’t match.

Again, we’ve seen this movie before. It was a handful of passionate supporters who started buying up the old homes and buildings near our downtowns and renovating them, sparking much of the revitalization of our inner cities. Similarly, a new generation of people passionate for mid-century architecture could lead the way in reclaiming these structures for the present, and pumping new life into these faltering neighborhoods as well.

I’ll give one example. Check out the blog Atomic Indy. It’s dedicated to all things mid-century modern in Indy. It’s published by a couple who bought an old mid-century home near 46th and Arlington in Indianapolis for cheap and are renovating it into their dream home. I know at least one other young architect who moved to that area as well. Could this be the start of a more positive trend? We’ll see. Many of these homes are well-maintained today, but are occupied by long time owners who are getting older and there is not a next generation waiting in the wings. If new blood isn’t attracted into them as the current generation of residents disappears, it’s a recipe for ruin in broad tracts of America today. Convincing people of the value of mid-century architecture is a way to not only help preserve the city, but for people get quality architecture and a suburban lifestyle at a reasonable price.

Let us hope that we show that we really have advanced and learned something. Let us hope that we’re equal to the task and ultimately merit praise not opprobrium from our successors.

Here are photos of the development proposal I mentioned. The new renderings aren’t bad. The old building isn’t anything noteworthy. The facade changes could probably be changed at some point. In fact, someone tells me that’s actually a 19th century building with a mid-century facade tacked on. It’s not my intent to criticize the specific proposal. In fact, redevelopment on that block is very welcome. But the tragedy could be that, while in each individual case the decision is in favor of demolition or destructive redevelopment, but taken as a whole those individual actions lead us to a place we’d rather not end up.

First, the building as it. It’s the one in the middle. Ask yourself what your reaction to this building is. Imagine how people 50 years ago might have reacted to this building when it was yet another 19th century generic facade.

Even I would probably suggest that the ground level needs some work.

Here’s the proposed rendering. While not a super-star project, it seems like a solid design.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation

21 Responses to “Preserving Our Mid-Century Heritage”

  1. Dave Reid says:

    To me what is important is that building isn’t coming down so that one day they might build a new building. By redeveloping the existing structure that can return vibrancy and maintain the urban fabric.

  2. Firewoman says:

    Good blog and very thought-provoking. I’ve often wondered how our past generations could let such stunning old buildings be torn down. I think it’s a tragedy, but maybe I do see now how it could happen. I’m not a huge fan of mid century modern, but I can see it’s relevance to the very fabric of our city. What I loved so much about London was all the different building styles and how they all weave together to create a multilayer city. When society is always tearing down and replacing things instead of working with what was there before we lose some depth, not to mention history, and even artistry. Old buildings seem to have so much more detail to them and it’s a shame to lose that.

  3. thundermutt says:

    Exactly, Firewoman. Maintaining a mix of styles without obliterating all the examples of one particular style adds tremendous richness and depth to the urban tapestry.

    Walk around the block from 9th to 10th, Meridian to Penn. There’s a little of everything there: modern corporate park (Library addition), old restored apartment, art deco/art moderne commercial structure, faux-Tudor, mid-century modern offices, early 20th-century terra-cotta facade…its richness is in part its history.

  4. Graeme says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that everyone in the city should work hard to preserve our stock of modern buildings. But certainly we can’t (or shouldn’t) save every single building ever put up. We live in cities not museums. If we put the criteria for preservation too low, then we risk forcing our viewpoint into irrelevance in the public realm. There must be a balance.

    Commonly used criteria include whether or not historic events occurred in the building, whether it showcases a new or well-done aesthetic quality, or whether it contributes to the overall historic character of a region. Some buildings will meet these criteria and some won’t. Some will meet them and still be demolished. It is unfortunate, but inevitable.

    This particular building is only getting a facade makeover, not being torn down. I would suggest that this is an acceptable treatment for this situation. I’m not trying to suggest that every building with a non-original facade deserves no protection. Indeed, some facade improvements have become more important than the original structures. But in this case, I personally feel the upgrade is warranted.

  5. thundermutt says:

    I think it’s not a design upgrade, Graeme. It’s just “21st Century Modern” vs. “Mid-century Modern”. We’re trained to think of “new = better”, and that’s just not true. In this case it could just be a waste of resources.

    Drive by 1725 and 1819 North Meridian. Each got a new facade sometime in the 70’s. Look at nearby “original” facades: proof that newer ain’t better.

