The “recent past” is a term commonly used to discuss historic and architectural resources younger than 50 years old. It is estimated that they make up approximately 70 percent of our built environment. The importance of mid-century, post-war, or “underage resources” has been the subject of numerous books and articles and has even reared its head in the mainstream media. Despite increasing interest and enthusiasm for the preservation of the recent past, the preservation of these resources poses significant challenges, ranging from a general lack of appreciation to unsympathetic alterations to demolition.
The decades following WWII witnessed an explosion of architectural innovation, much of it taking place here in the United States. The diverse inventory includes iconic buildings of international architectural significance such as Mies van der Rohe’s Farnworth House as well as the ubiquitous architecture of the ordinary ranch house. The recent past story is certainly about the icons but also needs to be told through the less prominent places that are equally important to a local community and its sense of place. From early fast food restaurants to drive-through branch banks to post-war suburbia, these places have much to tell us about who we are today, who we were, and the ways we lived during the past half century.
The National Park Service’s Recent Past Initiative website (www2.cr.nps.gov/tps/recentpast) describes the great variety of 20th-century resources, and their cultural importance, this way: “From futuristic coffee shops and soaring airport terminals to the homes of the postwar suburbs, 20th century architecture embodies the aspirations, priorities, challenges and successes of our recent history. They include the libraries and community centers constructed by New Deal agencies to contend with the Great Depression, factories where the World War II generation assembled tanks and planes, schools built for the postwar baby boom and glass-walled office parks that symbolized American business. Such properties reflect the varied lives that unfolded within them, and contribute to a diverse and dynamic 20th century landscape ranging from bridges to public buildings.”
Preserving and appreciating what remains of the recent past will be extremely important for telling the story of America after WWII. Unfortunately, many of these places are now seen as dated or unfashionable -- and rarely valued as “historic.” Far too often, structures from the recent past, whether simple or sublime, are perceived as expendable, unattractive, or unworthy of preservation. But these resources cannot be overlooked, dismissed, or devalued simply because of how they look or because they no longer meet today’s tastes or preferences.
Threats to Recent Past Resources
It was the great wave of suburbanization and urban renewal that helped bring about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Vast swaths of farmland disappeared beneath suburban-style ranch houses, new roads, and shopping malls. From the rubble of urban centers devastated by the Great Depression rose glass-and-steel skyscrapers, housing projects, and modern municipal buildings. “Progress” was often synonymous with destruction of historic architecture, which fell to make way for new schools, homes, strip malls, and factories. Ironically, over four decades later, once again in the name of “progress” we are now confronted with the preservation of those once “new” buildings.
These “replacement” structures are now facing many of the same problems that condemned the buildings that came before -- lack of public appreciation, perceived obsolescence, development pressures, and insensitive alterations and additions. They also face threats that their prewar counterparts did not face. Many were constructed with fragile, experimental, or short-lived materials. In addition, because they are not yet 50 years old, many of the buildings constructed during this post-war period are often mistakenly not yet considered eligible for historic designation which would give them more credibility in the eyes of the preservation movement and public.
Lack of Appreciation
Every generation has a style of architecture that it considers expendable. Today many consider the architecture of the recent past to be as expendable as its Victorian counterparts once were. Although “famous maker homes,” such as those designed by noted architect Joe Eichler or by Charles and Ray Eames, may be featured in glossy architecture magazines and in the New York Times and Newsweek, appreciation does not always translate to preservation. The 1962 Maslon House (aka Rancho Mirage) by Richard Neutra, considered one of the world’s most influential architects, was recently auctioned by Sotheby’s and acquired for $2.45 million. Unfortunately the house was not protected by any local landmark programs (the city of Rancho Mirage has no historic preservation ordinance), and despite the efforts of local advocates to save the house, the new owners demolished it.
Preservationists aren’t necessarily immune to a bite by the style bug either. Within the preservation ranks, considerable debate exists on the preservation worthiness of the recent past. Some preservationists don’t consider the resources of the recent past to merit much concern, while others question the need for a new approach to encourage preservation.
