Is THAT Building Worth Saving? The Metrics of Preservation

The following post was authored by Principal Craig Williams, and states positions on a few current controversial issues. The positions are those of the author.

Friends and followers of the firm know that our practice was founded 35 years ago when we worked in many of Washington’s historic districts doing townhouse renovations and additions, along with the occasional commercial renovation in Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill. Back then, preservation was relatively simple. Being historic meant being old and primarily, traditional. The most modern it got was Art Deco. Even so, the Art Deco Penn Theater in the Capitol Hill Historic District was ruled a non-contributing structure in that district because it was constructed outside the time frame referenced in the historic district’s designation application. From the second half of the 1960s, through the 80s and beyond, if a building was a reasonably competent design in a recognized important past architectural style, it was considered worthy of landmark status. If an area had numerous structures representing a past style or collection of older styles, it could be designated as a historic district.

Penn Theater in the Capitol Hill Historic District

Penn Theater in the Capitol Hill Historic District

Historic Preservation laws were enacted in municipalities throughout the country, including New York City (1965) and here in Washington, DC (1978), which were two of the strongest when first passed. These laws often went beyond dictating the procedures for determining not only what must be saved, but also what could be modified, what could be added to, and what could be built new in a historic district. In fact, our building at 1718 Connecticut Avenue, was one of the first built under DC’s new law (indeed the first, and for more than a decade, the only one approved by the Joint Committee on Landmarks – precursor to the Historic Preservation Review Board – in a single presentation).

1718 Connecticut Ave. First building to pass Joint

1718 Connecticut Ave. The first building approved by the Joint Committee on Landmarks in a single presentation.

Now, fast forward several decades. As we get further into the 21st Century, the question of what is worthy of preservation becomes cloudier and cloudier. Actually, the subtitle of this post is in itself a bit misleading. The root of “metrics” is based on the ability to measure, and its connotation implies a concrete and mathematical method, or at least an objective criteria rather than subjective. But, now that early modernism (the European–isms of the 1910s) is a hundred years old, the International School soon approaching that benchmark, and Mid-Century Modern well past the 50-year mark that many preservationists have used as a minimum standard for the test of time, any sense of metrics become more difficult to define. [Note that the 50-year standard was one of the preservation movement’s few hard metrics, and even it was never accepted by all.] Today, three recent or current case studies across the country are bringing a sharp focus on the appropriate measures for landmark status and retention.

First is the recently demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital (1976) on the downtown Chicago campus of Northwestern University. This iconic building was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who also designed Marina City (the “corncob towers”) on the Chicago River. Few would argue that these buildings are not iconic; although, Marina City is the more iconic of the projects. On the other hand, iconic of what? And does iconic always equal worthy of preservation? Arguably, Goldberg was more a nonconformist and eccentric than a mainstream practitioner of mid-century modern architecture (his buildings certainly were).

Bertland Goldeberg's Marina City, Chicago, IL

Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, Chicago, IL

To some, Prentice was a Brutalist marvel, to others, an anti-urban, anti-humanist vanity. Nonetheless, by 2011 it was vacated and deemed unusable. The university found its non-linear floor plan and low floor-to-floor heights unsuitable for adaptive reuse. [Of note, such “practical difficulties” are seldom found to be sufficient grounds for the demolition of more traditional historic structures.]

Ultimately, it is a question of landmark status. Despite the urging of many notable architects, Prentice failed to gain official landmark status and met the wrecking ball in October of last year. Given our firm’s urbanist and humanist design druthers, I find this more a loss of a unique architectural oddity than that of a significant link in the architectural continuum. The building lacked detail, ground level interest, complexity, quality materials, and other markers of what we believe to be quality architecture. Is uniqueness, in and of itself, a sufficient metric for preservation?

Bertland Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital (demolished 2013)

Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (demolished 2013)

Next up is the Portland Building (a.k.a. the Portland Government Center) by Michael Graves and its notable sculpture, Portlandia, by DC-area sculptor Raymond Kaskey. [Side note: Ray was also the sculptor of Orpheus and Eurydice, the haut relief in the pediment of our Schermerhorn Symphony Center, in Nashville.] For some interesting perspective, let’s not forget that Mr. Graves, before his Target career, was a dyed-in-the-wool modernist. He was one of the “Whites,” as those published in the seminal 1975 book Five Architects were known, the anointed next generation of modernists. Along with the unrealized 1979 Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Bridge project, the 1983 Portland Building marked a departure into the realm of Post-Modernism. Graves certainly wasn’t among the earliest adopters of this renegade style, but perhaps because of his modernist credentials, the Portland Building marks a popular turning point in the greater acceptance of the Post-Modern movement.

