What Makes Modernism So Different?

Posted on: February 25th, 2014 by Special Contributor

by Beth Wiedower and Chris Morris

The PLF blog features a series of posts 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 coffee shops. We think you will enjoy the journey.

Are the advocacy tactics to save modern buildings the same as those for older, more traditional, buildings? Or do we need a completely different approach? These are important questions, and they cut right to the heart of the matter for anyone who’s trying to save a building or site of a more recent vintage. Unfortunately there isn’t a simple “yes or no” answer. The more accurate answer is both yes and no.

Prentice Hospital, detail.

Prentice Hospital, detail. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation led two very public and contentious campaigns to save prominent modern buildings. The efforts to preserve and reuse the Astrodome in Houston and Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago relied on strategies that would be familiar to most people in the preservation community. But these campaigns also broke new ground in their attempts to reach new audiences and sway elected officials. This Preservation Leadership Forum series on Modernism is the perfect time to look back on these campaigns; gain a better understanding of the goals, tactics, and triggers; and share some lessons learned from two of the biggest preservation battles involving Modernist buildings in recent history. (See the end of this post for the rest of the articles in this series.)

Astrodome: “Show Some Love for the Dome”

The National Trust’s involvement in the plight of the Astrodome came quickly and publicly. After the Astrodome (once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”) was included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2013, the property’s owner, Harris County, called for proposals to save and reuse Houston’s iconic landmark. A plan to rehabilitate the Dome to create a one-of-a-kind special events space rose to the top of the pile as feasible, fundable, and (barely) financially viable.  And it was to be put to a public vote in just four short months.

Interior of the Astrodome | Credit:  Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Interior of the Astrodome | Credit: Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Emotions run high in Houston when it comes to the Astrodome. Locals love it. They don’t have to be prompted to recall their favorite memories of Astros or Oilers games, rock concerts, rodeos, and the volunteer efforts to help refugees following hurricane Katrina. But others feel strongly that reinvesting in old sports facilities—even the majestic kind like the Astrodome—is not what Houston is about, and they want the Dome demolished. The Dome’s place among modern architecture and its significance as the world’s first domed stadium was mostly irrelevant to both supporters of reuse and those calling for its demise.

Aware that passions run high, the National Trust crafted a campaign to save the Dome built around an emotional appeal. Playing to the memories of people who have experienced the Astrodome, the Trust developed a campaign to encourage people to vote in favor of saving and reusing the structure by challenging them to re-imagine a new Dome that they could once again visit and enjoy. A venue that would embody Houston’s can-do spirit and innovative environment in the 21st century as it did in 1965 when the Astrodome opened. The Trust created a Dome-on-wheels, aptly named the Dome Mobile, and drove the truck around Houston for two weeks prior to the general election to engage with voters and supporters. Outfitted with Astroturf, a dugout bench, and stadium seats from the Eighth Wonder itself, the Dome Mobile played on people’s memory and connections to the structure, not the architectural significance or its role as a leader in modern design and engineering.

Sure the Dome Mobile team used the words, “modern marvel” in its outreach. “Space-age” Houston was often quoted by the team as they interacted with Dome lovers across the city and county. But the team purposefully did not emphasize the Astrodome’s role in defining modern design for the masses. A sports stadium with Lucite skylights and cantilevered poured-concrete entrance awnings surrounding the mezzanine? Its national significance as the first of its kind—an engineering feat in the 20th century? Surely these arguments would matter less to voters than football legend Earl “the Pearl” Campbell, and the Oilers’ victorious 1978 and 1979 seasons inside the Astrodome.

Astrodome Exterior | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Astrodome Exterior | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Trust’s strategy of connecting people to the structure based on emotion and experience dictated its campaign outreach and messaging. And it resonated. Trust staff interacted with more than 77,000 Dome lovers over the course of a month this past fall. They heard from young and old, the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy, that the Dome was worthy of reinvestment and reuse. This is Houston’s only landmark, after all, our Eiffel Tower, some said. It symbolizes Houston and Harris County during an era when advances in science and technology made the impossible possible. It’s enough to sway even the toughest opponent, right? Unfortunately no. The Trust and its local coalition of partners were unsuccessful in saving the Astrodome in the public election. Yes, more than 112,000 voters turned out in support of preservation and reuse, but 53 percent of Harris County voters said no, and the referendum to publicly fund the reuse of the Astrodome failed.

But then something interesting happened.

Design Does Matter?

News reports and articles popped up in the Los Angeles Times, London’s Guardian, The Washington Post, and even in the Houston Chronicle chiding Harris County voters for not recognizing the significance of the Astrodome as an important piece of Modernist architecture. Touting the dilemma faced by Modernist buildings across the country, these articles recognized the Astrodome as a symbol of the modern movement and encouraged its preservation for future generations. These arguments resonated in a city where newer is better and a limited number of buildings make it past the 50-year mark.

