Saving Midcentury Modernist buildings in Pa. cities

     A view of the Pennsylvania State Museum and Archives Complex, built in 1964 by architects Ritchie Lawrie & M. Edwin Green, appears in the “PA Modern” exhibition. (Photo by Steve Bootay)

    A view of the Pennsylvania State Museum and Archives Complex, built in 1964 by architects Ritchie Lawrie & M. Edwin Green, appears in the “PA Modern” exhibition. (Photo by Steve Bootay)

    This time of year, people think “Out with the old, in with the new.” Yet there’s a growing appreciation for the not-so-old in Pa. cities.

    At this time of year, everyone’s thinking, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Yet there’s a growing appreciation for the not-so-old, and even a taste for what came before — specifically, the Cold War cool fashions and interior furnishings of the “Mad Men” era.

    Esteem for the style of Midcentury Modern — the period between the 1930s and 1970s — is spreading to its architecture, an expression of postwar optimism and Space Age imagination, and its leading designers, many of whom were trained or practiced their art in Pennsylvania.

    The commonwealth contains buildings by the giants of the period. Louis Kahn left his mark in revolutionary housing projects and individual homes around the state and on the University of Pennsylvania campus where he taught.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature can be found on both sides of Pennsylvania, from the gravity-defying house called Fallingwater near Pittsburgh to the majestic Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, the only synagogue he designed.  Buildings by internationally renowned architects and firms such as Oscar Stonorov and Mitchell/Giurgola and other, less known but visionary architects are found throughout Pennsylvania, where they developed a modern style that was boldly American.

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    In recent decades, many of the Midcentury Modern buildings have been razed for a variety of reasons. There was more concern for structures from earlier American history, there was little appreciation for Midcentury facades, and the buildings themselves were victims of experimental materials and construction techniques.

    Efforts are underway to reverse that trend, globally and locally. The Getty Foundation launched an international philanthropic initiative in 2014, Keeping It Modern, to support the preservation of iconic 20th century buildings around the world. The 2015 grant recipients included George Nakashima’s Arts Building and Cloister in New Hope, Pa., a project undertaken by the Penn preservation program.

    The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has been raising local consciousness of the city’s Midcentury Moderns, and has started an inventory of the existing resources, which currently includes 481 buildings. The Alliance’s Young Friends group, whose motto is “In With the Old,” led a successful social media campaign, Save the Saucer, to preserve the 1960s, UFO-shaped Fairmount Park Visitors Center.

    And in Harrisburg, the State Museum of Pennsylvania — itself a monument to modern architecture — is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a photography exhibit, “Pennsylvania Modern,” which continues through April 24.

    Reflection of an Age

    “The Keystone State may not be the first place people think of when it comes to modernist architecture. “In central Pennsylvania, we think of our farmsteads, and in the big cities we think of our Colonial or Early Republic buildings,” said Beth Hager, the curator of the State Museum exhibit. “But we also have a tremendous amount of Midcentury Modern. You’ll find it in any area where there was enormous growth in residential architecture after the Second World War, and it was the prevailing style across the state in institutional buildings.”

    The state’s world-class cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and its medium-sized cities demonstrated “great sophistication in the use of architects and developers,” Hager said. “These buildings were looking into the future, and Pennsylvania was ripe for this approach.”

    When the state government was planning a new complex devoted to Pennsylvania history, the choice was made not to create a replica of Independence Hall or some other iconic structure, but to have a building designed by the firm Lawrie & Green that reflected the mood of its time. “It’s what I call Apollo architecture. It was built during the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s. They were times when important things were happening; there were enormous changes taking place in science, and attitudes toward race relations and war,” said Hager, who is director of strategic initiatives for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

    But within a few decades, many of these expressions of Atomic Age ambition were deteriorating, remodeled, or demolished. The larger structures that served as hospitals, schools and office buildings had incorporated experimental heating and air conditioning systems, new approaches to concrete, glass and steel, and “a lot wasn’t worked out yet,” Hager said. It was a challenge to preserve the buildings, and many were significantly altered or replaced with new construction.

    The public also has a limited attention span for architectural styles. There was a time when Victorian design went out of favor, and elaborate homes and Tiffany lamps were destroyed and discarded. “It seems to take a 50-year period for things to be appreciated,” Hager said. “And it often takes a younger generation to come along and see something they like and bring it back into vogue.”

    Lost and rescued

    The renovation of Midcentury Modern architecture has been an ongoing challenge for preservationists. “A lot of these buildings have been so altered, it’s hard to see their value now,” explained Bill Whitaker, curator of the Penn Architectural Archives.

    Among the handful of buildings completed by Kahn in the last five years of his life was a factory in Harrisburg for the Olivetti office machine company. When the Italian company went out of business, the building was shuttered and remained vacant for many years. About 15 years ago it was renovated, but many of the characteristics of the Kahn design were lost in the process, Whitaker said.

    On the other hand, one of Kahn’s major housing projects, completed in 1944 with his partners George Howe and Oscar Stonorov, has received attention thanks to the families that have lived there for decades. Located just outside Coatesville, the federally funded Carver Court homes were built for African American weapons industry workers and their families. The current homeowners have rallied against a proposed solar farm that would require widespread tree removal, which may lead to flooding and erosion in the neighborhood.

    Carver hires 600 

    An archival photo of the Carver Court housing development designed in the 1940s by Louis Kahn, George Howe and Oscar Stonorov. (Photo courtesy of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)

    “There has been a grassroots effort to save the buildings by the people who have lived there since the 1940s. They have a strong connection to the site,” Whitaker said. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commissio has determined that Carver Court is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

    There has been increasing recognition of the value of midcentury architecture, said Whitaker, who is working on the preservation of the Nakashima buildings in New Hope funded by the Getty grant. Yet the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places has fewer than 10 buildings from the post-war era, he said, and several notable structures are threatened or will soon be lost.

    Demolition began in October on William Penn High School, designed in the early 1970s by the internationally renowned firm Mitchell/Giurgola. The enormous building on Broad Street was “just too difficult to deal with and adaptively reuse,” Whitaker said.

    The Police Administration Building, aka “The Roundhouse,” was built in the early 1960s by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham and is one of the city’s most significant modern structures, which used an innovative new system of pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete. But the sprawling, rounded landmark at 8th and Race is also a challenging building for redevelopment, and the city has not pursued a reuse for it.


    The Police Administration Building in Philadelphia was built in the early 1960s by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham. (Photo courtesy of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)

    Photo exhibits like the one currently in Harrisburg are cause for optimism, he said, and there seems to be increasing recognition of “everyday modernism.”

    “Sometimes it’s a sense of nostalgia for those who grew up with these buildings, and they have a sense of the role of the buildings in their community,” Whitaker said.

    Hager, at the State Museum, has watched a new generation’s interest in the images in the Harrisburg exhibit. “So many in the younger audience are going, wow, this is so like ‘Mad Men.’ I’ve seen a new level of engagement.”

    Midcentury Modern is “such an interesting style. It’s very livable, and there’s a trend toward going more simplified. A lot of the houses from the period weren’t large. People were looking for one-floor living, for simplicity and downsizing. I see that as very relevant now,” Hager said.

    Among her favorite buildings in the “PA Modern” exhibit is a house with a wild roofline designed in 1958 by Irwin Stein in Wallingford, Delaware County. Like many of the midcentury suburban homes, its generous use of glass brings the outdoors inside during the day. And at night, the interior glow makes it a “gem in the darkness.”

    Long covered up or overlooked, midcentury style is being noticed again, Hager said. “Once you start looking for it, you’ll start seeing it. And hopefully that will lead to more appreciation and preservation.”


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