Greater Greater Washington

"Persuading" or "evaluating"?

Before attending the DC Preservation League's recent panel discussion, "Evaluating the Significance of Modern Structures," I wondered if it would focus on differentiating the significant from the insignificant or just advocating for modern structures' significance. I found a little of both, but more of the latter. As Reid wrote in a comment after the event,


A truly notable modern building in Stamford, CT.
I'll say that there were some feints towards saying that some modern structures aren't significant. But one suspects that everyone on the panel would love to keep all modern buildings around in perpetuity, regardless of their significance (let alone hostility to good urbanism).
The General Services Administration, manager of most federal office buildings, does distinguish its historic properties from the non-historic. GSA's preservation office divides buildings into three categories: the truly iconic that already warrant landmarking, those that don't meet National Register criteria now but may once they turn 50, and those that probably don't merit preservation at all.

For example, the Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, California has an iconic pyramidal shape. But since the architect also designed San Francisco's very iconic Transamerica Pyramid, said GSA preservationist Kristi Tunstall, this building may therefore represent a lesser example and not eligible for historic designation now - but perhaps on its 50th birthday.

Many panelists frequently used the word "eligible". The actual process of landmarking, of course, centers around eligibility. But none of the speakers asked whether a building might be eligible but nonetheless not warrant preservation. "Evaluating the significance," therefore, meant not judging merit but simply determining eligibility.

And the federal eligibility criteria are very broad. For example, Lyndon Johnson had an office on the top floor of the J.J. Pickle Federal Building in Austin, which from what I can see is a plain and unremarkable concrete and glass box. Yet GSA considers that building historically significant, simply because Johnson had an office there. Tunstall admitted that the Battin Federal Building in Billings, Montana is generally undistinguished. But it's the only Brutalist building in the state, making it potentially eligible and thus, at least to her office, worthy of preservation

The biggest debate for GSA's buildings, said Tunstall, arises in the second of GSA's three categories, buildings not "iconic" today but potentially eligible in the future. Under the federal designation rules, buildings under 50 years of age must meet a far stricter standard than older buildings. That's why GSA feels the Laguna Niguel building may not be eligible now, but could become so.

Should we simply designate any 50-year-old structure that's a good example of a certain architectural school? Tunstall and her colleagues seem to think so; she said her office's task for the second tier is "how do we make [the] case" for preservation?" They're not asking whether these buildings are really significant and whether we are improving our built environment by preserving them. Instead, they asked, how do we convince people to save them?

Christine French, of the Recent Past Preservation Network and another panelist at the event, focused her talk entirely on persuading the public of the significance of modern buildings. French wouldn't have approved of Tunstall's characterizing the Battin Federal Building as otherwise unremarkable. Among French's tactics from her presentation were these rules: "Never admit that the other side has a point," and "Include no statements that can be taken out of context."

French repeatedly referred to anyone not entirely in agreement as "adversaries." That, and her "admit nothing" rule, does her side a disservice, casting everyone who disagrees with any of any of her views as the enemy. (And yes, those of you who've pointed out the folly of calling development foes "NIMBYs" were making the same point.) Some audience members were indeed skeptical of some aspects of preservation; some residents of the Watergate and the Capital Park building at Fourth and G Southwest, proud of their buildings, nevertheless spoke about the financial burden of maintaining their architecturally interesting but costly balconies.

The preservationists on the panel also pointed out the large environmental cost of simply trashing an entire building's worth of concrete. Where would all the concrete go if we tore down the FBI building, asked GSA's Beth Savage, who'd like Pennsylvania Avenue to contain at least one structure from each architectural era. And, indeed, LEED 2009 gives points for retaining existing structures, according to Savage. The Maryland historic preservation chair, who was in the audience, had harsher words for LEED, calling it a "process that is written by accountants and construction managers," where developers tear down an entire building, creating enormous waste, to build a "green" building, and called for a "more sophisticated" LEED system.

Besides, not all modern buildings discussed at the panel are unremarkable glass and concrete boxes. Theodore Prudon of US DOCOMOMO showed some beautiful modern buildings, like the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT (which faces many similar heating and lighting challenges as the controversial Third Church of Christ, Scientist here in DC). I am a big fan of the 1965 Pan American Health Organization building, where the panel took place. And we were treated to photos of a very impressive modern house in Cleveland Park when it went on the market recently.

There are some wonderful modern buildings, in DC and elsewhere. And there is indeed value in preserving some examples of various architectural styles. Nevertheless, when almost every modern building is eventually eligible and we landmark almost every one, either we aren't exercising enough discretion or the eligibility criteria are too broad. The question I should have asked the panelists, but didn't think of at the time, is this: Is there a building that's eligible for historic designation under the federal guidelines, but which you don't feel should be designated? If so, why? If not, do you support designating all eligible buildings? I'd still love to hear the panelists' thoughts on this. But to me, just because we can landmark a building doesn't mean we should.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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The focus on "eligible" probably concerns them most because Section 106 of NHPA kicks in for eligible buildings even if they're not on any register of historic places. It pains me when preservationists fight battles for meaningless buildings and end up losing credibility needed to save the important stuff. Eligibility determinations should maybe have a finite life span. The feds just call something eligible and then they wash their hands of any need to seek national register listing, and its concomitant research and ultimate decisionmaking.

by Lou DC on Nov 25, 2008 11:24 am • linkreport

Question: Should Boston's city hall (and plaza) be preserved as the worst example of 20th century urban development? Is the truly horrible worth preserving as a reminder of how NOT to do things?

by Tom A. on Nov 25, 2008 11:35 am • linkreport

@Tom A.

