The Challenge of Saving Midcentury Buildings in an Era of Rising Inequality

As the gap between the rich and the middle class widens, the challenge to save midcentury modern buildings becomes even more vexing.

The oft-photographed house (this shot was taken by the legendary Julius Shulman) is one of ten Case Study Houses just added to the National Register of Historic Places after a decade-long effort by the Los Angeles Conservancy. The house is open for tours.

Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust/Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

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“It’s the old adage: location, location, location,” says Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Dishman isn’t talking real estate, but historic preservation. In California, a midcentury house on a modest lot may find a buyer willing to maintain it. But the same modernist house on a large lot in Brentwood or Pacific Palisades is practically wearing a “tear me down” sign. (How does a 1,200-square-foot house stand a chance in a neighborhood where 12,000 is the new normal?) “Small houses on large lots are the greatest concern,” says Dishman.

The Conservancy won a victory this year when ten of the surviving Case Study Houses—including the celebrated Stahl House by Pierre Koenig—were added to the National Register of Historic Places. But listing doesn’t stop the houses from being demolished—it simply triggers additional reviews before bad things can happen to good buildings, the kind of red tape that doesn’t always deter the super-rich. Money, especially big money, can be the enemy of preservation.

In fact, it’s no coincidence that mid-century modern architecture burgeoned in an era when the middle class was growing. The architectural imperative of the 1950s and ’60s (of which the Case Study Houses and hundreds of other dwellings were a part) was to create buildings for ordinary people—including the schools, public libraries, and medical facilities that served them. An egalitarian society brought modernism to the masses.

 Indeed, as wealth disparities grow, any building that doesn’t meet the needs of “the one percent” is a potential goner.

With the shrinking of the middle class, however, the architecture that gave it its fullest expression has become easily endangered. Indeed, as wealth disparities grow, any building that doesn’t meet the needs of “the one percent” is a potential goner. Take the case of the Feldman House (1953) in Beverly Hills, by the important midcentury architect Gregory Ain: 2,600 square feet on the market for $4.7 million. According to the listing agent, the people who want to restore it can’t afford it, and the people who can afford it want to replace it with something else. (At press time, the agent was hopeful that she had found a buyer to preserve it.) The media isn’t helping when it glorifies houses of grotesque proportions. Architectural Digest recently featured the home of quarterback Tom Brady and model Gisele Bündchen, a 14,000-square-foot acid-washed limestone chateau complete with moat. Digest referred to the house as “eco-conscious.”

Every year, the Conservancy hosts a party in a mid-century house to show how livable modernism can be. (“There’s a myth,” says Dishman, “that you can’t have a comfortable couch.”) This year, the benefit was in the Brody House, an A. Quincy Jones masterpiece that was recently renovated to perfection; the Los Angeles Times once called it “the love child of Bauhaus rigor and Beverly Hills élan.” “There are happy endings for these houses,” Dishman says. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Brody house is huge—11,500 square feet—and that the current owner bought it for $15 million. Its size, an anomaly in the mid-twentieth century, is what saved it in the early twenty-first.

Courtesy Tom Harris

Big money isn’t only a threat to houses. “There is a naming opportunity,” says Alan K. Cubbage, a spokesman for Northwestern University, referring to the estimated $370 million biomedical research tower set to replace Prentice Women’s Hospital. That cloverleaf-shaped maternity ward, by Bertrand Goldberg, is being demolished, after preservationists lost a long battle. Cubbage wouldn’t disclose how large a gift it would take to get your moniker on the new building. But without the possibility of a nine-digit donation (no stretch in this economy), Prentice might still be standing. To put it another way: If the recession had lingered, the eccentric building might have lingered with it.

So how was 2013 for preservation? The year began with the destruction of Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama Building, in Gettysburg, just as it reached the half-century mark. But it will end on a high note: Edward Diana, the county executive who has been trying to tear down Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center for more than a decade, will leave office on December 31. The building, with walls of corduroy concrete supporting 87 separate roofs, survives him.