Conversations about the fate of the Astrodome are now broader in scope and include an element of reverence for the design and construction methods employed just a half century ago. Perhaps a discussion about design was needed, after all.  The tactic to focus only on the emotional appeal of the Astrodome didn’t get the job done. But combining the more traditional tools in the preservation toolbox—employing architectural merit and significance—with an emotional appeal, might just be the best strategy to keep hope alive for future reuse of the Dome.  Going forward, it will likely be a combination of tried-and-true preservation advocacy tactics and the innovative engagement campaigns and alternative appeals that will guide preservationists in saving the Modernist built environment in the years to come.

Prentice Hospital: “All Politics Is Local”

Prentice Hospital, Interior. | Credit: Courtesy Landmarks Illinois

Prentice Hospital, Interior. | Credit: Courtesy Landmarks Illinois

Truer words were never spoken. Contrary to popular belief, the advocacy campaign to save Prentice Hospital had very little to do with Modern architecture. It was a fight over local politics. Here’s the situation: A powerful property owner wanted to tear down one of its important buildings and only the mayor had the power to stop it. Sound familiar? The style of the building, its history, and its architectural and engineering significance were largely irrelevant because the decision-makers (the property owner and the mayor) didn’t care about those issues. It wouldn’t have mattered to them if the building was Gothic Revival or Art Deco or High Modern.

When to Focus on Architectural Significance—and When Not To

Too often preservationists cause problems for themselves by focusing almost all of the attention—and all of the talking points—on the architectural significance of a structure. Instead they should spend time figuring out who has the power to change the situation, where the real obstacles lie, and what can be done to remove those obstacles.

The fact that Prentice was “Modern” only became relevant after attempts to negotiate with the decision-makers proved unsuccessful. So the National Trust and a coalition of local and national partners switched tactics to apply public and media pressure, which meant they had to make the building interesting to those audiences. Even though Prentice was a maternity hospital where thousands of babies were born, they made a conscious decision not to focus on personal stories, but on the uniqueness of Prentice and its groundbreaking design—opposite of the approach taken for the Astrodome. Why focus on the design? First, because Chicago prides itself on its 20th-century architecture and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to see its collection of these buildings. Second, many of the women who gave birth at Prentice did not have fond memories of their experiences there. These Prentice moms would have offered little support to the cause and unflattering quotes to the media.

So did this tactic work? Yes and no. The media proved highly receptive to arguments about architectural significance, particularly when Pritzker Prize-winning architects offered their support. The Trust also found that people under 35 were drawn to Prentice, and some had a very deep and personal connection to the building. The under-35 set also turned out in droves to support the campaign at events, rallies, meetings, and public hearings.

Exterior, Prentice Hospital | Credit: Photo courtesy Jason Smith

Exterior, Prentice Hospital | Credit: Photo courtesy Jason Smith

But people over 35—the ones who were as old as Prentice, or older—didn’t feel the same love. And that’s not unusual. As others in this PLF Modernism series have pointed out, every style suffers this fate right around the 35- to 40-year mark. It has much more to do with and individual’s perception of “history” than it does with the architectural style.

Figuring Out the Right Message

Preservationists sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know what makes a place or a building important, and that other people should appreciate it for the same reasons. But that is rarely the case. Most people don’t know or care about architects, styles, or building materials, but they may have a deep connection to a place for other, less tangible reasons. It is important to understand, respect, and celebrate those connections. In hindsight, the National Trust and its coalition partners should have conducted market testing for Prentice to identify the specific issues and messages that resonated most with key audiences. Then they might have achieved the groundswell of support needed to sway the mayor.

Lessons Learned

The National Trust is using its work with the Astrodome and Prentice Women’s Hospital to call attention to Modernism and the icons and commonplace buildings in need of recognition and protection. The Trust took two very different approaches in Houston and Chicago this past year, and neither was entirely successful. Obviously focusing largely on one strategy to garner support for these structures has not been prudent. The lesson learned from both cases is that it is the connection between people and place, and the position that place holds in the larger realm of architecture, experience, culture, and our collective history, that will help in the fight to elevate Modernism among the public and generate support for the preservation of the movement’s most important buildings.

Read Also:

Pride and Prejudice: Preserving Midcentury Modern Heritage
Five Strategies to Preserve a Midcentury Modern Mecca
The Sunshine Mile: Saving a Commercial Modernist Shopping District
No Longer Invisible: Googie Coffee Shops
Saving the Modern Century: Future Visions for Historic Preservation

Chris Morris is the field director of the National Trust’s Los Angeles Field Office.  Beth Wiedower is a senior field officer in the National Trust's Houston Field Office.

Note: Join our first-ever Google Hangout as we discuss the new, Modernism-focused issue of Preservation magazine with Editor Dennis Hockman and learn more about the history of Midcentury architecture from experts William Kopelk of Modernism Week and scholar Christine Madrid French. March 13 at 5:30pm

Modernism, National Treasure