Wouldn't a few photographs suffice?

by Steve on Nov 25, 2008 11:59 am • linkreport

If we tore down the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, the concrete could go to hell with the rest of the building, where it would meet up with ol' Jedgar himself.

We saw a little of the Preservations' war on LEED during David Maloney's hapless battle against the renovation of the National Permanent Building. The structure had already been completely gutted for a total LEED Silver energy retofit, when he called the energy argument a "red herring" and those renovating the building "vandals." The HPRB, with the four new members, voted down the landmark application and scolded the staff for bringing it up in the midst of a major renovation. Even they were not up to landmarking a building that essentially no longer existed.

These humorless radicals who speak of our obligation to the generations yet unborn, refuse to face the reality that this obligation includes our environmental responsibilities.

But, like Christine French, they "admit nothing," "never admit the other side has a point," and never say anthing "that can be taken out of context."

They're salivating at the chance of landmark some of the worst and most anti-urban architecture ever built -stuff from the 60's and 70's, in their war on common sense and popular will. The architectural historian on the HPRB keeps talking about "building some momentum."

God help us, because the powers that be in City Council are so enthralled with the wonderful concept of historic preservation that they lack the common sense to see what stupidities and atrocities are being committed in its name.

by Mike Silverstein on Nov 25, 2008 12:10 pm • linkreport

A building is good only insofar as it teaches us something about ourselves as human beings. We ought to be looking for good buildings not simply buildings that are somehow tenuously connected to history or historic figure.

I defer to my post on the subject on my blog, though I do admit that I did not attend the meeting.

I agree with Mike Silverstein in his comments above as well.

by Boots on Nov 25, 2008 12:43 pm • linkreport

I also thought Christine French's whole approach was wrongheaded. Failing to admit weaknesses in your own argument is a terrible way to convince undecided people to agree with you. Additionally it's intellectually dishonest and tarnishes your whole argument. (Plus I thought some of her research looked spotty)(Also she decided to weigh in on the H.D. Woodson school, interpreting complaints about the school demolition as support for a terribly ugly building. Of course she failed to note/realize that opposition to the demolition of Woodson had more to do with general opposition to any school closing, mixed in with fears of "The Plan")

Also, she and Prudon made an offhanded comment that these unpopular buildings were finding more popularity among younger generations. I simply don't think that's true and that if they are hearing some younger people expressing appreciation for them, it's because they're listening to a self-selective sample. (also it's worth noting that Prudon apparently wouldn't care even if these buildings were popular; he lamented the fact that the popular will is at all taken into account here in the United States, whereas in superior Europe, experts [experts like, say, him] are allowed free reign without having to deal with the petty, triffling, fickle, and clearly unrefined tastes of the public).

by Reid on Nov 25, 2008 12:57 pm • linkreport

I have to wonder if having preservationists in charge of designating buildings is like the situation back in the mid-20th century where there were highwaymen in charge planning urban highways.

by Cavan on Nov 25, 2008 2:34 pm • linkreport

Ms. French, as everyone seems to agree, gave some of the worst arguments imaginable. I can understand where people get the impression of brainwashing in academia.

Please don't take that comment out of context.

In terms of age as a qualifier, there are plenty of structures that are historic just because of age, and that is fine, presuming there some history and that the buildings are scarce. If there are few buildings from an era, even if architecture or craft are not important, they deserve to stay, just because their representation means something about our past, and can make a nice surprise.

by The King of Spain on Nov 25, 2008 4:55 pm • linkreport

Cavan you are Brilliant.

by w on Nov 26, 2008 1:56 pm • linkreport

W: But if the buildings from a particular era are universally bad? I think preserving buildings from eras that tell us something positive about architecture would be great, but things that are neither exemplars of their time nor even good architecture should not be preserved, they should be dynamited post haste.

by Boots on Nov 28, 2008 9:57 pm • linkreport

My problem with all of this is when the preservationist crowd sits by the sidelines when a lovely old building is torn down- such as was the case back around 2000 when a beautiful pre Civil War townhome was bought up by a NY developer and knocked down- it was south of the freeway on NJ avenue and the historic preservationists- who seldom ever went south of the freeway except to get on the 11th street bridge to the big box stores- let happen under their noses- also consider historic Rhoades Tavern- knocked down w/ very little oppostion in the 80's. Now these idiots want us to believe that Mies V D Rohe is some kind of emmisary of great urban design and they have declared that ugly depressing colorless sterile MLK Library a "historic landmark". The process is clearly bent out of shape and many of the preservationist crowd need to have their heads examined pronto when this kind of non sense goes down.

by w on Dec 1, 2008 12:03 pm • linkreport

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