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Rallying Support for Resources
from the Recent Past

Forum Journal, Summer 2004, Vol.18, No. 4

By Jeanne Lambin & Adrian Scott Fine

The "recent past" is a term commonly used to discuss historic and architectural resources younger than 50 years old. It is estimated that they make up approximately 70 percent of our built environment. The importance of mid-century, post-war, or "underage resources" has been the subject of numerous books and articles and has even reared its head in the mainstream media. Despite increasing interest and enthusiasm for the preservation of the recent past, the preservation of these resources poses significant challenges, ranging from a general lack of appreciation to unsympathetic alterations to demolition.

The decades following WWII witnessed an explosion of architectural innovation, much of it taking place here in the United States. The diverse inventory includes iconic buildings of international architectural significance such as Mies van der Rohe's Farnworth House as well as the ubiquitous architecture of the ordinary ranch house. The recent past story is certainly about the icons but also needs to be told through the less prominent places that are equally important to a local community and its sense of place. From early fast food restaurants to drive-through branch banks to post-war suburbia, these places have much to tell us about who we are today, who we were, and the ways we lived during the past half century.

The National Park Service's Recent Past Initiative website describes the great variety of 20th-century resources, and their cultural importance, this way: "From futuristic coffee shops and soaring airport terminals to the homes of the postwar suburbs, 20th century architecture embodies the aspirations, priorities, challenges and successes of our recent history. They include the libraries and community centers constructed by New Deal agencies to contend with the Great Depression, factories where the World War II generation assembled tanks and planes, schools built for the postwar baby boom and glass-walled office parks that symbolized American business. Such properties reflect the varied lives that unfolded within them, and contribute to a diverse and dynamic 20th century landscape ranging from bridges to public buildings."

Preserving and appreciating what remains of the recent past will be extremely important for telling the story of America after WWII. Unfortunately, many of these places are now seen as dated or unfashionable - and rarely valued as "historic." Far too often, structures from the recent past, whether simple or sublime, are perceived as expendable, unattractive, or unworthy of preservation. But these resources cannot be overlooked, dismissed, or devalued simply because of how they look or because they no longer meet today's tastes or preferences.

Threats to Recent Past Resources
It was the great wave of suburbanization and urban renewal that helped bring about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Vast swaths of farmland disappeared beneath suburban-style ranch houses, new roads, and shopping malls. From the rubble of urban centers devastated by the Great Depression rose glass-and-steel skyscrapers, housing projects, and modern municipal buildings. "Progress" was often synonymous with destruction of historic architecture, which fell to make way for new schools, homes, strip malls, and factories. Ironically, over four decades later, once again in the name of "progress" we are now confronted with the preservation of those once "new" buildings.

These "replacement" structures are now facing many of the same problems that condemned the buildings that came before - lack of public appreciation, perceived obsolescence, development pressures, and insensitive alterations and additions. They also face threats that their prewar counterparts did not face. Many were constructed with fragile, experimental, or short-lived materials. In addition, because they are not yet 50 years old, many of the buildings constructed during this post-war period are often mistakenly not yet considered eligible for historic designation which would give them more credibility in the eyes of the preservation movement and public.

Lack of Appreciation
Every generation has a style of architecture that it considers expendable. Today many consider the architecture of the recent past to be as expendable as its Victorian counterparts once were. Although "famous maker homes," such as those designed by noted architect Joe Eichler or by Charles and Ray Eames, may be featured in glossy architecture magazines and in the New York Times and Newsweek, appreciation does not always translate to preservation. The 1962 Maslon House (aka Rancho Mirage) by Richard Neutra, considered one of the world's most influential architects, was recently auctioned by Sotheby's and acquired for $2.45 million. Unfortunately the house was not protected by any local landmark programs (the city of Rancho Mirage has no historic preservation ordinance), and despite the efforts of local advocates to save the house, the new owners demolished it.

Preservationists aren't necessarily immune to a bite by the style bug either. Within the preservation ranks, considerable debate exists on the preservation worthiness of the recent past. Some preservationists don't consider the resources of the recent past to merit much concern, while others question the need for a new approach to encourage preservation.

It is easy enough to understand why preservationists would be ambivalent about preserving the architecture of the recent past, for it was the construction of many of these buildings that caused them to stand in front of the wrecking ball in the first place. One example is Pittsburgh's space age-style Civic Arena which bisected a historic neighborhood and left part of it cut off from downtown. The Arena, the largest retractable dome-roofed structure in the world, is threatened with demolition and replacement with a new structure. Another is the 30- acre Capitol Park development in Washington, D.C., which dates to the 1950s and '60s, and is considered one of the first and largest urban renewal projects in the area. It was named to the D.C. Preservation League's Ten Most Endangered List in 2003 and is currently threatened by demolition and private development. These resources bear the stigma of an era that wiped out thousands and thousands of historic buildings. Yet the unwillingness to acknowledge the potential significance of these sites conflicts with one of the major goals of the preservation movement - to preserve our built heritage.