It is easy enough to understand why preservationists would be ambivalent about preserving the architecture of the recent past, for it was the construction of many of these buildings that caused them to stand in front of the wrecking ball in the first place. One example is Pittsburgh’s space age–style Civic Arena which bisected a historic neighborhood and left part of it cut off from downtown. The Arena, the largest retractable dome-roofed structure in the world, is threatened with demolition and replacement with a new structure. Another is the 30- acre Capitol Park development in Washington, D.C., which dates to the 1950s and ’60s, and is considered one of the first and largest urban renewal projects in the area. It was named to the D.C. Preservation League’s Ten Most Endangered List in 2003 and is currently threatened by demolition and private development. These resources bear the stigma of an era that wiped out thousands and thousands of historic buildings. Yet the unwillingness to acknowledge the potential significance of these sites conflicts with one of the major goals of the preservation movement -- to preserve our built heritage.
To complicate matters, in addition to its contextual baggage, much architecture of the recent past carries aesthetic baggage as well. For many, it is difficult to understand and appreciate, and the simplicity of much post-war architecture can make it hard to distinguish a “good” or “bad” example of a building. This can make the critical process of survey, documentation, and evaluation subjective and challenging.
Alteration and Development Pressure
The United States is experiencing a building boom which rivals that of the years following WWII. Just as homes, apartment blocks, factories, and office buildings that had weathered the Great Depression and World War II faced obsolescence after the war, so too do an increasing number of resources built in the postwar period. It seems that the faster the rate of development increases, the faster the expected life span of a building decreases. Traditionally, it was believed that the useful life span was 30 years for a house and 25 years for commercial property. Many properties are now reaching or have already reached the age when they will be candidates for cosmetic changes, substantial alterations, or even demolition.
The resources that do escape demolition often can’t avoid alteration. As architecture critic David Dunlap noted, “not all of these losses involve outright demolition, subtle changes are constantly erasing post war design.”1 Depending on the scale of the building this could have a profound impact on the property’s appearance. Original materials are often removed or replaced because they are either difficult to repair, dated looking, or both.
Such was the case with the Florsheim Building in Chicago, designed by the firm of Shaw, Metz and Dolio and completed in 1949. It was one of the first buildings constructed in downtown Chicago following World War II and was described in the AIA Guide to Chicago as “the first major Chicago structure to emphatically embrace the design elements of European modernism.” The building was converted to residential use in 1997 and dramatically, irrevocably, and unsympathetically altered.
The 50-Year Rule
In 1966, when the first list of properties in the National Register was established, it contained a total of 868 resources, and of those, 24 met Criteria Consideration “G,” which states that a property achieving significance within the past 50 years is eligible if it is of exceptional importance. Thus when the National Register was first established, less than 3 percent of the resources were “underage.” Almost 40 years later, this percentage remains nearly the same. According to the Recent Past Preservation Network, “as of January 2003, 2,332 of the nearly 76,000 listings in the National Register have been nominated under Criteria Consideration G.”2
Because the National Register allows for buildings to be nominated for their national, state or local significance, it greatly expands the category of what can be considered exceptionally significant. Yet, despite this provision for underage resources, many people mistakenly believe a building must be 50 years old to be listed in the National Register. In other instances, neither the local community nor the state historic preservation office consider resources younger than 50 years old to be even worthy of consideration, and so they are likely to show bias in evaluating them or to reject the nomination outright.
The National Register is a valuable preservation tool, but in large part it is essentially a voluntary program for the private citizen and can do little to prevent demolition or alteration by private individuals. Generally, the only way to prevent demolition resulting from a nonfederal action is through a local landmark designation program or zoning overlay program that has the authority to prevent demolition.
But while the National Register allows for properties less than 50 years old to be listed, many local governments impose a 50-year rule without exceptions.3 Thus, a property could be listed in the National Register but not be eligible for local landmark designation. Consequently, the biggest problem that many of these resources face is that they lack real protection at the local level.
Gaining historic designation, whether at the national, state, or local level, provides credibility -- a key tool for building public support. Without this, advocating for an underage resource is far more challenging.
Efforts to Examine and Preserve the Recent Past
Preservation of the recent past is by no means a new topic. Indeed since the preservation movement began, “underage resources” have always been threatened, the most notable example being Pennsylvania Station in New York. The neo-classical masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead and White was demolished in 1966, just shy of its 50th birthday. Its demolition helped galvanize the American preservation movement. In the decades following the passage of the Historic Preservation Act in 1966, there has been a steadily increasing interest in preserving underage resources, beginning with the establishment in 1977 of the Society for Commercial Archaeology, a national organization devoted to the buildings, artifacts, structures, signs, and symbols of the 20th-century commercial landscape.