In Houston, voters turned down a plan to save the Astrodome (1965), a landmark not only of mid-century modernism but of the city’s association with the space race. (True, the $217 million it would have cost to repurpose the building may have weighed more heavily on voters than its architecture.) In New York City, there were some victories, including the restoration of Albert Ledner’s port-holed O’Toole Building (1964) in Greenwich Village (the one part of the St. Vincent’s Hospital complex not becoming high-priced condos).

But upstate, in Buffalo, five sections of Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments (1974) were scheduled to be replaced by new apartment buildings. Rudolph is the bald eagle of midcentury modern—a symbol of America, endangered by Americans. In at least one case, the demand for high-end housing came to the rescue of an important midcentury building. In Holmdel, New Jersey, Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs (1962, later enlarged by Kevin Roche), a two-million-square-foot research facility surrounding a pair of vast rectangular atria, has been standing empty since 2007. Six stories high and nearly a quarter mile long, the complex is practically a town (with its own post office, dry cleaner, and a football-field-size cafeteria). Yet its detailing is crisp and cogent. Its gray granite fittings presage Black Rock, Saarinen’s CBS headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and its glass roof is a ringer for that of the Ford Foundation building, on 42nd Street, by Roche. The building is also historically significant, the site of some of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. Fortunately, Alcatel-Lucent, which acquired the property from AT&T, maintained the building and its stunning gardens by Sasaki, Walker & Associates, while Ralph Zucker of Somerset Development, which had an option to buy the complex, struggled to save it.

The building’s owner, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, waited until demolition was underway before releasing renderings of three towers that might replace it—none as compelling as Goldberg’s cloverleaf.

Courtesy Bonnie McDonald

The lobby of Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, is part of a five-story, quarter-mile-long atrium. Most of the original built-ins, by Eero Saarinen, are in remarkably good shape.

Courtesy Rob Dobi

The odds of finding a single tenant for the building were close to zero: Unless Apple decided to abandon Cupertino (where its planned Norman Foster–designed campus is a throwback to the suburban corporate headquarters of the 1950s and ’60s) for Holmdel, Bell Labs would never be a one-tenant building again. So, for more than six years, Zucker worked with the community to find an alternative to demolition. “We entered in an environment where people were saying, ‘Tear it down,’” Zucker recalls. Over several years, he persuaded voters that a truly mixed-use property, with offices, hotels, stores, restaurants, and 400,000 square feet of medical facilities would be an asset. “You can see a doctor, then go downstairs for lunch while you’re waiting for your test results,” Zucker says. (At one point, Zucker even held an open house, at which he mocked up what the building would look like with new tenants; 2,000 people attended.) And, like a town, it now has a town architect, Alexander Gorlin, the New York modernist, whom Zucker calls “the guru.” Gorlin’s role will include not just restoring the building’s vast public spaces, but also keeping tabs on firms designing tenant build-outs, to ensure that visible interior and exterior surfaces remain consistent. “The challenge is to make it even more vibrant than when it was a research center, but with a design code set up to respect Saarinen’s intent,” Gorlin says. That sounds like a major victory for historic preservation.

But it might not have happened if  Zucker hadn’t agreed to sell 237 of the Bell Labs acres to Toll Brothers, the residential developer, which plans to build houses that will sell for $1 million and up. And that deal wouldn’t have been possible without a booming market for high-end homes. Thirty-eight percent of the homes on the market in Holmdel were listed for more than $1 million in late August. Which meant the more than $100 million Zucker estimates it will take to renovate the complex will be realized, in part, through residential sales.

Courtesy Rob Dobi

Courtesy Rob Dobi

Images courtesy MIT Libraries, Rotch Visual Collections; Photos by G.E. Kidder Smith.

There are other ways to raise the money to preserve midcentury buildings, some depending on modest donations. In Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Modern House Trust turned to Kickstarter to raise $50,000 to help restore the Weidlinger House, a modest but exemplary dwelling by the Hungarian-born architect Paul Weidlinger. The house, in the Cape Cod National Seashore, has been deteriorating since the 1990s. At press time, the Trust had raised $68,246, far more than its goal, which executive director Peter McMahon says reflects “huge interest in mid-twentieth century modern architecture, especially with younger people.” McMahon hopes to increase that interest with a forthcoming book, Cape Cod Modern: Mid-Century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape (Metropolis Books), scheduled for release in May.

