Down They Come
Still the Modern buildings come down. Sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes in the clear light of day, the neighborhood or the nation awakens to find one more historic property, a distinguished building from the recent past, lying in heaps. How can we allow this callow disregard for our cultural heritage to continue?
Remarkably, human intention, not hurricanes or flood, accounts for much of the damage. During the past year, in March 2002 we lost the Maslon House by Richard Neutra. Located at the Tamarisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, the house (built in 1962) represented an unfolding, mature essay from the architect’s later period, which ended with his death in 1970. Over the years, many of Neutra’s primary structures have been threatened, despite his seminal role in the development of the Modern movement in California and throughout the country.
This egregious teardown may have been the most celebrated of the past year, but it sadly was not the only significant loss. In greater Los Angeles alone, the country lost Rudolf Schindler’s Packard (built in San Marino in 1924) and Wolfe houses (Avalon, California, 1928), along with the more notorious Maslon fiasco in Palm Springs.
Other properties may prove more fortunate, though they’re within an inch of their lives. On Long Island, a coalition of forces has apparently saved the Conger Goodyear House, a 1938 gem by Edward Durrell Stone for Goodyear, the first president of the Museum of Modern Art. In that more fortunate case, the World Monuments Fund, which had listed the Old Westbury, Long Island, house among its 2002 list of the “100 Most Endangered Sites,” pulled together a funding group including the Barnett Newman Foundation, which purchased the house; the Monument Fund’s own capital, which will finance necessary repair work; and the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities of Cold Spring Harbor, which will hold title to the property until a permanent buyer can be found. International, national, and local resources—all three—were required.
Not all Modern buildings at risk are houses. Any student of architecture who cut teeth in the 1960s or ’70s remembers Ralph Rapson’s dramatic renderings of the interior of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis (1963). Yet it too may bite the dust by the year 2005 without positive intervention. As of this writing, the future of Saarinen’s TWA terminal remains unresolved, the subject of intense debate. Edward Durrell Stone’s formerly vilified and much-discussed Huntington Hartford Museum, by contrast, has apparently found a buyer. Time marches on.
It isn’t as if no one cared. While architects play significant roles in historic preservation through the National Trust or the Monuments Fund, one organization stands committed to preserving Modernism per se in 40 countries: DOCOMOMO, founded in Eindhoven, Holland, in 1988. Its ungainly, memorable name stands for “DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement.”
Architects, fortunately, can be part of the solution. All persons interested in the tissue of history, the material links of ideas, or in the physical proof of civilization, should decry the senseless demolition or alteration of any great works, including those of the recent past. Our challenge will be to educate others and get them to co-opt our enthusiasms. The public, which includes our own clients and public-building officials, regularly falls prey to economic and development pressures, as well as current fashion. We will need to offer them reasons, legal remedies, and shared passion to prevail. Had anyone in Rancho Mirage, outside the cognoscenti, heard of Richard Neutra? Had anyone singled out the Maslon House for honor or historic respect? Who stands up for the great Modern buildings in your own community? After all, the story is ours to tell, and the subject is the one we love best.