Monday, December 9, 2013

Save It, Maybe

Hello Everyone:

It's a very chilly Monday here in sunny Los Angeles.  On my morning run, I passed by a bank with a time and temperature display.  It read  a freezing 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).  No joke. Be that at as it may, we're going to go back to the topic of late-period modern.  The plight of the Houston Astrodome has put the spotlight on modern movement buildings from the sixties through eighties.  Some these buildings have become icons of their period, while others have fallen in to a state of neglect or are just plain unloved.  The big question is are they worth preserving?  In his article for Metropolis Magazine, Fred A. Bernstein states, "As the gap between the rich and middle class widens, the challenge to save midcentury modern buildings becomes more vexing."  Thus are they worth preserving?

The Stahl House (Case Study House #22)
Pasadena, Ca Pierre Koenig
As in real estate, three of the most important characteristics in historic preservation is location, location, location.  The Stahl House (Case Study House #22) by Pierre Koenig has the good fortune of being located in the city of Pasadena, instead of Brentwood or the Pacific Palisades, where a modest-sized house (1,200 square feet) on a large-sized lot would've been sporting a metaphoric "tear me down" sign.  According to Linda Dishman of the Los Angeles Conservancy, "Small houses on large are the greatest concerns."  The Conservancy score a big victory this year year when ten of the remain Case Study Houses, including the Stahl House were added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Unfortunately that does not save them from the wrecking ball but it does trigger additional reviews before the demolition crew shows up.  The additional reviews doesn't always deter the mega-rich, big money is the enemy of preservation.

The reason mid-century modern architect flourished in the fifties and sixties was their mission-create houses for average folks.  This mission also applied to schools, public libraries, medical facilities, and many other commercial buildings that served them.  The post-World War II society made modernism accessible to the masses, which is kind of what modernism was about to begin with.  As the middle class continues to shrink, the architecture that gave full form is in peril.  As the income gap grows, any building that doesn't accommodate the "one percent" is a potential date for demolition.
The Feldman House, 1953
Beverly Hills, Ca Gregory Ain

One case in point is the Feldman House by Gregory Ain.  This lovely gem of mid-century modernism is a comfortable 2,600 square feet located in Beverly Hills and can be yours for a bargain $4.7 million.  According to the listing agent, there are two types of potential buyers: those who want to restore but can't afford to buy it and those who can afford to buy it but want to replace it with something else.  At the time of the original publication of this article, the agent is optimist that that she found a buyer who wants to preserve it.  Think good thoughts.  Of course, popular media doesn't help the cause either when it splashes gaudy garish houses of of the rich and (in)famous.  One example was Architectural Digest's recent photo spread of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his supermodel wife Gisele B√ľndchen's 14,000 square-foot acid washed limestone pied-de-terre, which the magazine referred, somewhat ironically if you ask me, as "eco-conscious."  Every year the Conservancy hosts a party at a mid-century house to demonstrate just how livable modernism can be. This year's benefit was at the Brody House by A. Quincy Jones.

Prentice Women's Hospital, 1975
Chicago, Illinois Bertrand Goldberg
Developers and owners with very deep pockets isn't only a threat to houses.  "There is a naming opportunity," says Alan K. Cubbage, a spokesperson for Northwestern University in reference to the approximate $370 million biomedical reach tower set to go up on the site of the now-demolished Prentice Women's Hospital.  The Bertran Goldberg designed, clover-shaped medical facility is being demolished after preservationists lost a long and heated battle to save it.  A nine digit donation might've kept it standing.  Let me rephrase it, had the recession kept going, the building might still be standing.  The year 2013 did not get off to a good start for preservationists.  Richard Neutra's Cyclorama Building in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, barely fifty years old, was razed.  However, this year will end on a happy note, Edward Diana, the county executive who's been trying to tear down Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government center is leaving office and building outlasted him.  Sadly, voters in Houston, Texas turned down a plan to save the Astrodome (1965), a landmark onto itself not only for mid-century modernism but also for the city's association with space industry.  In New York City, there were some victories, such as the restoration of Albert Ledner's O'Toole
Atrium of the Bell Laboratories, 1962
Holmdel, New Jersey Eero Saarinen
Building (1964) in Greenwich Village.  However in Buffalo, New York, five sections of Paul Rudolph's Shoreline Apartments (1974) were scheduled for demolition to be replaced by newer apartment buildings.  Bell Laboratories (1962), designed by Eero Saarinen and enlarged by Kevin Roche, currently stands empty awaiting its fate.

