By Roberta Lane
The PLF blog will feature a series of posts over the next six weeks exploring modernist sites and efforts to preserve them. Join our top-notch blog contributors as they take you from Tucson’s Sunshine Mile to Googie coffeeshops. We think you will enjoy the journey.
When making small talk at a party, it is hard enough sometimes explaining the field of historic preservation. Most times people get it if you talk about saving Olmsted parks or adobe missions. But once you move to Brutalist civic buildings, ranch houses, and Doo Wop motels, you often lose them. You likely face puzzlement or even slight derision. “But that’s not even historic,” protests your new acquaintance. Should you try to convert the misguided soul? Or simply cut and run, leaving the party-goer to a world in which our appreciation of history only extends to the 1930s?
I hope you opt for the first choice. There are many ways to draw people into a new appreciation for mid-20th-century historic resources, and in the coming weeks we plan to explore them in a series of blog posts written by preservationists who are working to save landscapes and structures from this period. You will read about the broad diversity of resources that make up our recent past and discover creative, sound strategies for converting hearts and minds to a new recognition and understanding of modernism.
As preservationists we are accustomed to analyzing whether a place is architecturally significant or historically significant (or both). We think about the unique values and narratives that places can convey to future generations. But to save examples of modernism and the recent past, it is equally important to evaluate how these places can connect to people in the present. While we do this to some extent with all kinds of historic resources, this approach has special urgency for mid-20th-century resources.
Many people perceive places built during living memory, or just before, differently than they do older resources, and too often value them less. This greater appreciation of older resources can be like the special care one has for a fragile heirloom, protected with pride as a rare survivor from a long-ago age. Older resources fill out the historical narrative we learned in school. Older architectural styles also have had time to become established as design canon—parts of our national backdrop—and to become symbols of permanence and refinement.
Mid-20th-century historic resources, in comparison, are too often misunderstood and dismissed. To many people they represent the past that we only just shed, a past near enough to feel mundane, exhausted, or challenging, and too familiar to have earned a place on our timeline of history. Mid-20th-century designs departed significantly from earlier traditions—sometimes radically—and used new materials in innovative ways. Furthermore, the history of the period can be messy, contested, or for some, still painful.
Fortunately, fan bases have sprung up for most types of 20th-century historic resources, with active movements to preserve diners, gas stations, geodesic domes, roadside attractions, airports, high modernist homes, and early examples of tract housing. Some of the people involved in these efforts are driven by a general preservation sensibility, but other motivations include nostalgia, rising appreciation of a retro-cool aesthetic, environmental conservation concerns, and the desire to manage community change and connect with a place’s distinctive story.Preservation projects involving modernist or recent past resources around the country have shown that we can convert many doubters, if we focus on making these resources relevant to them. Sites significant for their history lend themselves most directly to this approach. Louis Armstrong’s modest house in Corona, Queens, New York City, is presented as it was in the early 1970s. The house museum captivates visitors from around the world, who move through the preserved living spaces, hearing anecdotes from the lives of Louis and Lucille Armstrong, as well as personal reflections Armstrong recorded himself. It adds up to a complex experience that relates to visitors’ daily lives, while also portraying a significant American story.
But even places renowned for their midcentury design hold great stories. A favorite place in my hometown of Lakeland, Fla., is the Southgate Center, a shopping center little changed since it was built in 1957, and dominated by an eye-catching sign. Even to a kid, it grandly evoked a booming, ambitious time in the history of the area’s development. As a young teenager, I was overjoyed when it was chosen to be the site of pivotal scenes in Tim Burton’s cult classic Edward Scissorhands in 1990. Rightly or wrongly, I suspect that passing on that factoid to community members will do more to keep people interested in preserving that sign than describing its place in the history of midcentury commercial architecture ever could.
As preservationists we sometimes get discouraged by those who dismiss places because the aesthetics of that particular period has fallen out of favor. It is easy to fall in the trap of arguing that a place is an important example of its style, maybe concentrating solely and broadly on the Modern Movement, for example, without also sharing the human stories associated that particular place.
Not long ago, I was with a colleague who was taking photographs of an elegant Paul Rudolph design, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y. The threatened Brutalist building is situated across a road from a row of meticulously preserved Victorian homes. Not one, but two people entering the building stopped and asked variations of “why are you guys taking pictures of such an ugly building?” We seized the opportunity and gave these folks our elevator speech, describing the big parade that the town held when the new, bold building opened in 1967.
Even some of the most unloved places from that era can help us understand the advances in technology, massive cultural and political shifts, and new design approaches. These places can also remind us of the important ways the human experience has not fundamentally changed over time. By uncovering and emphasizing the human dimension in the story of a place, we can enliven any effort to preserve a significant design, and we can quell conflicts of taste.
Significant historic resources of the mid-20th century can win popular support when preservationists recognize and address specific sources of resistance, and raise awareness about the unique, irreplaceable connections to history that these places provide.
Five Strategies to Preserve a Midcentury Modern Mecca
The Sunshine Mile: Saving a Commercial Modernist Shopping District
No Longer Invisible: Googie Coffeeshops
What Makes Modernism So Different?
Saving the Modern Century: Future Visions for Historic Preservation
Roberta Lane is a Senior Field Officer and Regional Attorney in the New York field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.