Two Weeks at the Marcel Breuer House: Pocantico Fellows Reflect On their Experiences

By Colleen Danz posted 03-17-2017 10:59


Editors Note: Updated March 13, 2019. The Pocantico Center Preservation Fellowship, now in its fifth year, is funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This two-week residential fellowship provides preservation professionals with the opportunity to reside in the historic Marcel Breuer House in Pocantico Hills, New York, while working on a defined project with significant benefit to the preservation field. 

As we’re currently (through April 19) accepting applications for the 2019 Pocantico Fellowship (July 22-Aug 4), we asked some questions of the 2015 and 2016 Pocantico fellows: respectively, Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, and Edgar Garcia, arts and culture deputy for the City of Los Angeles. Both Fine and Garcia are also fellows of the Fitch Foundation.

Exterior of the Marcel Breuer House. | Credit: Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Briefly explain your current project, what you’ve accomplished, and what still needs to be done.

Fine: “Preserving Urban Renewal’s Modern Legacy” examines and details the ongoing national debate about what to do with the modern‐era buildings and landscapes of this controversial period in urban planning and redevelopment history. Through a series of case studies, interviews with community and thought leaders, and emerging best practices, I am providing a basis for better understanding urban renewal–era places in the 21st century.

I’m currently developing the overall narrative while also producing specific case studies that support my key concepts and findings, including recommendations for how to deal with these places. I anticipate completing the writing soon and then moving on to final production of the report.

Garcia: My independent research study, “Chicano Architecture,” explores the architectural, design, and aesthetic elements tied to the cultural output of Mexican Americans—and Latinos overall—starting in the 1960s. Effectively, I am exploring a body of work from the 1960s–80s that I consider a newly identifiable architectural style. As a first-generation Mexican American, I was born and raised in the heart of the historic Los Angeles neighborhoods east of the city’s downtown. I grew up surrounded by massive 1960s–70s civil rights murals, bungalows painted pink and green, front yards with cacti and Virgin of Guadalupe statues, and classic low-rider cars playing Carlos Santana and 60s Motown as they drove down my street. All around me was the design iconography of Latino and Chicano culture—even my favorite playground at our local park was designed to look like an Aztec pyramid! Only when I was much older did I realize that these sensory experiences were fairly unique and tied very much to a sense of place and a concerted effort to express “MexicanAmerican–ness” through the built environment. So, through the lens of architecture and preservation, I have been exploring the concept of a Mexican American “style” and looking at the Latino architects, planners, artists, and designers who contributed to this evolving Chicano aesthetic.

And, while I have conducted much onsite research in Los Angeles and Southern California, I still need to assess how much my theoretical approach holds up across urban areas with large Latino populations in other parts of the country.

Given the goal of the Pocantico Fellowship, how do you hope that this work will benefit the preservation movement?

Fine: Many now say that it is ironic or just plain wrong to preserve places that came about through urban renewal, especially given that the modern-day preservation movement arose in part as a response to this federal program. As preservationists, we need to look not only back on our origins but also forward at how to address the difficult history of this era. We are at a critical point now as many urban renewal–era places turn 50 years old. Increasingly, they are at risk and being lost.

While, more likely than not, urban renewal–era places evoke deeply hurtful histories, those memories may actually be the reasons they matter and connect with people today. To avoid repeating our past mistakes, we can learn from these places, rather than simply dismissing and erasing this important layer of planning and preservation history. That is a central component of how I hope to help laypersons and preservationists alike better understand these challenging places.

Garcia: My work is very much concerned with diversifying the preservation movement and looking at the cultural legacy of under-represented communities. In the last several years, government agencies, advocacy groups, and organizations such as the National Trust have already been working toward this goal. For example, the National Register for Historic Places now encompasses the significance of diverse individuals and communities thanks to the increased flexibility of its criteria’s language.

I think my project is somewhat unique in that, while many underrepresented groups have been able to successfully highlight buildings and places related to their cultural eligibility, I am arguing that the architectural criteria for significance is sometimes applicable as well.

Edgar Garcia working inside the Breuer House. | Credit: Edgar Garcia

What inspirations did you find during the two weeks you spent at the Marcel Breuer House?