    I’d grant that MAYBE passive solar screening and new windows would improve the E. Washington building from an energy-use point of view, and that’s probably the only thing that would get me to favor the proposal. But they could probably accomplish the same thing with a less-dramatic window-system replacement.

  6. Graeme says:

    Upgrades can refer to many things, not only design aesthetics. As you allude to yourself, there may be energy concerns. Maybe the existing facade was notorious for water or wind infiltration? The point is that a lot of older buildings have problems that cannot be addressed by simple procedures. Mid-century modern buildings are among the worst offenders when it comes to problems due to architectural detailing and energy usage.

  7. baz_mcm says:

    Dig the post. Happen to concur. Deeply.

    Indy has an impressive collection of mid century modern homes. A collection typically reserved for California suburbs. A collection worth preserving.

    Consider Avriel Shull., female mid century modern architect. Some of Indy’s most striking residences bare her name. She’s Indy’s own Eichler. Historic registry rumors have been echoing for years with no action. Check out the Thornhusrt tract (one block off of Carmel’s arts district). Now imagine it gone. Its place taken by a vinyl village or strip mall. Shame on us.

    As for mid century’s relevance to today’s modern design – open an issue of Dwell. Any issue. Flip through those pages. You’re now looking at images staged with furniture by Knoll, Herman Miller, Nelson, Noguchi, Saarinen. These mid century designs are just as relevant in today’s modern spaces as they were 50-60 years ago. Good design is timeless.

    Atomic Indy is my humble attempt at bringing interest and relevance to Indy’s mid century modern architecture. I’m not alone. People who “get it” are uniting. Stay tuned.



  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Graeme, I certainly don’t think the city should try to save every mid-century building either. That’s what I mean by the world belonging to the living. Just because previous generations built something doesn’t obligate us to keep it. But I’d hope we’d find the value in preserving some of the past. I’m skeptical of policy tools to accomplish this though. Someone recently said that historic districts saved old neighborhoods in Indy. Maybe some in the early days. But today a neighborhood is only declared historic after it has already been saved. Once enough yuppie rehabbers move in, they get the city to make sure nothing will ever trouble their little slice of Mayberry. So if a mid-century district ever gets some official protection, it will likely be because it has already been rescued.

    On the other hand, your criteria are exactly my point. How many mid-century structures in Indianapolis could meet them? Virtually none.

    And there’s the rub. In each individual case it seems a no brainer to demolish or alter. But at the end of the day we end up destroying a body of work.

    As I said, I’m not opposing the particular project in question. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it at all. On the other hand, I, like thunder, question whether or not the proposed changes are an “upgrade”. Granted that there may be mechanical or other problems with the building, those have to be fixed no matter what you do. It has nothing to do with the aesthetic treatment of the facade. The proposal in question might look good now because it is in keeping with contemporary trends. But like the existing facade, it will soon find itself looking dated as well.

    The key is to be able to convince people to see the value in these structures and their aesthetics and to show them how to turn it into an asset.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    I spoke with a neighborhood group in just such a place that was very eager to be put in touch with good examples around the country of how to improve areas like theirs, but I wasn’t able to help all that much. (Stay tuned to this blog on that matter, however).

    Does the recent revitalization of Jersey City and Hoboken count, or do they count as 19th century cities?

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    They aren’t mid-century exactly, but they are good examples of inner ring suburbs that are seeing redevelopment. The question regarding those places would be, are the lessons of how they improved themselves applicable to other places? It seems to me from a distance that both places benefited from people and businesses getting priced out of Manhattan and moving across the river. Probably not a recipe most cities can follow. But I’m open to learning more about this for sure.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I value everyone’s comments, and will begin by noting that buildings in general express our societies values and share with us how owners and developers conceive of the world around them.

    Mid-Century Modern buildings were about exploration, they represented a time in our history where we were proud and our country had confidence, our buildings in part gave us hope as the 50’s were an age of prosperiety and global prescence. Many buildings and homes alike were mostly well built and are examples of new technotics, techniques, and materiality.

    Midcentury modern homes were also about utilizing space, as roofs and ceilings were highly considered, verus what we’ve been largly dealt and offered today.

    Our street corners were rich with lobbies that held the corner with dignity and displayed an attention to publicness and beauty.