Time has not been kind to this structure. Never popular, the building is much maligned by the citizens of Portland, and it was built on the cheap – less per square foot than a spec house, according to Graves. Debate on its future arises every few years, but now that it is facing $95 million in renovation costs, calls for its demolition emanate from some city commissioners. [See above: “practical difficulties” are seldom found to be sufficient grounds for demolition.] But, as with Prentice, the question comes down to landmark status. For the most part, and for better or worse, Post-Modernism has come and gone, but that is not to say that we did not learn valuable lessons from its occurrence. Post-Modernism was a roadblock in the unimpeded march of a banal, Americanized version of international Modernism and it made possible De-Constructivism, Neo-Eclecticism, Neo-Modernism and a myriad of blender-grid styles popular today known as Edge Architecture.

Michael Graves' Portland Building

Michael Graves’ Portland Building

According to the website, The Atlantic Cities, locals care more about the fate of Kaskey’s Portlandia than the building itself. In a recent conversation I had with Ray, he felt that demolition would be unfortunate, as would removing his sculpture and placing it on a pedestal elsewhere. He stated that the building and sculpture complete each other. Graves clearly designed the building for a monumental sculpture and Ray designed the positioning, proportions, and gestures of the figure to work with the oversize keystone and other exaggerated elements of the building. He concluded that Portlandia on a pedestal would still be a nice sculpture, but not the same sculpture as it is on the building.

Ray 's Portlandia

Ray Kaskey’s Portlandia

Is Post-Modernism worthy of preservation? Perhaps, yes. Is this 31-year old building a worthy example? Harder to say. Well known, yes; well crafted, no; a prime and quality specimen of this style, I think not. Moreover, it fails the urbanist and humanist test, but, I admit, such a test is not necessarily a prerequisite for preservation. Time will tell if this is one of many debates on the Portland Building’s future or the final debate. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to get the greater perspective that another 20 years of hindsight could provide. I would want that perspective, if I had to decide.

Finally, I have saved the most conspicuous and controversial example for last. Articles, blog posts emanating from New York and beyond, and deluge of comment thereto, are all focused these days on New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) plans to demolish Tod Williams’ and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum building. I suspect this seesaw story may be far from over. Here’s the short, 13-year history: the Williams + Tsien building opens in 2001 to great acclaim from the architectural press and it receives the AIA National Honor Award in 2003. However, by 2011 the American Folk Art Museum was in default on $32 million in debt incurred to build the building and they sold it to MOMA to narrowly avoid bankruptcy. In January 2013, MOMA announces they would demolish the building to make way for their next expansion, only to reverse that decision after outcry from preservationist and architects. Yet, after commissioning a study by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, they changed course once again last month, and announced new plans to demolish the structure. No surprise, this led to another round of outcries.

Tod Williams’ + Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum Building, now owned by the Museum of Modern Art

From a sustainability standpoint, our firm espouses that the single most sustainable design move one can make is to design a building that will last, so we strive to craft timeless buildings that will be embraced by the community. It is a shame that a 13-year old building might be scrapped, but to think a suboptimal building of that age should be the focus of a preservation battle is equally troubling. While the Williams + Tsien design sang to elite critics and select architects, it failed to resonate with their client’s patrons and target audience. Despite the past and present acclaim, this architect finds it to be a failed building that does not stand the test of time. Its street presence is anti-humanist and cold (not to say an expanded MOMA will be better). Its galleries cramped and inflexible. Its circulation and organization confused. Ms. Diller has made valid points as to why retention of the building is not in its new owner’s best interest. Moreover, the calls for preservation of the façade are truly ironic, coming from the mouths of those who would probably label doing so with a traditional building “facadism, facadomy or facadectomy.” Stay tuned – MOMA hopes to begin demolition this spring.

So preservation controversies have moved from the Neo-Classical, Victorian, Nouveaux, and Early Modern to the Mid-Century Modern, Post-Modern, and Post-Post-Modern. As the dialog gets more confused, the passions will rise higher. There are no easy answers because there are no measurable metrics. Like it or not, these decisions ultimately require subjective value judgments; judgments as basic as what is a given building’s value to future generations.

Of note to DC area readers, Ray Kaskey’s archives have been donated to the National Building Museum and selected works will be exhibited in the show Cool & Collected: Recent Acquisitions, which opens March 8, 2014.

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