In a 1978 article, “Remember Our Not So Distant Past,” which appeared in Preservation magazine, professor emeritus of history and founder of the historic preservation program at the University of Vermont, Chester Liebs, asked, “Will historic preservation be able to accept and selectively conserve the architectural species of the modern era?” In 1979, only 13 years after the National Historic Preservation Act was passed, the Department of the Interior issued How-To Guide No.2: How to Evaluate and Nominate Potential National Register Properties that Have Achieved Significance Within the Last Fifty Years. The guide was written to “inform those who need to make recommendations of exceptional significance.”
DoCoMoMo, an international organization focusing on documentation and conservation of the modern movement, was created in the Netherlands in 1988 and a U.S. chapter was established in 1995/96. (www.docomomous.org) Local chapters are now operating in the New York tri-state area, northern California, Midwest, Philadelphia, western Washington, and New England.
In recent years, two national conferences cosponsored by the National Park Service and the Association for Preservation Technology have been held on the recent past: Preserving the Recent Past, Chicago, 1995, and Preserving the Recent Past, Philadelphia, 2000.
The Recent Past Preservation Network, a web-based advocacy initiative, was established in 2000 to assist preservationists by providing an open community platform for the development and revision of practical strategies to document, preserve, and reuse historic places of the recent past. (www.recentpast.org)
There is also growing interest and activism occurring at the statewide and local levels. In Los Angeles, through the umbrella of the LA Conservancy, the Modern Committee or ModCom (www.modcom.org) formed in 1984 in response to the growing destruction of post-war buildings. The all-volunteer group focuses on the preservation of 20th-century architecture and related concerns through tours, exhibits, research, and direct advocacy efforts.
Also in California is the Eichler Network, a “life-support” and technical assistance tool for homeowners of famed Eichler-designed residences and subdivisions. Operating primarily in northern California, this initiative relies on web-based tools and convenings to help build voluntary support to insure the integrity of the architecture. Efforts include a resource directory, design guidelines, and nomination of sites to the California and National Registers. (www.eichlernetwork.com)
In Wildwood, N.J., the Doo Wop Preservation League was established in 1977 to advocate for and preserve Wildwood’s collection of mid-century commercial (or “Doo Wop”) architecture. (www.doowopusa.org) In Miami, Fla., Miami Modern (MiMo) formed to advocate for its now-threatened 1950s and ’60s–era hotels located north of South Beach. In Texas, Preservation Dallas has taken an interest in its recent past by sponsoring tours and events on the subject, resulting in sell-out crowds. Houston, Tex., has also started a modernism committee.
Numerous statewide preservation organizations have placed recent past resources on their endangered lists. In 2003 the Preservation League of New York State put the 1964 2 Columbus Circle building on its annual Seven to Save list. The Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois placed Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital on its annual Ten Most Endangered list. Preservation New Jersey included Lustron Homes in New Jersey on its annual endangered list.
Neighborhoods from the recent past are now gaining local historic district designation, especially in the western states. Perhaps no place better illustrates this than Phoenix, Ariz., with more than 25 districts -- many of which include post-war residential examples.
As said before, threats to postwar resources are not unlike those facing other historic resources, whether they are endangered by outright demolition, alteration, redevelopment, or neglect. What is different perhaps is the approach needed to encourage preservation of the recent past.
Engage New Audiences
Probably the greatest problem surrounding the recent past is the public’s lack of appreciation for and understanding of mid-century architecture. In some instances the threat and loss are acknowledged, perhaps even lamented. But in others, the loss is largely unnoticed as the public may not know the value of these places or how to advocate for a preservation alternative. The most important thing that can be done to preserve the architecture of the recent past is to educate the public about its importance and unite the emerging popular interest in preserving the recent past with proper preservation practices. The precedent for doing this and added value can be traced to the appreciation of Victorian architecture in the early 20th century and the resurgence of interest in Art Deco architecture in Miami’s South Beach district.
Presently there is tremendous interest in mid-century culture ranging from furnishings to artwork. From television and product development to advertising, popular culture clearly illustrates this comeback. Indeed “Retro Modernisms” was the theme of Time magazine’s 2004 special style and design issue. As demonstrated by the article, those interested, however, are not necessarily preservationists or aware of the greater preservation movement. This audience appears to be younger and more diverse. Many organizations, such as the LA Conservancy, have used the interest in the recent past to attract a new audience and build membership.
