Worth Preserving

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

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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)

“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.

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Dec 13, 2013 12:02 pm
 Posted by  Christopher Rawlins

Fascinating article, Fred. When historians bestow enough cultural cache upon a structure or an architect's body of work, even small structures on large lots have a chance of surviving. The drawback is that these once-accessible structures must be marketed as elite art objects to avoid the wrecking ball. The social contract that made these structures possible has vanished whether or not the structure survives. Perhaps technology, with or without economic upheaval, will once again make modestly-sized structures desirable. I find myself requiring less space as paper files and bloated Audio/Video consoles become redundant, while feeling no need to fill it with another pair of sneakers.

Dec 16, 2013 06:25 pm
 Posted by  Pantonfan

Sadly even the trend in Denmark is a tear down. It seems that all of the colors of brick and tile are no longer popular. Everything is white and sterile. The only thing revered is furniture and decorative objects and lighting.

Dec 28, 2013 10:26 am
 Posted by  Bob@designLAB


Important article! I'm optimistic. Despite recent losses, I believe the tide has turned with increasing understanding and appreciation of the cultural significance of works from this period.

An update on the Orange County Government Center. After 3 years of debate and near demolition of the entire complex, the County is moving forward. Many options for repurposing the vacated buildings where studied by a Special Legislative Committee convened by Eddie Diana over the last 6 months, with representatives on all sides of the issues.

In the final open meeting before the project was put to vote by the entire Legislature, Diana appeared after a miraculous recovery from a liver transplant and made an empassioned plea for renovation of the existing buildings in an effort to resolve the long controversy.

On December 12, the Legislature voted 18 to 3 to save the Rudolph designed project, by embracing a strategy that renovates and expands the 1970's complex to meet the current and future needs of the tax payers of Orange County.


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