Fine: For me the Marcel Breuer residence was (1) a quiet place to focus on the project, complete much‐needed research, and develop the final report outline and (2) a central location and home base from which to do key site visits and research at nearby case study communities—including Hartford, New Haven, and Stamford in Connecticut and Manhattan and White Plains in New York. My project focuses on urban renewal examples throughout the country, so the fellowship provided an invaluable opportunity to visit important East Coast cities.

Lincoln Center, one of my primary case studies, provides a basis for understanding large‐scale redevelopment projects of the 1950s and ’60s—particularly those that were primarily championed by civic and philanthropic leaders. Much is written about Lincoln Center already, but not necessarily in the context of national urban renewal, its relevance as a historic place, or what that means for historic preservation today.

Then and now Lincoln Center was and is a controversial place that represents many different layers and stories about its origins as well as its preservation—it has something of a dual identity. Today Lincoln Center is known for its Midcentury Modern architecture and as a world-class venue for culture and the arts. Yet it originated through massive displacement and demolition of a vibrant and tight‐knit neighborhood that lacked a voice or representation in deciding where to locate the new cultural arts center. This is a familiar narrative of urban renewal across the country—one that most often occurred in neighborhoods with primarily minority populations. Disenfranchised and ill‐equipped, with no meaningful preservation tools yet available to them, communities like this were routinely overwhelmed by larger and more powerful interests.

But Lincoln Center’s complete implementation and overall success often did not accompany other urban renewal–era projects. One cannot overestimate the role and impact of the Rockefeller family in pressing for and financing the center—the family and foundation are estimated to have invested approximately 45 percent of the total building costs. Their considerable imprint on Lincoln Center not only illustrates just how important this place was to a powerful and visionary family but is also representative of the Rockefellers’ tendency to champion building new, even when that called for the destruction of entire neighborhoods, while nonetheless providing leadership in restoring significant places elsewhere. In this respect, the family’s history is very much like that of urban renewal itself: complex, contradictory, and full of irony. And this connection made staying at the Pocantico Center all the more relevant.

Garcia: The house and its setting among the trees and vegetation was a daily source of inspiration during my time at the Marcel Breuer House. The house’s large windows literally frame the surrounding woods, and all I had to do was glance up from my books and journal to take it all in at once. In the evening, as the sun was setting, the fireflies would put on a light show—one the loveliest scenes I have ever seen. The serenity allowed me to recalibrate my thinking, disconnect momentarily from the day-to-day stresses of my work life, and pursue my research. The living room floor at the Breuer House was spacious enough to lay out stacks of papers and books and organize them by theme, which afforded me many “aha!” moments.

The location also took me out of my comfort zone and away from the spatial parameters of my project. While the stately architecture of the Pocantico Center and the Hudson Valley landscape had little to do with the East Los Angeles urbanscapes of my research project, it was precisely their differences that allowed me to assess my subject matter more objectively. By considering Southern California and Los Angeles from afar, I was able to discover new findings in my research. Furthermore, interacting with the staff and presenting my project helped me reframe my arguments for a larger, more inclusive audience.

The staff was also kind enough to show me Nelson Rockefeller’s phenomenal art collection throughout the estate. One of his passions was Latin American art, which created unexpected links to my work, since the legacy of public art murals plays is significant to my project. 

What do you think preservations need to do in order to make the movement stronger? What conversations should we be having within our networks?

Fine: Relevance is a central question for preservation, and we need more opportunities to engage around it and assess how well we are doing. Preservationists work to manage change, but many outside the movement still believe that preservation is about opposing “progress.” Stepping back, thinking broadly, and looking for new ways to achieve preservation is critical to sustaining the movement.

Garcia: We need to dedicate time to clearly articulating our preservation priorities and our reasoning for committing to them. We need to write, share our stories, compose relevant and meaningful narratives, and have thoughtful and cogent arguments for why places matter. We also need to keep in mind that our audience will not always be preservation professionals or advocates, since it is important to expand the discussion to members of other fields and communities. Preservation is ultimately about using our physical environment to tell stories that are meaningful to all.

Colleen Danz is the Forum marketing manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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