Currently, the Bell Laboratories building is the hand of Ralph Zucker of Somerset Development, which has the option to by the complex.  The likelihood of finding a suitable buyer is very grim.  Unless a tech-company such as Apple abandons its Silicon Valley campus, the Bell Labs campus many never be a one-tenant building again.  For the past six years, Mr. Zucker has worked with the community to find an alternative to demolition.  Mr. Zucker has enlisted architect Alexander Gorlin whose job it'll be not only to restore the vast public spaces but also oversee the other firms designing spaces for the tenants. This may sound like a win for preservation which would not have happened had Mr. Zucker not agreed to sell 237 acres of Bell Labs property to residential developer Toll Brothers.  That deal would not have happened had the demand for high-end housing not increased.  The point here, is preservation doesn't occur in a vacuum.

Orange County Government Center, 1967
Goshen, New York Paul Rudolph
Real estate and bake sales are not the only way to raise money to preserve mid-century modern buildings.  In Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust used Kickstarter to crowd source the $50,000 needed to restore the Weidlinger House by Paul Weidlinger.  The house, located on the Cape Cod National Seashore, has been deteriorating since the nineties.  At the present, the Trust has been successful in raising more than the necessary funds, $68,246 to be exact, needed to restore the house.   This reflects, says Trust executive director Peter McMahon, "huge interest in mid-twentieth century modern architecture, especially with younger people."  Mr. McMahon hopes to further this interest with the May 2014 release of his book Cape Cod Modern: Mid-Century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape (Metropolis Books)

There's no question that words and images go along way in saving buildings.  The days of preservationists chaining themselves to buildings has given way to publishing books, blogs, and the social media.  For example, when Christopher Rawlins, a practicing architect, was looking for work when the Recession started in 2008, he chose to write about Horace Gifford.  Horace Gifford was responsible for a number of modernist homes in Fire Island Pines.  The late Mr. Gifford's architectural reputation soared with the publication of Mr. Rawlins book Fire Island Modernist (Metropolis Books). Recently, architect Charles Renfro, Diller Scorfido+Renfro, bought a Gifford-designed home in the Pines, boding well for preservation.  Truthfully, architects rarely have the money to buy important buildings and not all architects are preservationists.  There are numerous exceptions to this point but it is a hopeful sign when an architect does buy an older building, lesser known building with the intention of rehabilitating.

Journalists employ the power of the keyboard for the sake of the cause.  Writer Steven Price hopes that his forthcoming book, Over the Top: The Architectural History of Trousdale Estates, Beverly Hill, will do for the exclusive community known for its sprawling mid-century houses, what Mr. Rawlins' book did for Horace Gifford's Fire Island.  The book will discuss some the failure as well as the success, including the purchase of of a 1956 Harold Levitt -designed house by actors Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi.  Never underestimate the power of celebrity.  If a celebrity thinks an older building is important, then it must important.  Diane Keaton is the best-known celebrity preservationist who currently is the Los Angeles Conservancy's Vice-President of Education and Community Relations and sits on the Board of Trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ms. DeGeneres is an exception to the norm.  Financially she is part of the one-percent but she's also part of a minority that knows a good thing when it sees it.  Will those of who love our modern out shout the the skeptics?

St. Louis County Library: Lewis and Clark Branch, 1963
Frederick Dunn
You don't have to be a celebrity to out shout the skeptics.  In the city of St. Louis, Missouri, the Lewis and Clark Branch Library with its bold stained-glass windows, was slated for demolition.  Aaron Cohen Associates, literary consultants based in Croton-on-Hudson, New York concluded that the neighborhood needed a 20,000 square-foot facility, the library is 16,000 square-feet.  So far the library board has not seen fit to allocate funds to add another 4,000 square-feet to the building.  Lindsey Derrington, a historic preservation consultant and board member of Modern STL which is working to save the building, noted that Aaron Cohen Associates were asked to consider the architectural merits of the building.  "It's fifty years they deemed it obsolete."  Ouch.

For some modernist buildings, fifty years old is the equivalent of infancy.  Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building on the campus of Yale University just turned fifty this year and because of its connection to the venerable institution, it'll be around for years to come.  Unfortunately the same can't be said for lesser known buildings.  Thus it's best to pick your battles.  Sentiment can't be your guiding force in preservation.  While everyone has specific memories associated with places, sometimes you need to be more pragmatic.  In a recession, new development plans tend to get put on hold and rehabilitating older buildings merit serious consideration.  No one hopes for another recession but maybe, just maybe spending some of that money on an older building is a better idea, please.

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