To complicate matters, in addition to its contextual baggage, much architecture of the recent past carries aesthetic baggage as well. For many, it is difficult to understand and appreciate, and the simplicity of much post-war architecture can make it hard to distinguish a "good" or "bad" example of a building. This can make the critical process of survey, documentation, and evaluation subjective and challenging.

Alteration and Development Pressure
The United States is experiencing a building boom which rivals that of the years following WWII. Just as homes, apartment blocks, factories, and office buildings that had weathered the Great Depression and World War II faced obsolescence after the war, so too do an increasing number of resources built in the postwar period. It seems that the faster the rate of development increases, the faster the expected life span of a building decreases. Traditionally, it was believed that the useful life span was 30 years for a house and 25 years for commercial property. Many properties are now reaching or have already reached the age when they will be candidates for cosmetic changes, substantial alterations, or even demolition.

The resources that do escape demolition often can't avoid alteration. As architecture critic David Dunlap noted, "not all of these losses involve outright demolition, subtle changes are constantly erasing post war design." Depending on the scale of the building this could have a profound impact on the property's appearance. Original materials are often removed or replaced because they are either difficult to repair, dated looking, or both.

Such was the case with the Florsheim Building in Chicago, designed by the firm of Shaw, Metz and Dolio and completed in 1949. It was one of the first buildings constructed in downtown Chicago following World War II and was described in the AIA Guide to Chicago as "the first major Chicago structure to emphatically embrace the design elements of European modernism." The building was converted to residential use in 1997 and dramatically, irrevocably, and unsympathetically altered.

The 50-Year Rule
In 1966, when the first list of properties in the National Register was established, it contained a total of 868 resources, and of those, 24 met Criteria Consideration "G," which states that a property achieving significance within the past 50 years is eligible if it is of exceptional importance. Thus when the National Register was first established, less than 3 percent of the resources were "underage." Almost 40 years later, this percentage remains nearly the same. According to the Recent Past Preservation Network, "as of January 2003, 2,332 of the nearly 76,000 listings in the National Register have been nominated under Criteria Consideration G."

Because the National Register allows for buildings to be nominated for their national, state or local significance, it greatly expands the category of what can be considered exceptionally significant. Yet, despite this provision for underage resources, many people mistakenly believe a building must be 50 years old to be listed in the National Register. In other instances, neither the local community nor the state historic preservation office consider resources younger than 50 years old to be even worthy of consideration, and so they are likely to show bias in evaluating them or to reject the nomination outright.

The National Register is a valuable preservation tool, but in large part it is essentially a voluntary program for the private citizen and can do little to prevent demolition or alteration by private individuals. Generally, the only way to prevent demolition resulting from a nonfederal action is through a local landmark designation program or zoning overlay program that has the authority to prevent demolition.

But while the National Register allows for properties less than 50 years old to be listed, many local governments impose a 50-year rule without exceptions. Thus, a property could be listed in the National Register but not be eligible for local landmark designation. Consequently, the biggest problem that many of these resources face is that they lack real protection at the local level.

Gaining historic designation, whether at the national, state, or local level, provides credibility - a key tool for building public support. Without this, advocating for an underage resource is far more challenging.

Efforts to Examine and Preserve the Recent Past
Preservation of the recent past is by no means a new topic. Indeed since the preservation movement began, "underage resources" have always been threatened, the most notable example being Pennsylvania Station in New York. The neo-classical masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead and White was demolished in 1966, just shy of its 50th birthday. Its demolition helped galvanize the American preservation movement. In the decades following the passage of the Historic Preservation Act in 1966, there has been a steadily increasing interest in preserving underage resources, beginning with the establishment in 1977 of the Society for Commercial Archaeology, a national organization devoted to the buildings, artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape.

In a 1978 article, "Remember Our Not So Distant Past," which appeared in Preservation magazine, professor emeritus of history and founder of the historic preservation program at the University of Vermont, Chester Liebs, asked, "Will historic preservation be able to accept and selectively conserve the architectural species of the modern era?" In 1979, only 13 years after the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, the Department of the Interior issued How-To Guide No.2: How to Evaluate and Nominate Potential National Register Properties that Have Achieved Significance Within the Last Fifty Years. The guide was written to "inform those who need to make recommendations of exceptional significance."

Action Steps
As said before, threats to postwar resources are not unlike those facing other historic resources, whether they are endangered by outright demolition, alteration, redevelopment, or neglect. What is different perhaps is the approach needed to encourage preservation of the recent past.

Engage New Audiences
Probably the greatest problem surrounding the recent past is the public's lack of appreciation for and understanding of mid-century architecture. In some instances the threat and loss are acknowledged, perhaps even lamented. But in others, the loss is largely unnoticed as the public may not know the value of these places or how to advocate for a preservation alternative. The most important thing that can be done to preserve the architecture of the recent past is to educate the public about its importance and unite the emerging popular interest in preserving the recent past with proper preservation practices.


Jeanne Lambin is the field representative in the National Trust's Wisconsin Field Office. Adrian Scott Fine is the director of the National Trust Northeast Field Office.


This article is excerpted and reprinted with the permission of National Trust Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036, (202)588-6053, preservationnation.org.

2005 - Volume 36, Issue 4

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