Big Plans, Small Houses

As demolition threatens midcentury houses, fans of Modernism seek stronger protections for our recent architectural history.

The fifties ranch house, the sixties theme restaurant—these and other familiar postwar building types are approaching the magic age of 50, when they become eligible for the National Register or local landmarking. But will they reach the half-century mark? Modern preservationists are trying increasingly aggressive (and diverse) tactics to ensure that our parents’ houses—the average as well as the sublime—aren’t obliterated by this generation’s mania for McMansions.

“Publicity is probably going to be the most effective means” for saving Modernist houses from demolition, says Peter Moruzzi, chair of the Palm Springs Modern Committee. “Given how much exposure we were able to generate for the Maslon House, if we become aware that there is a chance someone is going to demolish a serious Modern house, the owner is going to face negative publicity.”

Cynical, yes, but Moruzzi’s cynicism is born from what Modern preservationists consider a cue-the-strings tragedy: the 2002 demolition of Richard Neutra’s 1962 Maslon House. The house—classic late Neutra with a deep roof overhang and seamless flow from living quarters to pool—was located in Rancho Mirage, a community near Mod design mecca Palm Springs but without a local preservation ordinance.

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More recently publicity (and quick-thinking neighbors) seems to have saved Oscar Niemeyer’s Strick House, in Santa Monica, California, the swinging Brazilian Modernist’s only residence in North America. Halted in his tracks by the threat of immediate local historic designation, the new owner is now weighing his options—sensitive renovation, or a quick resale? Individual landmark designation has preserved other Schindler and Neutra properties, as well as several of the Case Study Houses around Los Angeles. But these properties—significant works by famous architects—had more preservation options than the average postwar house, however charming.

Local historic designations are typically more flexible in terms of age and importance, and are equipped with greater enforcement powers. “Local designation provides the strongest protection because it is tied to the local permit and planning process,” says Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “Recognition at the national level, on the National Register of Historic Places, is in some states just a recognition,” he says. Local listing, however, may include antidemolition provisions, or at least local review of any demolition or alteration requests.

“Real estate is so expensive now. People feel if they are going to buy a big piece of property with a small house, then they might as well tear down the house,” Moruzzi says, echoing the title of the National Trust’s June 2002 report, “Taming the Teardown Trend.”

“Ranch houses from the fifties and sixties are usually the first thing to go when teardowns arrive in a neighborhood,” says Adrian Scott Fine, coauthor of the report. “The West Coast is ahead of the curve. They have recognized their value first because they don’t have so much that is older.” Indeed the city of Los Angeles has created what may be the nation’s youngest landmark: Claes Oldenburg’s 12-year-old binoculars, the entrance to Frank Gehry’s Chiat/Day offices (not landmarked).

Neighborhood historic designations are one way to preserve the fabric of postwar subdivisions from out-of-scale character-changing incursions. Owners of some particularly petite California postwar houses, those by developer Joseph Eichler, recently submitted a designation application to the National Register for two distinct neighborhoods (plus two significant individual houses), both outside San Francisco. “The buildings themselves are not distinctive, but as a development they are almost unique,” says Paul Adamson, a San Francisco architect and author of Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the California Dream. “Nobody was as successful as Eichler was at building up tracts of good-quality Modern architecture.”

The Eichler Network based its application on Diane Wray’s pioneering work on Arapahoe Acres, a Wright-inspired Colorado subdivision (built 1949-57) that was placed on the National Register in 1998. Though the designation is honorific, Wray believes it has helped raise the perceived value of the properties, as well as drawing a grant from the state historic fund to help Arapahoe homeowners restore their properties. “It tends to attract people who are interested in the material, rather than people that just got a good deal,” she says. Listing as a neighborhood, rather than individual homes, also brought attention to Arapahoe Acres’s unique Japanese-flavored landscape design, the work of Stanley K. Yoshimura.

In New Canaan, Connecticut, local preservationists’ get-out-the-architects efforts have lead to an uptick in property values for the typically white, boxy one-story structures of the Harvard Five and their followers. “Now we have people coming out from New York looking for Modern houses,” says Richard Bergmann, a local architect who worked for one of the Five, Eliot Noyes, in the 1960s. Certain realtors now specialize in selling Modern to Modern lovers, and “when we hear of a property that is for sale, we steer the owner toward the agents we feel are sympathetic,” he adds.

Bergmann and other supporters have asked the local zoning board to set up an advisory committee to determine which local Modern houses are valuable enough to require special protection. They are being helped in their task by Modernist conservation group DOCOMOMO, now inventorying the 80-plus postwar houses in the New Canaan hills.

Bergmann, concerned about ownership changes for the single-story Moderns, has been encouraging property owners to put protective covenants on their houses. Such covenants or easements (on a part of a building, like the facade) restrict changes to a property in perpetuity, with a local preservation group or local government enforcing their provisions for all subsequent deed holders. In some cases, the owner can get a charitable deduction on his or her taxes based on the difference between the prerestriction and postrestriction value of the property.

The Los Angeles Conservancy currently holds about 15 easements but, according to Bernstein, is about to begin a marketing campaign touting them as a proactive option to local historic property owners. Among the most prominent is the Wiltern Theater facade, one of the city’s Art Deco prizes.

These voluntary legal means offer the strongest protections, containing the no-demolition clauses that historic listings often lack, but preservationists have found owners extremely wary. “There is a lot of resistance—a fear of the unknown,” Bergmann says. “Once you put a protective easement or covenant, people are not quite sure how their heirs are going to feel.” There are ways to sweeten the deal, however. Richard Bond, a New Canaan selectman, is even willing to have the town pay the legal fees for historic properties—whether 150 or 50 years old—to be so protected.

In Sarasota, where the small houses of Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, and the rest of the Sarasota School hold out (barely) against Florida’s Mediterranean Revival mansions, the newly minted Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) has had some success with the county’s ad valorem tax-exemption program, which provides tax benefits for historic restoration projects approved by the local preservation board. “There is no prohibition on demolition, and we’ve run into walls when we’ve suggested such restrictions,” says lawyer and SAF cochair Tom Luzier. “The overriding desire is for flexibility at the time of sale, and homeowners and their realtors don’t want anything standing in the way of a prompt sale.”

His organization is relying primarily on education, political pressure, and review processes for historic properties at the city and county level; such pressures recently saved Twitchell and William Rupp’s space-age Carousel House: 360 degrees of concrete-block screens overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. “I’m not sure where the concept came from that MedRev is the perfect Florida architecture,” Luzier says. “Sarasota School houses are very delicate and lovely to look at. However, the bedrooms are small, the closets and bathrooms minuscule.”

Which brings us back to publicity: convince enough individuals of the values of clean lines over closets, and you’re a savior. “I live in a 1955 ranch, and as a modern person living in an older house, I think this is the worst kitchen in the world,” says Christine Madrid French, president of the Recent Past Preservation Network. “But as an architectural historian, it is important to me to keep the metal cabinets. Now I find there are all these people across the country who love these metal kitchen cabinets. They pass around parts and advice. So you’ve just got to do your own little part.”

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