There’s no question that words and photographs save buildings. Indeed, if preservationists of yore manned barricades and picketed, this generation publishes coffee table books. Just look at what has happened to the reputation of Horace Gifford. Christopher Rawlins, a practicing architect in Manhattan, was looking for a project after the recession hit in 2008—architectural commissions weren’t coming in. He chose to write about Gifford, who designed dozens of modernist houses in Fire Island Pines, the gay resort town, half a century ago. Some of the houses had been torn down or altered beyond recognition, but with the success of Rawlins’s book, Fire Island Modernist (Metropolis Books), the tide has turned. In the last few months, the architect Charles Renfro (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro) bought a Gifford house in the Pines, which bodes well for its preservation.

Of course, architects rarely have the money to buy important buildings. (The exception is Phyllis Lambert, Montreal’s Joan of Architecture, an activist who has opened her checkbook when other preservation approaches have failed.) And not all architects are preservationists. Learning that the owners of his influential House VI, in Cornwall, Connecticut, were selling it—without restrictive covenants that would save it from demolition—Peter Eisenman expressed a complete lack of concern. Perhaps he was feeling puckish (he was speaking at a cocktail party for Lambert), but perhaps he was also recognizing that when a house is privately owned and hidden in the woods, its real existence is in photos, the idealized images (thank Julius Shulman and Ezra Stoller) that will almost certainly outlive the building. Still, architecture needs to be experienced in three dimensions. Agatha Hughes, whose parents own the Vanna Venturi house in Philadelphia—designed by Robert Venturi for his mother—says her family needs to sell the seminal building, but won’t until a preservation easement is in place.

The building has been unoccupied since Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused flooding in 2011. After engineers submit reports, the County Legislature will vote on whether to restore, demolish, or partly demolish and partly restore the building. The lobby, below, remains in good condition.

What has been called the most beautiful house in Los Angeles was built for a wealthy family, with interiors by Billy Haines and gardens by Garrett Eckbo. Restored by a “mystery buyer”
(who paid $15 million for the property in 2010), it is reportedly back on the market.

Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust/Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Reseach Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Journalists generally make even less money than architects, but they can use the power of the pen, if not the purse. Steven Price hopes that his forthcoming book, Over the Top: The Architectural History of Trousdale Estates, Beverly Hills does for Trousdale Estates (a community known for its sprawling mid-century houses) what Rawlins’s book did for Gifford’s Fire Island. The book will describe some failures (Oakley Eyewear and Apparel magnate Jim Jannard recently bought what Price describes as “a James Bond lair,” designed by William Stephen-son in 1960, and tore it down, in favor of a “concrete bunker”). But there are also successes, including the purchase of a 1956 Harold Levitt–designed house by Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. “She loves the architecture, and she’s been very vocal about it,” Price says of DeGeneres. Dishman agrees. People see her surrounded by midcentury design, she says, and they figure, “If Ellen thinks this is important, it must be important.”

Financially, DeGeneres is in the one percent. But she’s also part of another minority group—the unknown percentage of Americans who know a good thing when they see it. Will lovers of modernism ever outnumber the skeptics? In St. Louis, the Lewis and Clark Branch Library, a 1963 gem by Frederick Dunn, with strikingly geometric stained-glass windows, has been tagged for demolition. Aaron Cohen Associates, library consultants based in quaint Croton-on-Hudson, New York, determined that the neighborhood requires a 20,000-square-foot library. The Dunn building is only 16,000 square feet, and, so far, the library board hasn’t seen the wisdom of simply adding to the building. Lindsey Derrington, a historic preservation consultant and a board member of Modern STL, which is working to save the building, noted that Aaron Cohen Associates wasn’t asked to consider its architectural merit. “It’s fifty years old,” Derrington says, “so they deemed it obsolete.”

Of course, for some modernist buildings, a half-century is just the beginning. Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale turned 50 in 2013. It will be around for decades (or centuries) to come. But lesser-known buildings, by lesser-known architects, are always in danger, especially when the super-rich have designs on their sites. And so the preservation fights of 2013 will give way to the preservation fights of 2014. Nobody hopes for a recession, but a little less disposable income at the top might make for a few less disposable buildings.

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