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Last of K Street's great mansions is threatened

On the northeast corner of 11th and K Streets NW stands the last dilapi­dated vestiges of what K Street was once all aboutlarge, elegant Victorian mansions that were the homes of the city's most powerful and influential citizens. For the last 7 years, the mansion at 1017 K has been quietly crumbling behind the humiliating wrap of a massive fabric billboard.


Photo by the author.

It's a mystery why the city allowed such an obnoxious misuse of the structure, but saner actions have been taken more recently. According to Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis, after she contacted the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in March, the city raised the tax rate on the property in consideration of its blighted condition.

Rather than undertaking repairs that would remove it from blighted status, owner Douglas Development Corporation recently filed for a raze permit.

The building's interior is apparently in poor condition, having been neglected for many years, and some floors are reported to be partially collapsed. Reclaiming it won't be easy. Yet however much the structure has suffered, we owe it to ourselves to save this fine old mansion.

It seems odd to encounter a residential building like this on K Street, the avenue of "trophy" office buildings, and it's even odder that the building has languished for so long. Many see it every day and wish that it would be restored after such profound neglect. Its woes have been written up on Peter Sefton's engaging Victorian Secrets web site and noted in blogs such The Other 35 Percent.

Many were shocked to learn of the recent plans to tear it down. After the filing of the raze permit was first publicized on the H-DC History Net, local blogs quickly reported the alarming news, including The Location, Prince of Petworth, and the City Paper.

But the house is not yet doomed. The DC Preservation League filed an historic landmark nomination for the property in 2008, and thus the city's Historic Preservation Review Board will be required to review the case before a raze permit can be issued. If the property is designated a landmark, the raze permit will be denied, although the owner will still have the right to appeal the decision.


Detail of the adjoining townhouse, included in the historic landmark nomination. photo by the author).

Architectural historian James Goode has called K Street between 9th and 20th streets the "Park Avenue of Washington" in the late 19th century because of its distinguished mansions and their prominent owners. "In the 80's and 90s K street was the most exclusive residential section of Washington and the center of social life of the city," wrote The Washington Post in 1929. "In those days all entertaining was at home and diplomats from foreign countries mingled with Government officials, statesmen, and ranking Army and Navy officers in the big, handsome houses set far back, fronted with deep lawns, hedges and trees, that lined the street."

Among the most opulent were the Childs House at 1527 K, built by a wealthy Philadelphia widow in 1894. Designed purely for socializing, the mansion was in the French Renaissance style of Parisian townhouses. Nearby, wealthy Senator Stephen Elkins (1841-1911) built a massive Georgian Revival house at 1626 K in 1892. Elkins had made millions from land speculation in the west and mining in West Virginia. The mansion's ballroom could accomodate 200 guests, was approached by a grand walnut staircase, and was decorated with gilt Louis XV furniture.

The fine house at the corner of 11th and K was not at the center of K Street's gilded age excesses (which is one reason it has survived), but it has many of the key elements of the street's lost residential format, including a spacious front lawn, officially called "parking" because it was reserved by city regulation for park-like features.

The distinguished building and adjoining structures were constructed in 1878 in the then-prevailing Second-Empire style by successful Washington builder Michael Talty (1812-1890), an Irish immigrant. An early resident of the house was William H. Burr (1819-1908), a former Senate stenographer who had become a well-known proponent of philosophical skepticism.

Peter Sefton has called Burr "one of Washington's most notorious curmudgeons, iconoclasts, and disturbers of the cultural status quo." After raising eyebrows with such incendiary tracts as Self-Contradictions of the Bible (1860) and Revelations of Antichrist (1879), Burr settled in at 1017 K as a kind of genteel retirement home in his later life.


Col. Harrison Allen during the Civil War. Image from the Library of Congress).

Another well-known resident was General Harrison Allen (1835-1904), who came to Washington in 1901 to be second deputy auditor of the Post Office department. During the Civil War, Allen had been commander of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which he led at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

During an artillery bombardment shortly before Chancellorsville, a shell passed only a few feet over his head. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Allen was given leave, causing him to miss most of that big event. He was nevertheless retroactively promoted to Brigadier General in 1865 for "faithful and meritorious services."

