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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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

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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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