By Richard Moe | From Preservation | May/June 2008
As I've stated on many occasions, the mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is to help preserve the places that tell America's story—the whole story, in all its glorious diversity. That narrative begins in the distant past and continues right up to this very minute. It is told in ancient archaeological sites and in places that were designed and built in our own lifetime.
Our mission now inspires a new programmatic initiative that focuses on the preservation of modernism and the recent past. Like the initiatives we've launched to deal with sustainability and cultural resources on public lands, this one will tap into the full range of expertise in every office of the National Trust. We aim to increase awareness of the significance of buildings and landscapes that many people consider "too new" to merit our concern (a challenge this issue of Preservation embraces enthusiastically) and to develop tools and methods to ensure their preservation.
Though the initiative is new, the subject is one we've been addressing for some time. On many occasions we've used our annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places to spotlight significant examples of post-World War II design that were at risk of being lost. Thanks in part to the catalyst provided by our listing, some of the threatened sites have been rescued and returned to active use: The rehabilitation of Oklahoma City's 1956 Gold Dome Bank, for example, won a National Preservation Award last year.
Recently, our mountains/plains office has been working with Colorado Preservation, Inc., to save and find a new use for an innovative airplane hangar built in 1959. In Maryland, strong advocacy by our staff, members, and partners was instrumental in preventing the demolition of the 1969 COMSAT Laboratories, a sleek modernist masterwork by famed architect Cesar Pelli, and our northeast office helped win a similar reprieve for Gordon Bunshaft's iconic Wilde Building of 1957 on the CIGNA campus near Hartford. See page 8 for a full account of the Trust's preservation activities related to modernism and the recent past.
Despite such valiant efforts, many important structures of relatively recent vintage have not fared well in recent years. Among them are some that appeared on our 11 Most list: New York City's 2 Columbus Circle (1964) has been stripped of its distinctively quirky facade, many historic motels along Route 66 still face an uncertain future, and the Mapes Hotel (1947) in Reno, Nev., and the groundbreaking Guthrie Theatre (1963) in Minneapolis are already gone.
The fate of those and other buildings is a compelling reminder that landmarks of modernism and the recent past are just as fragile as their more venerable counterparts. It would be tragic to lose these places just as we're beginning to acknowledge their importance as part of our history. Our new initiative aims to ensure that doesn't happen again.
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