    What should be asked of this design is how its execution represents our Indianapolis society? We are at a time when innovation is stagnent, economies weak, our local companies and firms have closed off research initiatives in lieu of profit and efficiency, and more importantly we’ve errected a large gabled roofed house as a sporting facility.

    The facade of this building to me is the most appropriate for where we are at, as it represents much of how are city feels about itself, and to me that is mediocrity (a.k.a. da middle).

    This design was probably completed in 20 minutes top in sketchup…no sun studies were done, no model was built to look at how shadows may effect the space, no real rigor was taken to see how it may be beautiful or inform us as to how we want to live or embue a new language about modernity.

    I’ll reference the french writer, Stendhal who said, “to think of something as beautiful…is to see in it the promise of happiness”

    This design in my heart is cold and clinical in its stature and has taught us nothing of the critical importance of today or 1950.

    In my mind, will be richer if they rehab the original look perhaps with new energy efficient glass and storefront. At least this way it conserves beauty of a different time and reminds us of how far we have to go to really find happiness in architecture.

  12. Donna says:

    I’ll happily give up this building if it means we can get the Zipper Building back!

    I know, I know: the Zipper Building was widely hated by people. But here is an analogy: rumor is the recording industry decides which songs to market hard by doing market research. People listen to a pop song and rate it 1-5 based on liking it a lot or hating it a lot. A 3 means they don’t care one way or another. The recording industry then pushes the songs that get a lot of 3’s, figuring that no one will respond badly to it, rather than the songs that are either actively disliked *or* liked. Both extremes are considered risky, while middle-of-the-road is a safe economic course.

    The Zipper Building, if subjected to this scenario, would likely have scored a lot of 5’s – people just thought it was weird and ugly, they couldn’t get it – as well as a lot of 1’s – mainly among architects, designers of all kinds, and creatives, etc.

    To get back to topic a bit: the everyday Modern buildings may or may not deserve to be saved, but the wacky, bizarre, difficult-to-love Modern buildings almost definitely deserve to be!

  13. The Urbanophile says:

    Donna, that’s a great point. I didn’t care for the zipper building, but it was funky. Funky can be good.

    The same is true of product development. Do you try to go for middle of the road and avoid offense or take a stand? The autoextremist would tell you that one reason Detroit failed was that it designed cars by focus group.

    If you don’t take a stand for something and risk turning people off, you’ll never turn people on either. I’m reminded of what David Hoppe wrote this week about the airport art. Right now, middle of the road, take no risks is what our mindset is, for good or ill.

  14. Crocodileguy says:

    Wow, having been in Los Angeles for most of the past 5 years, I missed the facade replacement of the zipper building. Now I’m majorly bummed.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I worked in the zipper building for years….I love it. It is awful what they did to that building.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Could someone please remind me where the zipper building is? Some pics would be great to compare the before/after. Thanks!!

  17. Anonymous says:

    I would love to see more examples of mid-century to continue this ‘what should we do with this STYLE’ of architecture discussion. It seems to me that particular focus tends to lean toward style more than the context (of a building). I wonder how the featured building would look if it was situated on the street corner? I remember someone mentioning mid-century modern architecture opened up the facade a bit to engage the street more than previous styles. Any thoughts?

  18. thundermutt says:

    Most of the MCM buidings I can think of do (or did) engage the street well. They often used large plate-glass window systems on the first floor.

    There’s a MCM cluster on Meridian: Grain Dealers, Nichols Mortgage, 1815, 1827/29, IPS New Beginnings (former Clark Business College, an outstanding MCM example), Citizens Energy. WISH-TV is more “modern” than “MCM”, but nonetheless engages the street well. (However, Barth Electric around the corner on Illinois is a contra-example.) Further up, in the 2400 block, there is another mini-cluster north of the Kentucky Fried Taco Bell.

    There are even more MCM buildings north of Fall Creek to 40th, but the setbacks of those buildings change their relationship to the sidewalk.

    With today’s emphasis on transparency of building fronts, MCM generally offers a good example in dense urban areas.

  19. thundermutt says:

    Zipper/Broadbent Building is the building between Virginia and Washington.

  20. baz_mcm says:

    Does anyone know what happened to the great clock that was on the narrow front of the zipper building? Had allusions of trying to salvage it for some purpose. Hope it survived.



  21. thundermutt says:

    On desecration of mid-century work Witold Rybczynski writes…

    Goodbye, 2 Columbus Circle:
    A refurbished New York landmark fails to preserve the spirit of the original.

    Link to story:

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures