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

Mid-century masterpiece – Arapahoe Acres

It is rare that really good mid-century modern architecture finds itself not confined to the design of an isolated building.  So much of the ethos of that period of Modernism was committed to making unique, site- and client-specific buildings, that it is unusual to see a cluster of homes that all reflect the design ambitions of Modernism.  Arapahoe Acres in Englewood, Colorado is one of the shining exceptions.

Arapahoe Acres is a small, planned residential development bounded by more conventional developments and houses in suburban Englewood, just south of Denver.  There are 124 houses, ranging from 850 to 2,500 square feet and all with flat or slightly pitched roofs and clearly unmistakable Modernist intentions.  These are not all unique designs for individual clients, but rather a series of types, with significant variations, laid out on a curvilinear street pattern with knot-like semi cul-de-sacs.  Most of the homes were designed between 1949 and 1957 by the developer and self-taught architect Edward Hawkins.

Arapahoe Acres recently held their annual home tour featuring the interior and exteriors of about 8 homes.  What is most striking is that these relatively little houses were so thoughtfully planned and finished that few significant additions or harmful renovations have been executed.  As the neighborhood is on the National Register as a Historic District, this would limit maybe the worst abuses, but I think the reason for the lack of alterations is more due to the open planning, careful spatial layering and utility that pervades these houses.  So while many of them are quite small, the extensive use of natural materials, including some really nice masonry, and clear and simple expressive structural framing lends a quietude and richness that has argued well for many decades for retaining them as originally designed.

If you have a chance, take a drive around the neighborhood and you will see how really interesting it is.  It is certainly suburban and houses all the difficulties that also plague most post-war car-centered developments.  But the theme and variation, simple massing and consistent aesthetic makes for a very pleasing little oasis within the larger undifferentiated suburban sprawl of south Denver.  And of course it is worth noting that this forward-looking development of well-designed and built homes, though now “historic”, is still light-years ahead of most current developments with cheesy fake-Victorian model homes, wood composite siding and faux stone chateaus.  Arapahoe Acres embodies the positive, can-do attitude of post-war America where the future was eagerly anticipated and the best was yet to come.

(Much of the history of Arapahoe Acres info above was gathered from the AA tour guide as assembled by Diane Wray Tomasso, resident and neighborhood historian)