Now Presenting ... the 20th Century

The National Trust for Historic Preservation protects modernism and the recent past.

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Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill.

Credit: Carol Highsmith

For 50 years, Philip Johnson used his Glass House and the surrounding property as a laboratory for architectural innovation; now, as a National Trust for Historic Preservation historic site, the house and associated buildings are a focus of pioneering preservation efforts shedding new light on modernism and the recent past.

The National Trust  has acquired two of the nation's most admired modern buildings—Johnson's Glass House and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House (above). The structures—whose similar volumes and respective black-and-white frames form an architectural yin-yang—join other modern buildings among the Trust's historic sites.

"The National Trust is very committed to preserving modern heritage because we see it in perspective—that different architectural styles become important at different points in history," says Trust President Richard Moe. "We've always had the goal of including examples of the best of each style in our collection of historic sites. Much more important is our mission to inform Americans about the significance of these sites and the threats they face."

Indeed, despite gaining respect, modern architecture remains under siege. Even a site like the Farnsworth House was threatened with demolition when the National Trust acquired it in 2003—"by the skin of our teeth," as Moe says. (Landmarks Illinois was vital to that effort, and manages and operates the house today.) With their nontraditional forms and sometimes novel materials, modernist buildings can be difficult to appreciate, and many notable structures have been lost. In 2007, a house designed by Paul Rudolph was torn down in Westport, Conn., and two other Rudolph structures in Massachusetts and Florida remain at risk. Richard Neutra's 1962 Cyclorama building at Gettysburg National Military Park may come down soon, and his VDL House languishes in Los Angeles. In February, after preservationists convened a gathering that was part rally and part wake, both a 1915 neoclassical building and its 1962 addition by Romaldo Giurgola were torn down to expand the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Of equal concern is the rampant destruction of modern vernacular architecture and other sites from the recent past. Although "modern" and "recent past" are sometimes used interchangeably, the recent past generally refers to a broader, more diverse group of sites than those associated with "pure" modern architecture. Recent-past sites are usually less than 50 years old and may have more social than architectural merit, although their designs might be distinctive—the Doo Wop motels of Wildwood, N.J., for example, and La Laguna de San Gabriel in California, a fanciful 1960s playground that the city of San Gabriel wanted to destroy. Mid-20th-century neighborhoods in particular have suffered from a pervasive teardown trend that has replaced countless ranch houses with houses double and triple their size. Unlike a colonial governor's home or storied battlefield, these "everyday" places just don't seem historic to many people.

Beyond the question of whether to preserve modern buildings is the trickier matter of how to preserve them. "We have to be even better at what we do because we're encountering complex layers of place, memory, and the built environment," says Anthea Hartig, director of the National Trust's western office, which has played a lead role in the Trust's modernism efforts. The Trust regularly partners with such organizations as the Recent Past Preservation Network, the U.S. branches of two international groups—Docomomo (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement) and ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites)—and other national, state, and local counterparts.

The Glass House has already served as a proving ground for preservation. Before opening the property to the public last year, the Trust completed more than two dozen projects at the house, including replacing its flat roof and restoring its leather-tile bathroom ceiling. The staff distilled the lessons learned during the roof job into a detailed primer  (see philipjohnsonglasshouse.org), for homeowners to use when repairing or replacing their own roofs. The website also includes a recent-past resource guide, which lists books, articles, design guidelines, local surveys, and organizations.

"You have to be active outside your own walls and have a national viewpoint," says Glass House Executive Director Christy Maclear. To this end, her staff has launched a survey of the more than 90 modern residences nearby in New Canaan, Conn., that MacLear hopes will serve as a national prototype. The site also inaugurated a series of panel discussions with prominent architects and designers to address the challenges of preserving modern buildings.

Such dialogue is necessary not just because of the complexity of modern sites but also because of environmental sustainability. According to a 2004 Brookings Institution study, by 2030, 50 percent of all buildings in the United States will have been erected after 2000, and some 82 billion square feet of that built space will have replaced existing buildings—unless steps are taken to save them. It is no small challenge to encourage the economically viable and environmentally sound reuse of such a large stock of buildings, while honoring their history.

"Flexibility will be one of the key things in the coming years," says Barbara Campagna, the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust, "flexibility in how we define authenticity, in how we use buildings. We must find ways to rehabilitate these buildings and lighten their environmental footprint while protecting their architectural significance."

The National Trust will continue to advocate on behalf of threatened modern sites, which have often appeared on its annual 11 Most list. Previous lists have included 2 Columbus Circle, whose 1964 facade was demolished in 2006; the TWA Terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport, a 1962 Eero Saarinen masterpiece to which a new terminal has been added; and Ralph Rapson's 1963 Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, torn down in 2006. Recently, other sites—Richard Neutra's 1937 Kraigher House in Brownsville, Tex., and Gordon Bunshaft's 1957 CIGNA building in Bloomfield, Conn.—were saved from decay or demolition thanks to the National Trust's extensive advocacy efforts.

"This work is a natural progression of the Trust's congressional charge in 1949 to save really important examples of our heritage, in this case from the 20th-­century," Hartig says. "Some places are humble, others are majestic. We're fortunate that we still have so many wonderful examples of different design impulses and movements that have shaped place and space in our own lifetimes."

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