After the war Allen entered politics, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Republican Convention, as state senator, and as Pennsylvania's auditor general. In 1882 he was appointed United States Marshal for the Dakota Territory, where he pursued stage coach robbers and horse thieves until getting his Washington appointment from President McKinley.

On September 22, 1904, he spent the evening playing cards with his wife and friends in the downstairs parlor at 1017 K and appeared to be in perfect health. However, the next morning he was found dead in his upstairs bedroom, the apparent victim of a heart attack. I'll leave it to others to speculate whether his ghost still haunts the old house.

After Allen's death, the inexorable process of change for 1017 Kand all of downtown Washingtonslowly took shape. The wealthy began moving to the trendier, northwestern "suburban" neighborhoods of Dupont Circle and Kalorama and ultimately out of the city altogether. Many of the large buildings they left behind were subdivided for boarders or converted for commercial uses before eventually being torn down.

A photo from the Library of Congress of a K Street row near 14th Street, circa 1915, shows the transition taking place: A large Department of Justice building rises between two elegant Second Empire houses, looking ready to push them out. They'd all be gone before long.


Department of Justice Building on K Street c. 1915. Im agefrom the Library of Congress.

The mansion at 1017 K had a notable second life when it became the headquarters of the DC Statehood Party, organized in 1969. As described by Cultural Tourism DC, the DC Statehood Party gained prominence in 1971 when Julius Hobson (1919-1977), a noted civil rights activist, ran for the non-voting delegate seat in Congress now held by Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Hobson was a civil rights pioneer who between 1960 and 1964 had led more than 80 pickets of downtown retail stores, successfully gaining jobs for thousands of African-Americans who had previously been barred from or severely limited in working at these establishments. Hobson's campaign for delegate, though unsuccessful, raised the profile of the Statehood Party and helped establish it as a viable third party in the District. The party continues to this day as the DC Statehood Green Party.

It's been many years now since 1017 K has been occupied by the Statehood Party or any other organization, despite its unique status as the last of its breed. Striking parallels can be drawn with a legendary historic preservation case from the past, the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets NW. In the late 1970s and early 1980s an extraordinary effort was mounted by concerned local preservationists to save the tavern, which had been built in 1801 and was a polling place in the first DC municipal elections held in 1802.

There were many very good reasons to save that rare building, but one of the most compelling was that it was one of the last reminders we had left of the type of building that used to line Washington's central business district in the the city's earliest days. As Nelson Rimensnyder has pointed out, Washington's first building regulations, decreed by George Washington himself in 1791, specified that "the wall of no house be higher than forty feet to the roof" and that "the outer and party walls of all houses...be of brick or stone." The result was uniform rows of simple but elegant Federal-style townhouses along the city's few main thoroughfares, including Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street.

The strategically located Rhodes Tavern, a prominent example of this type, witnessed every Presidential inauguration from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. It was devastating when the fight to save the humble building ended in 1984 with its complete destruction. Not only was this particular jewel of early Washington gone, but all traces of the original building type specified by George Washington were lost forever from the inaugural parade route.


Rhodes Tavern before its destruction. Image from the Library of Congress).

The K Street mansions of the late 19th century were another major defining element of the city's built environment that are nowalmostall gone. If 1017 K is torn down, we will have no reference point left on K Street to recall this part of our shared past. There will be nothing but office boxes, and we'll never be able to undo the loss of this last reminder of the genteel residences that once lined this busy office canyon.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His first book about DC history, Lost Washington, DC, was recently published by History Press. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 

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Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't look very special or elegant. Certainly nothing I'd call a mansion. Perhaps it looked different at one time -- if the bottom of the building is brick, it must have been painted over. Nothing about screams of its time or a rich history. It might be the last but that doesn't mean make a compelling case to save it, if it's a poor example. Just because it's old doesn't make it something to be saved, especially when we're being told that downtown is 100% built out.

On the other hand, we don't want to indulge an owner that's deliberately let it turn into a ruin. That would be a bad precedent. If the mansion has some intrinsic value beyond just being the last of its kind -- that is, if it's something to be saved because it's a good representation of that history, then the fight to preserve it is worth it.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on May 12, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

Now, I'm as much of a history nerd as anyone...but is "the last house of it's kind on the street" really worthy of historic preservation?

by Michael on May 12, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

Ugh, I hate it when the historic preservationists try to prevent the demolition of buildings that are not worth saving, this being one of them. I pass that building every day, and I think it should be torn down and put to better use.

by N on May 12, 2012 5:36 pm • linkreport

@N "and I think it should be torn down and put to better use."

I'm curious what you would consider 'put to better use' ... since I don't think anyone's trying to save it's use as a billboard ... They're trying to save the building, it's use can be anything you want it to be.

People sometimes get hung up on the use of a building when discussing historic preservation. While there's a lot to be said for trying to protect the historic use character of building and neighborhoods, historic preservation doesn't really get into that. You could have a church being turned into a condo building, and historic preservation wouldn't prevent that. Though, again, people do get hung up on that. Look at the Third Church Scientist .. It got an exemption by the mayor's agent (today's Director of the Office of Planning) on the basis of its use as a church. Too bad you had someone not familiar with the historic preservation laws sitting as judge and jury on that case. Else it would have been obvious that there would have been a 100 and 1 other uses for that historically designated buiding which been recognized far and wide as historically significant ...

by Lance on May 12, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

Besides being a local gathering spot during the building of Washington, Rhodes Tavern was also the headquarters of the British occupation during the War of 1812 during which Washington was burned. It's fairly recent demolition was horrible.

The mansion at 10th & K should be preserved to shown what fine buildings lined K Street before the developer thugs devastated K Street and turned it into the barren concrete stretch it is today.

by Tom Coumaris on May 12, 2012 7:31 pm • linkreport

DC began it's ascent to world class city in the post civil war Grant years when the North enjoyed the fruits of the Civil War victory combined with the opening up of the continent's recourses through the completion of the intercontinental railroad in 1869. DC's phenomenal expansion after every subsequent war where the nascent military industrial complex and beaurocratic aparatus feuled the cities expansion east to west, this building certainly has a story to tell future generations. I hope this beautiful and dignified ensemble is saved. Thanks for the wonderful history lesson.

by Thayer-D on May 12, 2012 10:33 pm • linkreport

It's ridiculous to preserve the house simply because it's the last one on the street. There are many, many neighborhoods across NW and the rest of DC with similar houses. The owner has the right to do whatever he wants to the property, especially considering its condition.

by King Terrapin on May 13, 2012 12:56 am • linkreport

@Lance

The First Church of Christ, Scientist building would have been unsustainable for anyone to use. The cost of maintaining and operating the structure itself was the biggest problem that nobody would have wanted to deal with. The end result would have been to bankrupt the church and the building would have suffered demolition by neglect. At best the city would have had to come in to maintain the structure at taxpayer expense with no good options for putting something else in there. The idea that anyone would want to live or work in that windowless behemoth is a fantasy.

by Adam L on May 13, 2012 6:34 am • linkreport

Correction: Third Church of Christ, Scientist

by Adam L on May 13, 2012 6:36 am • linkreport

Why can't they just keep the facade and build something new behind/above it? That seems to be in vogue.

by wd on May 13, 2012 7:39 am • linkreport

There is noting special about 1017 K Street NW. In the 1970s I was an employee of a print shop that occupied the west half of second floor. The remainder of the building above was apartments. The ground floor was mom and pop retail.

This building is nothing more then a useless structure occupying valuable real-estate that could be generating tens of thousands of dollars in property and income taxes annually.

by Sand Box John on May 13, 2012 7:56 am • linkreport

I'd glad to see the city height limits date back to Washington, not just the Cairo.

by charlie on May 13, 2012 9:55 am • linkreport

Lance, great points about use vs. architectural character. I agree: people tend to get hung up over 'use' without realizing that that's perfectly flexible.

If this was still a confident society that had faith in its architects, this battered corner building would be speedily demolished and replaced with an even more elegant building that could 'turn the corner' in a sophisticated way while at the same time match the 'street wall,' facade materials, and cornice/roof line parameters of the surrounding neoclassical buildings. Imagine if there was some new infill like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/micsworld/3299035038/

This kind of infill used to be par for the course in DC.

But this isn't a confident society anymore (which is probably why we have historic preservation in the first place). I suspect people want to save this old mansion because they instinctively realize that a replacement would only be worse (some bland box wrapped in b.s. "green" rhetoric).

by Marc on May 13, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

Save it! Let's not Jemal get away with demolition by neglect.

by H Street Landlord on May 13, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

If this was still a confident society that had faith in its architects

We have enough experience with our architects that our society knows very well how little confidence to place in them.

Having too much confidence in our architects his our we ended up with the Third Church of Christ, Scientist building.

by Tyro on May 13, 2012 3:22 pm • linkreport

Preservation of historic properties is a worthy endeavor, but there's doesn't seem to be anything particularly special about this old house. Jemal apparently thinks likewise, and he's a developer who knows a thing or two about historic preservation.

by Sage on May 13, 2012 10:23 pm • linkreport

@Sage, Did you read the post? John did a great job explaining why its more special than most old buildings. It tells a stirring about K Street which no other building standing on that street today can tell. Once that building gets demolished that story, the part of its history is gone.

I think the problem here isn't that the developer doesn't see the historic value, just that lacking a historic district to keep it from tripling in height (and more importantly square footage) the temptation to replace it with a building going up to the height limit is just too great. And no, keeping the facade and building straight up behind it isn't anymore an option. The rule currently is that extra stories not be visible from the street.

by Lance on May 13, 2012 11:50 pm • linkreport

I have trouble believing that anyone who has seen it with their own eyes still thinks it's nothing special. I walk past it often and it is/was magnificent. There is plenty of vanilla office space on K, only one mansion.

by Bama on May 14, 2012 12:37 am • linkreport

Seeing as Jemal is "developing" this property, I predict it will remain a dump until at least 2024, when it will be replaced with a vacant lot with a "For Lease" sign. The lot will last until 2034. The lot is also cursed.

by monkeyrotica on May 14, 2012 8:07 am • linkreport

As is the case with any structure you subjectively deem worth of keeping...you are more than welcome to buy it and do with it what you wish.

The interior of this dilapidated heap has been changed many times over the decades and carries none of the original character. The exterior is certiainly nothing unique.

In the 80's, when all of DC expect a sliver of NW was an atrocious crap hole, this building didn't matter. Now that it occupies some most expensive real estate in DC, the need to remove it and replace it with something construction and useful is more than ever.

Ultimately, this is a perfect example of how actions have consequences. Depillis decided it was her right to "punish" Douglas for letting what she considered a local treasure decay.

Well, it is also well within the owners rights to avoid the blighted tax, which while not what she wanted, is a logical and predicatable consequence, especially with someone like Douglas. Based on this buildings history, I predict they will get the raze permit and that will be that.

by razepermit on May 14, 2012 9:07 am • linkreport

Lance,

I think the problem here isn't that the developer doesn't see the historic value, just that lacking a historic district to keep it from tripling in height (and more importantly square footage) the temptation to replace it with a building going up to the height limit is just too great.

Of course, if there wasn't a height limit, the pressure to maximize the allowable square footage on this lot wouldn't be so high.

Midtown Manhattan has lots of really tall buildings and quite a few very short ones.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 9:29 am • linkreport

Tyro - Exactly! "Fool me once, shame on you..."

But if you go back even further than horrid Brutalism (the Third Church), you can see that we once placed plenty of confidence in our City Beautiful/Beaux Arts architects. Grand Central, for example, was razed and replaced three times with hardly a peep over preservation because (I suspect) back then people instinctively knew that architects would produce something better with each iteration.

So how do we get back to that era of confidence? Some seem to think that "green" smoke blowing will do it, but I'm not convinced.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 9:29 am • linkreport

"But this isn't a confident society anymore (which is probably why we have historic preservation in the first place)"

not on topic to this particular building, but I for one think that if say, colonial williamsburg had been torn down and replaced with elegant late 19th century architecture, that would indeed be a loss - the handful of surviving pre 1870s buildings in lower manhattan are a treasure, IMO, as well. Historic preservation IS about preserving history, both individually distinguished buildings, examples of architectural types, and unique neighborhoods. Abolish modernism and its descendants, and you don't change the need for historical preservation.

"Grand Central, for example, was razed and replaced three times with hardly a peep over preservation"

Do you have pictures of what preceded it? Were they as architecturally distinguished? Were they as old at the time they were razed?

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 9:38 am • linkreport

Why has this place been allowed to sit empty and rotting for so long? Why will the District allow it to be demolished no matter how much preservationists protest? Jemal. Jemal gets what Jemal wants in this town.

by Ron on May 14, 2012 9:47 am • linkreport

Of course, if there wasn't a height limit, the pressure to maximize the allowable square footage on this lot wouldn't be so high.

Midtown Manhattan has lots of really tall buildings and quite a few very short ones.

We have a winner! Walking around Manhattan this weekend I was reminded yet again of how much of it is human-scaled. Even in Midtown there are many buildings 6 stories and shorter. And in the East Village and other neighborhoods most buildings are 4 stories.

In Downtown DC the height limit creates a massive amount of pressure to tear down anything not 12 stories and replace it with the max allowed height/density. Without the height limit downtown DC probably would have grown very differently, and preserved more of those older buildings.

by MLD on May 14, 2012 9:51 am • linkreport

@AWalker:

Grand Central Depot: 1871-1899:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1880_Grand_Central.jpg

The headhouse was torn down and rebuilt at the turn of the century, with an expanded headhouse (now 6 stories) and tracks south of 42nd St Removed - this was christened Grand Central Station:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grand_Central_Depot_exterior.jpg

That only lasted a few years before they started work on the current iteration, completely tearing down the headhouse and rebuilding the entire rail yard and train shed north of the station. The current station was constructed between 1904-1913. The long time was because they had to bury the tracks behind the station in phases while still keeping a portion of the railyard operational so that the station could be used.

Construction continued well into the 20s on the air rights above the now below-grade tracks behind the station.

So, the first iteration lasted 28 years, the second much less than that (depending on when you declare it dead, given the phased transition to the current arrangement).

It's worth noting that the massive increases in rail travel were a huge part of the reason for the expansion - ergo, the reason to change was operational, not aesthetic. Burying the tracks, for example, was only possible with the advent of electric traction.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 9:54 am • linkreport

WalkerInTheCity, sure:

First (masonry) version (some wooden depots probably preceded even this 1880s station):
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/1880_Grand_Central.jpg

Second version:
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3227/3128933345_02a2f097e0.jpg

Third (still extant) version:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d4/Grand_Central_Terminal_Exterior_42nd_St_at_Park_Ave_New_York_City.jpg/800px-Grand_Central_Terminal_Exterior_42nd_St_at_Park_Ave_New_York_City.jpg

Each version seems to get better and more elegant. But if any one of these three buildings was still standing today, you can bet it'd be landmarked to prevent it from being replaced with some cold modern slab.

BTW why was there relatively little preservation before 1945? Sure, a handful of very significant national monuments were preserved before then (like Rockefeller's superb efforts at memorializing our colonial past at Williamsburg*), but HP was nothing like it is now! (Where virtually everything built before WWII is desperately attempted to be saved.)

*Which, incidentally, is really a special case; plenty of colonial urban quarters and downtowns were still incrementally replaced (as they should have been IMO).

Why all the desperation to save every scrap of everything old, even if it has no historic significance whatsoever? I argue it's because people instinctively realize that anything new will be worse than the surviving old stuff.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

Alex, you beat me with the pictures! :-)

It's worth noting that the massive increases in rail travel were a huge part of the reason for the expansion - ergo, the reason to change was operational, not aesthetic.

Sure, but back then architects explicitly attempted to aspire to something way beyond cold mechanical function; they aspired to some grandeur. Penn Station didn't have to be a replica of the Baths of Caracalla ("evil" historicism!), but I think the architects wanted to (1) memorialize the Pennsylvania RR and (2) honor the people who'd be passing through the station.

Obviously an ordinary corner building is not the same as a major urban focal point (a RR station), but we all know that even the most mundane, utilitarian buildings used to be built with some artistry and imagination (power plants, prisons, pumping stations and waterworks, factories, etc.)

by Marc on May 14, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

Marc speaks a truth that architecture schools and periodicals don't want to acknowledge. For the most part they go on training for and promoting an architecture not worthy of preservation, which is why we have the modern preservation movement. Don't like it? Lobby to get the producers of our built envirinment to shoot for something more memorable than a one liner with a 20-50 year life span.
Look at the progression of Madison Square Gardens for further proof of what Marc is speaking about. No amount of archispeak or patronizing sermons about authenticity will get lay people to want the present Madision Square Garden over the last one.

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

Agree with the various posts saying this property is not really special. It's the last on its block? Make that "was". Clearly none of them were considered worth saving, and we should not tag the unlucky owner of the last one just because every single prior owner of a house on this block acted more rapidly.

by Crickey7 on May 14, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@Thayer-D

From the outside? Maybe. Of course, I would guess that MSG patrons attending hockey games would value actually seeing hockey:

Reviews of MSG 3 (1925-1968)

It had poor sight lines, especially for hockey, and fans sitting virtually anywhere behind the first row of the side balcony could count on having some portion of the ice obstructed. The fact that there was poor ventilation and that smoking was permitted often led to a haze in the upper portions of the Garden.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 11:08 am • linkreport

^
Good mechanical ventilation and advanced structural steel (the kind you see holding up the roofs of modern stadiums, obviating the need for view-blocking columns) weren't as easily available when the earlier versions of MSG were built.

Still, it's interesting how in baseball at least, super-efficient, pure-function stadiums were dumped in favor of the whole 'retro ballpark' movement.And today you'd be hard-pressed to demolish Fenway or Wrigley to build a more optimally-functional modern stadium; these two old stadiums have many design shortcomings and idiosyncrasies (like blocked seats), but people still seem to love them.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 11:35 am • linkreport

"BTW why was there relatively little preservation before 1945? Sure, a handful of very significant national monuments were preserved before then (like Rockefeller's superb efforts at memorializing our colonial past at Williamsburg*), but HP was nothing like it is now! "

as I think the grand central examples show, the tendency to want to preserve is much greater for builings 60 or more years old - in arch styles that have become scarce (the style of Grand Central was passe not only because of the modernists, but the Art Deco that many anti bauhaus folks seem to like) and to have gained historical associations. Pre 1945 the rapid growth rate of American cities meant most of the places subject to redevelopment were not all that old. Also the large number of 19th century fires meant many of the oldest places had been destroyed "naturally" also, historical preservation, like environmentalism, is something of a luxury good, which requires a certain level of average income before any considerable number of people want to spend resources on it.

The original HP movement that focused on monuments like Grand Central, not every old residential building. Again, some of that is due to changes in residential preferences that have both meant more pressure on older residential areas, and more sense of the economic feasibility of reuse. back when "environmental succession" was more operative, the negative associations of older buildings in center cities were stronger, and the chances of reuse seemed smaller.

I think an HP movement would have emerged about that time whther there was a bauhaus movement or not, at most marginally less intense.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

"Still, it's interesting how in baseball at least, super-efficient, pure-function stadiums were dumped in favor of the whole 'retro ballpark' movement"

1. the appeal of baseball is about nostalgia in a unique way.

2. Many of the retro skinned ballparks, like Camden Yds which started the trend, are more functional thant the actual old ballparks, IIUC

3.I recall reading somewhere that the whole retro ballpark thingie is not quite as in fashion

4. Much of the change was not about the retro skin, but the change from Baseball/football to baseball only. The needs of football conflicted with functionality for baseball, in ways modernism could not overcome.

5.. Some of the appeal of old ballparks is simply nostalgia for that particular ball park, not for the style. In fact when Camden Yards was build, there were folks in Baltimore calling for the preservation of (modernist) Memorial Stadium. Modernist sports venues (at least baseball parks) seem to elicit feelings that modernist office buildings do not.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

Marc,

Good mechanical ventilation and advanced structural steel (the kind you see holding up the roofs of modern stadiums, obviating the need for view-blocking columns) weren't as easily available when the earlier versions of MSG were built.

That was largely my point - the old MSG was functionally obsolete, as were the older versions of Grand Central.

It's one thing to say that the new stuff we build should be of a better quality - I wouldn't disagree. However, that's not exactly aligned with what preservation does, even if the impulse comes from the same desire.

Just because the 1968 MSG is ugly doesn't mean replacing the 1925 version with a new arena wasn't the prudent decision.

Still, it's interesting how in baseball at least, super-efficient, pure-function stadiums were dumped in favor of the whole 'retro ballpark' movement.And today you'd be hard-pressed to demolish Fenway or Wrigley to build a more optimally-functional modern stadium; these two old stadiums have many design shortcomings and idiosyncrasies (like blocked seats), but people still seem to love them.

