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Establishing Civilization on the Suburban Frontier 

12-09-2015 17:35

When soldiers came home from the War of 1812 and the Civil War, they were told "Go West, young man." When they came home from World War II, the advice was "Get out of Dodge City"-and Detroit and Denver and Des Moines and the District of Columbia and every other urban area in America. And they went, millions of them, to the promised land. Suburbia was the new frontier.

The private sector was quick to provide immediate gratification in the form of the suburban house. But the house, although the most obvious physical manifestation of the suburban dream, was only the tip of the iceberg of what was needed to support the lifestyle that these 20th-century suburban immigrants sought. To start with the basics, the houses needed water, electricity, and other utilities. Septic systems and wells often sufficed for the first wave of settlers. As more of the frontier was claimed, however, Mother Nature`s ability to cope began to break down and municipal systems were required.

To get to their new homesteads, settlers on the suburban frontier needed roads for their wagons (station wagons, of course). Bringing two freeways together was a major challenge for engineers. One of the most impressive early freeway inter-sections is the junction of the Edsel Ford and John Lodge Expressways in the Motor City. While the freeways actually met in Detroit, both catered to the suburbanite who worked downtown. The intersection required 14 bridges. A Detroit Free Press writer, in awe of this immense undertaking, described the "salmon pink steel bridge work blooming like a maiden`s blush in the May sunshine." (Frank B. Woodward, "Expressway Progress: We`re Really Rolling Along," Detroit Free Press, May 17, 1954. 2 April 24, 1951, 404.) The intersection witnessed its first traffic jam the day after it opened in 1955. As an important example of an early free-way design, the Ford-Lodge intersection has been determined eligible for the National Register even though it is not yet 50 years old.

Instead of the one-room schoolhouse, suburban schools offered a highly structured system of education from grade school to high school. Many schools, like Creekside Elementary in Bloomington, Minn., built in 1960 and now a community center, have nice detailing and are good examples of the era`s architectural preferences. Community colleges spared students from facing urban campuses. Public libraries were another sign of a maturing community.

Some forward-thinking suburbs planned extensive systems of parks and other amenities. Others did not, to their great discomfort later. An example is Richfield, Minn., which relied on leased airport property for its golf course, one of the most substantial works of landscape architecture in the community. Now the airport is expanding and there is no vacant land in Richfield, so golfers will have to use the already crowded courses in adjacent suburbs-or settle for mini-golf at the nearby Mall of America. Local golfers held a farewell party for the course before it was flattened by a fleet of bulldozers.

Religion also found a place in suburbia. Most denominations had "home mission" divisions that sent workers to organize new congregations just as they supplied missionaries to Africa, Asia, and other foreign locales. The American Lutheran Church, for example, managed a revolving fund from which young congregations could borrow for support until membership grew. According to the April 1951 issue of the Lutheran Herald, this revolving fund made "it possible for the newly organized congregation to go about its work without being concerned about borrowing money here and there, without conducting premature campaigns for funds, and without making the new church basement redolent with the odor of meat balls and lutefisk." 2 Another 1951 issue of the Herald had an article on Levittown and the church the Lutherans had established there. Other articles show that the Lutherans were clearly aware of the challenges and opportunities of suburbia. The Board of Home Missions offered standard plans for starter churches.

Other churches and other denominations made stronger architectural statements with designs that explored new construction techniques and materials, such as Chevy Chase Baptist Church and the Cathedral of Christ the King, both dating from the 1960s and located in Lexington, Kentucky. The construction cost of the cathedral was over $1 million.

God`s justice was not always sufficient to maintain the peace on the modern frontier. Professional police and firefighters required facilities to house offices, police cars, and fire engines. They also needed jails for the outlaws who hadn`t gotten the message that suburbia was supposed to be a safe, crime-free place. The center of law and order was city hall. Examples from Minneapolis suburbs illustrate two points. The first is from Bloomington, now the third-largest city in Minnesota and the proud home of the Mall of America. Just across the street from the current city hall is a humble two-story gable-roofed building, until 1964 the community`s seat of government. Bloomington became a town in 1858, but it took more than a century for it to gain city status in 1960. The old town hall highlights a significant point: suburbs typically overtook small rural communities with generations of memories. While sprawl hit these communities with the subtlety of a steamroller, it did not usually quash the guardians of the lore of bygone times.