Question the 50-Year Rule
As stated previously, the 50- year rule for historic designation can be an obstacle for preserving many recent past resources. If a building cannot achieve national, state, or local designation, it can be challenging to convince the public of its quality and value, or to build proactive support for it at the local level. The issue of age is highly controversial. Many see it as an artificial filter, especially because so many significant resources are lost before their 50-year mark.
It’s important to look at alternative approaches. Some communities have a waiting list of buildings to designate once they cross the temporal eligibility threshold. Others, such as Chicago, are beginning to survey their mid-century resources. Still other communities are amending their ordinances to reduce or eliminate the age restrictions. The city of Chicago imposes no age restriction on locally designated landmarks and has a number of underage buildings listed including Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Inland Steel Building, completed in 1957. It was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1998.3
The question of whether age matters is part of an evolving discussion of what is significance and why should we preserve the recent past. Some argue that if these resources struggle to meet the test of “the first, the last, or the best,” then other criteria will be needed to determine their value.
Promote Continued Use and Rehabilitation
Recent past resources are less often considered for the historic rehabilitation tax credit program. To date only about 200 buildings younger than 50 years old have been rehabbed with the help of the tax credit. Sometimes buildings aren’t considered simply because the structures don’t look “historic” and therefore the program is overlooked.
Despite the inherent challenges of utilizing the historic rehab tax credit for the rehabilitation of recent past resources, there are some success stories. One example is the 1954, 36-story Republic Bank Building in Dallas which is undergoing conversion into apartments.
Buildings from the recent past also present unique challenges to rehabilitation. They may contain greater amounts of hazardous materials such as asbestos. Depending on use, character defining features such as large fixed windows might pose problems. Perhaps the most troubling issue is how to, and whether to, replace original materials that have failed or are no longer in production. The Lustron House, for example, example, was an innovative, prefabricated post-war house made entirely of porcelain enamel coated steel panels. Only about 2,800 of the houses were produced between 1948 and 1950. Since production ceased, almost half have been lost to unsympathetic alteration and demolition. Finding replacement parts for damaged or deteriorating sections is tough, especially since the machinery that made the parts for the house is no longer in existence.
Showcase Best Practices
Not all news about the recent past is bad. Consider the following examples:
Arapahoe Acres, in Denver, Colo., was the first post- WWII subdivision listed in the National Register thanks to a grassroots, all-volunteer initiative and network of homeowners.
The Downey, Calif., McDonald’s is considered the original McDonald’s prototype, yet it was once threatened by demolition. Saved by the LA Conservancy with help from a listing as one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, it is now one of the McDonald’s Corporation’s most profitable enterprises thanks to a heritage marketing program.
Advocacy efforts for the Gold Dome in Oklahoma City, Okla., illustrate a wide range of creative and extremely effective strategies including the use of bumper stickers, T-shirts, regularly scheduled demonstrations supporting saving the structure, and even a CD with a song about the dome.
Phoenix Ariz., has a provision for properties to be locally designated if they are exceptionally significant. Phoenix has a number of local and National Register historic districts which include properties less than 50 years old. These districts are popular places to live because of the State Historic Property Tax Reclassification (SPT) for Owner-Occupied Homes, which offers a substantial reduction in the state property tax assessment for eligible owners of National Register listed properties or properties in a local district.
All these successes were accomplished by building a greater appreciation for the recent past, and capturing that interest remains a key need. Each day hundreds of resources are lost to demolition and insensitive alteration. By leveraging the emerging interest in the recent past that exists today, we can build greater support for these resources in the future.
1 Dunlap, David, “Fifty Fifty Hindsight: Preserving Post War Modernism,” The Arts Club of Chicago, October 25, 1999.
2 The inventory of National Historic Landmarks also includes a number of properties that were younger than 50 years old at the time of listing, including the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the St. Louis Arch) by Eero Saarinen. The Gateway Arch was listed in the National Register in 1966 and designated as a NHL in 1987.
3 Of the five largest cities in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia), only two -- New York and Houston -- impose a minimum age in their ordinance for properties eligible for local designation. In New York City, the restriction is 30 years. Houston currently has an age restriction of 50 years but the ordinances are now being amended. Philadelphia does not have a firm age restriction, but it does have an established practice of waiting until the architect is deceased before designating his or her buildings.
Publication Date: Summer 2004