The caveat I'd note is that during the retro-ballpark era, very few of the new baseball stadiums replaced baseball-only facilities. Instead, many of them replaced multi-purpose stadiums that tried to serve two disparate sports with very different sight lines and field shapes (football and baseball).

US Cellular replaced old Comiskey, Comerica Park replaced old Tiger Stadium, and New Yankee Stadium replaced the 1970s era renovation of Old Yankee stadium.

Wrigley and Fenway for the most part have seen enough reinvestment that they've stayed economically viable.

The single most important thing for all these new baseball stadiums is that they were built solely for baseball. I'd also note that one of the most modern, super-efficient, pure-function stadiums that was built for baseball only is still around, and it's a gem (despite transportation planning issues) - Dodger Stadium in LA.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

I love traditional architecture, but I can't get onboard with the fetish for grandiose monuments. If I told you I was building a monument to honor my child, you'd say I was spoiling them. If I build a monument to consumers of of rail service, that's a public good?

Traditionalists are doing themselves no favors by aligning their tastes with a period of imperialism, ubiquitous grandiosity, pastiche, and sterile public spaces.

I guess what I'm saying is, if you want to build one of these things on your own property, so I don't have to see it, great! But please, please don't inflict your temple fetish on the general public and expect us all to love it.

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

:)

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 12:00 pm • linkreport

If I build a monument to consumers of of rail service, that's a public good?

Since the public has to live around it and move around inside it, I'd say you want to make it as pleasant and aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Comparing the old Penn Station to the new one, someone once said, "One entered the city like a god, one scuttles in now like a rat."

Somebody has to make our public spaces beautiful. It might as well be us when we have the chance.

by JustMe on May 14, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

AWalker, that doesn't really explain today's desire to save insignificant old buildings, even if they're mundane "background filler" with little historical interest. Why do people so desperately want to save those? Just because they're old? Or because even these simple buildings exhibit some spark of artistry and beauty that we can't competently match (let alone exceed) today?

Historical preservation, like environmentalism, is something of a luxury good, which requires a certain level of average income before any considerable number of people want to spend resources on it.

The poorest societies actually engage in preservation a different way: adaptive reuse. If you have scarce capital, material, and labor resources, you tend to reuse and maintain the old stuff as long as possible because you have few other choices. You keep patching stuff together until it finally wears out.

The "economic feasibility of reuse" arguably decreased, not increased, as we got wealthier: We built the crappiest throwaway buildings and engaged in the most demolition when we were wealthiest (the 1950s-now) because we finally had the luxury to create disposable "facilities" with actual "design lives." We built far more beautiful, durable stuff when we were a much poorer, less technologically-advanced society!

by Marc on May 14, 2012 12:13 pm • linkreport

Or because even these simple buildings exhibit some spark of artistry and beauty that we can't competently match (let alone exceed) today?

No, it's because there's a small cadre of individuals with a tea-party approach to architectural expertise who want to enforce their vision of urbanism on everyone. Most of the comments here seem to support demolition.

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

"Still, it's interesting how in baseball at least, super-efficient, pure-function stadiums were dumped in favor of the whole 'retro ballpark' movement"

The 'retro ballpark' thing, as others have already described, usually involved the construction of fairly modern (single-sport) facilities with some architectural flourishes to make them appear older.

However, it went a bit further than just aesthetics. Most of these new parks made heavy use of good urban design, emphasized transit access and walkability instead of parking, and recognized that the stadium would become an integral part of the community where it was located.

For me, at least, these attributes were far more significant than the brick facade that the stadiums had (although if we are talking aesthetics, the brick's very nice, and the use of open spaces and natural light makes them much more pleasant places to be)

We could cover Camden Yards in concrete, steel, and glass, and it would still be very different from the ballparks of the mid-20th-century.

How did we get on this topic again?

by andrew on May 14, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

Traditionalists are doing themselves no favors by aligning their tastes with a period of imperialism, ubiquitous grandiosity, pastiche, and sterile public spaces.

Neil, that's just more of the same anxious relativism that's dogged the ideological 20th century. And what does a monument to personal ego (to your child) have to do with embellishing public space (the street)? More weak relativism. This usually ends up in a silly zero-sum game. Should I hate Modernism because all the original "formgivers" either sympathized with fascists/communists (Johnson), worked for them (Corb), or wanted to work for them and left for the US when they were spurned? (Mies) Should I hate contemporary "starchitecture" because these guys are all working for antidemocratic patrons (Dubai, China, the Middle East/SE Asia in general)? No, I hate their stuff because it's simply ugly and dispiriting to me.

