The Cleveland Trust Company building considered the "ugliest building in town"

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US debates the preservation
of recent modernist buildings

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

17 October, 2007: The baby boom in the United States began in 1946 and lasted until around 1960.  Four million children were born each year during this period, more than double the number of the previous two decades. One way the US government responded to rapid post-World War II population growth was by offering low-interest, federally-guaranteed home mortgages. 

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During the 1950s, 15.1 million new single-family homes were built.  This affordable housing for returning war veterans and young workers helped fuel the nation’s industrial expansion.  The less of their incomes American families paid for shelter, the more they could use to purchase the products manufactured by burgeoning factories, which in turn created more jobs and more economic expansion.

Low-cost government financing for post-war residential development did not come without restrictions.  Developers had to follow strict design guidelines to qualify their projects for federal mortgage loans.  Rather than the dense, mixed-use neighborhoods of the pre-war years, priority was now given to low-density, car-oriented development, where single-family homes were separated from shops and services.  Function and price trumped beauty and style.  The frequent result was sprawling subdivisions of nearly-identical, “cookie-cutter” houses along wide, treeless and sidewalk-free streets. 

The National Historic Preservation Act was created in 1966 to help local governments save pre-World War II neighborhoods and architecturally or historically significant “landmark” buildings that were threatened by sprawl.  A structure had to be at least 50 years old to be eligible for landmark status. 

Now post-war development has reached the age of 50, and US mayors and preservationists are questioning what is truly “historic.”

The issue has policy implications.  When a building receives historic status, it gains legal protection from demolition and major exterior alterations.  It also becomes eligible for federal and state grants and tax credits.  These funds can be an important driver of community redevelopment and renewal. 

Several cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Arlington (Texas) are conducting surveys of buildings constructed in the past 50 years to determine what is worth preserving.  The process utilized by the Landmark Society of Western New York is a model of how rigorous surveys are being managed.  The Landmark Society is based in Monroe County, New York, one of the fastest-growing counties in the country during the 1960s. 

The Landmark Society is working closely with local architects and contractors to identify and catalogue resources from the recent past that are eligible for historic designation and protection.  “It’s an objective process,” says Executive Director Joanne Arany.  “We follow the guidelines of the US Department of the Interior to identify distinct styles and distinct architects.”

Preservationists want to protect not only homes, but also strip shopping malls, offices, and public buildings from the 1950s.  Built in the modernist style, these structures are generally boxy and lack ornamentation and endearing details like columns and arches. 

Boston’s City Hall, for example, is perhaps the most controversial building in the city, loved by architects and reviled by the public.  Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote calls it “a landmark example of modernism” and advocates saving the building.  Boston Mayor Thomas Menino prefers moving municipal offices to another location and selling the site to developers who could raze it.

For many, the modernist era was an unfortunate period in American history.  Modernism symbolizes the proclivity to centralized land use planning – called “urban renewal” -- that characterized American politics in the 1950s and 60s.  Throughout the 50s and 60s, healthy urban neighborhoods were destroyed and replaced by large modernist buildings.  Rather than forming part of the urban fabric, modernist structures stood aloof like individual sculptures. 

Middle class residents of urban neighborhoods displaced by these buildings followed federal subsidies to suburban residential subdivisions; poor and minority residents, ineligible for federal mortgages because of their low incomes and the racist policies of the time, were forced into urban slums.  The result was the radical polarization of the American landscape into sharp divisions between urban and suburban; black and white; rich and poor.

Some see irony in attempting to save buildings that may represent all that is now considered bad in American urban planning.  Newspapers in many US cities routinely run articles about “how wonderful downtown used to be” before the homes and shops were supplanted by highways, oversized buildings, and parking lots.  Moreover, preservation battles often assume a populist versus elitist posture. 

When former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller proposed demolishing the modernist Stadler Hilton hotel she had strong public support, but backed down in the face of opposition by small but powerful advocacy groups.  Ironically, these same groups- arbiters of pedestrian-friendly architectural design and “smart growth” planning - would never allow a building like the Stadler to be built in downtown Dallas today. 

Joanne Arany suggests that the irony is misplaced: “Our job as preservationists is to recognize and preserve resources that are currently undervalued.”  If an appreciation of the past and a preservation ethic had been stronger 50 years ago, she observes, perhaps the US could have avoided the worst excesses of sprawl and urban renewal. 

This conviction, however, does not make the job easier for preservationists in our current era in which modernist buildings often fail to capture the public’s imagination and many remember with nostalgia the landscapes these buildings replaced.

Like Boston’s City Hall and Dallas’ Stadler Hilton, the Cleveland Trust Company in Cleveland, Ohio is popularly considered the “ugliest building in town.”  Cleveland Trust was designed by Marcel Breuer according to standards that are now discredited.  Local political leaders voted to knock down the vacant 29-story tower for new government offices.  But demolition of the monolithic, precast-concrete-clad structure is staunchly opposed by activist groups which otherwise make their livings advocating for human-scale design. 

Like many modernist buildings, Cleveland Trust contains asbestos – widely used as insulation in the 1950s and 60s – and thus fuels a related debate.  Should scarce historic preservation tax credits and grants be used for environmental remediation, or are these financial incentives more wisely applied to uncontaminated buildings of earlier eras?

The debate will only grow in America.  As Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told the Chicago Tribune: “The simple fact, although it’s sometimes hard to grasp, is that modernism is becoming historic.  It’s a tough fight, and it’s happening in every part of the country.”

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