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 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

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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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