Preserving Modernism

That title may seem like an oxymoron to some folks but the reality is that Modernism as a philosophy and style of architecture is about 100 years old.  The national standard for the consideration of historic and architectural significance is 50 years old or greater.  More importantly, with the passage of time we have seen that mid-century modern homes and other buildings, once the objects of scorn, are now eagerly sought after and enthusiastically restored.  Arapahoe Acres in Denver is the best local example of mid-century residential development but there are so many individual buildings not recognized or protected.

Arapahoe Acres houses

There are three major reasons why these buildings, often beautifully designed and extremely well-built, are so frequently on the roles of demolitions.  The first is simple house size.  The average size house has doubled since the 1950s and of course so have buyer’s expectations.  Most folks are no longer willing to share a single bathroom or live with 8′ x 10′ bedrooms.  And these mid-century modern homes certainly do not have the swelling show kitchens of newer builder homes.

kitchen and family space in Arapahoe Acres house

The second reason is familiarity.  Most folks in the United States now recognize the need and desire for preserving some portions of our architectural past.  The frankly fetishistic preservation of every Victorian shack knows no bounds.  However, so many of us find it hard to believe that the small, cramped houses that we grew up in can have any lasting architectural value that the temptation is to demolish these buildings blinded as we are by our own myopic histories.  Not many of us were raised in the grand Victorian houses that represent so much of historic districts across the country.  They seem like sentinels of a better time and place – large, spacious rooms, fine craftsmanship, broad lawns.  However, all the crappy, drafty junky shed-like houses and tenements where the vast majority of people lived have been torn down (or fell down on their own).  The preserved fine homes of yesteryear are only a very small and select portion of the housing stock of that era.  My thoughts would extend as well to the mid-century houses in a similar fashion – save the very best, not all the rest.

window/masonry detail, mid-century modern house

The third reason is a phantom – the bogey man of energy efficiency.  I am not going to argue that these houses are easy and cost-effective to heat or cool, they are not.  But neither are their Victorian cousins with the huge interior volumes and equal lack of insulation.  The thin, non-thermally-broken aluminum windows of the 1950s-70s are truly dreadful in both R-value and air infiltration, but the vast majority of a house’s energy loss is through the wall envelope and the windows usually represent no more than 10% of the building’s energy losses.  Blowing in insulation in wall cavities, adding it in ceiling/roofs, does far better than replacing windows and is the same need and process for a Modernist house as it for any other style and era of architecture.

As a local example, the City of Boulder has hundreds of individually landmarked buildings in addition to the 10 historic districts (which are largely made up of traditional, non-Modern buildings).  Of these hundreds of buildings, there are only about 5 that are Modernist in design and sensibility.  Two of them, a house and a multi-family residence, are designed by noted local architect Glen Huntington:

Huntington Arms

Thornton House

Only one of works of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s finest Modernist architect, is individually landmarked.  Few of the houses of James Hunter, Jacques Hampton and many other notable architects are protected although many of these buildings are at least as architecturally significant as so many other protected works.   I am not advocating a battle between saving yet another generic Victorian house versus a really fine mid-century masterpiece like the Willard House.  Preservation is not a mutually-exclusive game.  I am advocating looking at our recent past, to buildings and houses of the 1950’s- 1970’s and carefully assessing their value and meaning and providing some protections for the really great works among them.

Willard House, by Charles Haertling
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2 thoughts on “Preserving Modernism

  1. Great commentary – I currently do not like the slow economics and movement of the real estate industry right now however, find it comforting that many of the mid century modern homes boldozed to build mcmansions with no design esthetic at all are now being bought and refubished into wonderful green LEED compatable homes. There is a wonderful Hunter home at 1224 Marisposa in Boulder right now that 2 years ago would have been gone. I think the new economic conditions will help people to realize that the huge size of the 1990’s home is not good and refurbishing great design is worth the money and effort in the long run. There are great tax credits if owners do the work to get designated historic.

  2. Good point. In Boulder, at the Landmarks Board meetings, we are seeing a lot fewer demos than we did a couple of years ago. That certainly is good and probably means a number of good buildings are saved along the way. The worst offenders of rash demolitions were speculative builder/developers and I think those folks are hurting so bad that we don’t see that work.
    I will be posting an article on the costs/benefits of individual landmark designations for your house with specific interest to mid-century modernist houses.

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