As suburbs increasingly try to establish their own identity, just like the frontier colonies that evolved from wilderness way stations to mature metropolises, they are turning to that rural past to find meaning. The challenge will be to broaden their appreciation for the past to include the recent past, which could be considered far more significant to their history than the farm-house of a 19th-century settler.

Another telling city-hall tale is that of Eden Prairie, Minn., where "McMansions" have gobbled up farmland at an incredible rate. Eden Prairie`s population jumped from 1,400 in 1950 to 3,200 in 1960, but the old-timers who complained about the growth hadn`t seen anything yet: today more than 50,000 people call the city home. A city hall built in the mid-1960s was found to be obsolete after about two decades of service. After expanding into temporary facilities, city hall moved three years ago to a complex with a variety of city functions, including the local historical society. The brief life of Eden Prairie`s 1960s city hall epitomizes the rapid rate of change in suburbia, a phenomenon that may result in gaps in our cultural resource heritage from this period unless we selectively and thoughtfully identify buildings from the recent past that merit protection.

National Trust Advisors from around the country are beginning this identification process and have provided some interesting examples. Not all of these buildings are suburban. Some, indeed, are high-style urban landmarks designed by locally or nationally prominent architects. Examples include a classroom building from the University of Denver designed by Smith Hagner Moore in 1949 (now used for city offices), the Denver Art Museum by James Sudler with Gio Ponti from the 1960s, the delicate domes of the Denver Botanic Gardens (designated a local landmark), the Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver (listed in the National Register), and the Minneapolis Public Library, built in 1959 as part of a major urban renewal project and now slated for demolition.

University campuses experienced an increase in post-war period building as their facilities were taxed by the GI bill and the baby boom. The Memorial Coliseum at the University of Kentucky in Lexington was designed by local architect John T. Gillig, a 1909 graduate of the School of Architecture at Ohio State. Mr. Gillig, who had worked in New York, Cleveland, and Washington before settling in Lexington, clearly kept up with modern architectural trends in designing this monumental structure, dedicated in 1950. And of course the chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs by Walter Netsch with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill gained instant popular landmark status from the moment of its construction in the late 1950s. The Aspen Institute`s Aspen Meadows, the product of Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, brought European design to the Rocky Mountains in the 1950s.

Other examples come from the National Park Service, which sometimes faces internal conflict because of its responsibilities to manage both natural and cultural resources. The visitors` centers at Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Parks are hardly one with nature. We probably wouldn`t build anything like them today, but they are very telling of what the park service was up to in the 1960s. A number of the agency`s buildings from this period are now reaching the age where they require renovation or removal.

While many post-war buildings continue to serve their original functions or have been adapted to new uses, others are not so fortunate. Currigan Hall, Denver`s convention center dating from 1969, is now threatened and local preservationists are waging a battle to save it. In Minnesota, the Metropolitan Sports Center, once just across the road from the Mall of America, bit the dust a few years ago. The mall occupies the site of the 1960s Minnesota Twins baseball stadium. Home plate survives in its original location somewhere near Camp Snoopy.

The high-style buildings of the post-war era, like the more vernacular buildings typical in suburbia, are entering that vulnerable period where they are no longer new but are not yet old enough to be appreciated by the general public. As their boilers, windows, and roofs require expensive repairs, as their interiors look outdated, as their original functions become obsolete, as their sites skyrocket in value, these buildings are easy candidates for demolition. Their death sentence is often received with little protest from the public. If preservationists do rally to the cause, they are often without the traditional weapon of the Section 106 process, which applies only to federally funded projects and includes only National Register- eligible buildings. Properties usually must be at least 50 years old to qualify for the National Register, a rule waved only for exceptionally significant properties-a claim that relatively few post-war properties can make.

Fashionable people in the 1920s hated anything Victorian. In the 1950s, many thought Art Deco was ugly. Now, properties from the post-World War II era are having their chance to be despised by some, ignored by most. Institutional buildings seem to be particularly easy to overlook. With the pace of change accelerating with every passing year, we need to be more thoughtful and aggressive about preserving both characteristic and exceptional properties from this era. Otherwise, we`ll look back in a few decades and find a big hole in our cultural resource heritage. Note: Invaluable information on significant post-World War II buildings from around the country was provided to the author by Barbara Hulette and Ellen Fisher, National Trust Advisors from Kentucky and Colorado, respectively, as well as by Jim Lindberg from the National Trust`s Mountains/Plains Office and local Denver preservationist Diane Wray.

Publication Date: Fall 2000


Author(s):Charlene Roise

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