Friday, February 5th, 2010

Replay: 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 leading-edge thinkers of the era.

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. 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 commercial 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 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.

This post originally ran on January 8, 2009.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation, Public Policy, Sustainability

12 Responses to “Replay: Preserving Our Mid-Century Heritage”

  1. Terryl says:

    Thank you for re-posting this!

    I’m a huge fan of the Atomic Indy blog, and it is always a day-maker when I come across more people who are consciously making an effort to keep the authenticity of historic architecture (even if “historic” sometimes means mid-50’s).

    Keep the fight alive! 😉

  2. Great post. Living in Phoenix, which has a large stock of MCM architecture, often in declining neighborhoods, I’m especially aware of issues raised above.

    To one of your points, I wanted to let you know that there is hope, at least in my community. I’m a a 30-something who is in the process of restring a 1950’s house in to our MCM dream home, as well as the President of our neighborhood association which is helping older residents maintain there properties and newer resident learn about the history of the neighborhood and the significance of the architecture. i’m also part of a community in Phoenix called Modern Phoenix ( that is quickly building a new generation of affectionados for this era of architecture.

    However, as an urbanist AND a MCM fan, I’m often torn between my love to the design and architecture, and the often unfriendly orientation of these buildings on the urban fabric, especially in the corporate structures. For instance, I love the design of most Le Coubuiuser’s architecture and furniture, but share in Jane Jacobs’ critique of his urbanist theories). Is it possible to reconcile these passions?i

  3. Atomic Indy is doing a great job of creating a community of like-minded MCM appreciating folks. What’s also needed is a timeout of destruction so that we can gain an understanding of the importance of mid-century architecture as a design period. It’s hard to appreciate buildings we grew up with. Much like it’s hard to evaluate a presidency until a few decades have passed, it’s hard to evaluate the importance of a period of architecture until time allows us to understand it and separate the good from the bad. That’s why it’s so important, as you said, to save these structures now so that time can allow us the distance to really see their beauty. Lots of people hated the old Second Empire Marion County Courthouse, until it was torn down and the new City/County building went up. Now most people lament the loss of the old one and hate the design of the new one. Best to take a step back and really think long and hard about this one before we make the same mistake twice. And that’s true about most MCM architecture. Let’s see how it holds up over time.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This issue could probably be settled by sticking to a few criteria before removing a piece from the MCM time period (or any for that matter.)

    (1) Ask the question if what is replacing a MCM building is truly better, not just “newer.” Many people don’t know the difference. For example, a parking lot in a small city downtown would not be better than MCM bank or library. Neither would a taco bell, shell station, or CVS.

    (2) Is this a worthy piece of the time period or is it forgetable? That same bank building may itself violate several features of good urban design and have a 50 year history of being a brutal eye sore. In that case replacing it with something that accomplishes the goals of increasing density, engaging the street, complementing adjoining structures, etc may be the better option.

    (3) Is anything else in the area representative of this time period? A city like Phoenix maybe could lose some of the forgetable pieces from this period, however, a city with a only a few MCM examples, ought to think twice.

    I couldn’t agree more with the invert the world concept for offering a real alternative to greenfield development. Such has been done with some success, but for the moderately impatient types like myself, too slowly.

  5. Anonymous says:

    ^Those sound like commom sense criteria. Maybe we could also add that renovations be done in a way as to be reversible if future generations want to restore the building to its original style.

    Another point to consider, why does the preservation conversation always start around the year 1890? Are we not glad that cities were free to tear down buildings from the 1840’s to build those that are so beloved today? Most of our preserved historic districts represent the 3rd or 4th complete rebuilding of their respective areas. What if people in 1890 had been told they had to wait another generation to rebuild? We wouldn’t have some of the grand city centers we have today. I like preservation too, I also find it a tough position to defend.

  6. Anonymous says:

    here’s an interesting case from St. Louis: a building that originally built in the early 20th century then re-clad in modernist style in the 50’s. It was recently listed on the Nat’l register of Historic Places and given tax credits because of the re-cladding, as opposed to the original design.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    anon 12:52, I agree that we have the right to use our own judgment. I like historic preservation as a general rule, but it is only one of the values that I hold. That’s what I mean about the past generations not being able to bind us. We’ve got to make our decisions, hopefully good ones. I think that means we preserve a good bit of our past, but I don’t think a “no casualties” policy is realistic.

  8. George Smart says:

    We lost the most famous modernist house in Raleigh NC, the Catalano House, in 2001. By the time there was any public support for preservation, the house was too far gone, a victim of neglect, abandonment, vandalism, weather, and time. To save other houses from similar fates, our nonprofit has documented almost every mid-century modern in the state. You can’t save something that no one knows about. We track the most endangered houses the moment they go on the market. And we issue national alerts for those that are particularly vulnerable. Recently our efforts helped save a pristine MCM with a target on its back: golf course location, small square footage, empty lot next door, and the owner in a senior care facility. After a full court press, by the beginning of 2010, it has two wonderful, appreciative new owners. Preserving MCM can work but we have to completely rethink strategies. You can’t wait until the 11th hour.

  9. Thanks to Yuri for bringing this article to my attention so I could send it out to our tribe, the MoPhos. [Modern Phoenicians] is paying very close attention to the topics you bring light to, and are well aware that we are The New Guard for the Midcentury Era. What is most frustrating is that many of those who lived through the era firsthand are aging or have passed on. Their memories are fading.

    Part of our responsibility as preservationists is to document as much as we can while our sources are still vigorous. I urge all of you involved in the Good Fight to not delay on that primary source interview you’ve been putting off. Record now, edit later.

    Alison King

  10. John Morris says:

    That’s really the bottom line. Most of these buildings are at their core anti urban and pretty hard to integrate back into a really dense viable mixed use city. I’m not saying many can’t stay like many of the fabulous houses like the Frank House in Pittsburgh and some of the very well designed apartment buildings we have in Shadyside.

    The most important thing is always how well the urban structure and community fit together. If buildings detract from that in a big way–like perhaps 75% of Brutalist structures they probably should go.

    Also, there’s a lot to be said for pushing buildings beyond their original intent. I think there’s a restaurant at the bottom of Lever House now and a lot of Park Ave and Midtown buildings have put in retail and other uses that were strictly designed out, creating a much more vibrant urban fabric.

    The very fact that an area with a lot of these buildings is so in need of “revitalization”, is usually a clue that the buildings should go or be radically changed.

    I really don’t think this is a fad at all. In fact, given just how economically disastrous many of these buildings have been, like Allegheny Center in Pittsburgh. The question is why they have stuck around.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    A gentle poke to Alison King: everyone is “aging”, even the young. Those of us who lived our childhoods in places filled with MCM houses, schools, libraries, medical offices, banks, and shopping centers are not as old as you might think. And we are, as a generation, at a reflective stage of life. The youngest boomers are now pushing 50, and could offer the greatest pool of supporters for MCM preservation.

    One of the really hard issues for MCM buildings is to incorporate energy-saving technology in the commercial structures. The roof deck is a relatively easy place to add insulation, even when there is an exposed tongue-and-groove wood ceiling laid over laminated beams. But the curtain-walls of the MCM “originals” are pathetic when it comes to heat transfer (both loss and gain). You can’t just put in new windows; it often requires a whole new building face, and that’s not strict preservation.

  12. William King says:

    Atomic Indy is doing a great job of creating a community of like-minded .The past generations not being able to bind us.

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