The whole "evil imperialism and grandiosity" label eventually ends up discrediting every style, fashion, and idea ever invented (including Modernism all all contemporary starchitecture!). The only "legitimate" styles will be the ones that haven't been invented yet, until those too are eventually associated with bad people or bad behavior/politics. An architecture of ideology never lasts...

by Marc on May 14, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

"Most of these new parks made heavy use of good urban design, emphasized transit access and walkability instead of parking, and recognized that the stadium would become an integral part of the community where it was located."

"We could cover Camden Yards in concrete, steel, and glass, and it would still be very different from the ballparks of the mid-20th-century."

Er, Nationals Park, anyone?

by AWalkeInTheCity on May 14, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

BTW Neil, I support demolition too! But I'm not dismissing why some people would want to save the building: it's understandable, considering that something new on this site could be much, much worse.

Care to elaborate on that nonsensical Tea Party assertion?

by Marc on May 14, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

Marc's whole point was that we don't trust architects today becasue they've built so many buildings that are unloved, not whether the mechanical systems shouldn't be updated.

"Just because the 1968 MSG is ugly doesn't mean replacing the 1925 version with a new arena wasn't the prudent decision."

That's the whole point. Any Joe Shmoe can and should keep the columns out of a sight line and fulfull every other functional requirement, but why can't the public ask for something beautiful? One reason is that modernist ideologes say stuff like this...
"Traditionalists are ... aligning their tastes with a period of imperialism, ubiquitous grandiosity, pastiche, and sterile public spaces." What??? That's the same mind set that schools have been indoctrinating young architects with since WWII. And this coming from schools like Yale, unless some high schooler went down to the Capitol Building one day and was disgusted with it's "imperialism". My quess is they marveled that someone took the time to carve all those statues in stone and maybe appreciate the lovely shadows it cast. It's time to move on from the past (ironically) and understand architecture from a humanist point of view, the way 99% of it's users do.

Another great example of the kind of mental gymnastics architects go through that have nothing to do with reality... "I love traditional architecture", but "..build one of these things on your own property, so I don't have to see it, great! But please, please don't inflict your temple fetish on the general public and expect us all to love it." Traditionalist = Temple fetish???
I'm not sure I follow the logic.

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

"AWalker, that doesn't really explain today's desire to save insignificant old buildings, even if they're mundane "background filler" with little historical interest. Why do people so desperately want to save those? Just because they're old? Or because even these simple buildings exhibit some spark of artistry and beauty that we can't competently match (let alone exceed) today? "

given that people want to preserve modernism, including such crappy things as mid century shopping centers in Arlington, and brutalist buildings, I would say its age, associations, and fears about change in urban design, NOT the impact of the Bauhaus.

"The poorest societies actually engage in preservation a different way: adaptive reuse. If you have scarce capital, material, and labor resources, you tend to reuse and maintain the old stuff as long as possible because you have few other choices. You keep patching stuff together until it finally wears out."

But we are talking about the USA from 1870 to 1945 and its lack of an HP movement, not about a preindustrial society.

"The "economic feasibility of reuse" arguably decreased, not increased, as we got wealthier: We built the crappiest throwaway buildings and engaged in the most demolition when we were wealthiest (the 1950s-now) because we finally had the luxury to create disposable "facilities" with actual "design lives." "

as you demonstrated with your Grand central example we did lot of disposal very fast from 1880 to 1945. A point at which construction materials were relatively cheap, but most people still lived too close to the edge to be interested in either HP or environmentalism. The two movements grew together, often the same people, and for similar reasons.

" We built far more beautiful, durable stuff when we were a much poorer, less technologically-advanced society!"

Im still not sure if you mean preindustrial, or 1870 to 1945. I would think the late 19th century fashion for historicist skins (going back to classical and medieval) shows a lack of confidence in contemporary arch that preceded the bauhaus.

Also I find many bauhaus or other modernist buildings quite beautiful. And many a pre modernist local 'classical' bank building or whatever thats boring, pretentious, etc.

Look I know some folks here hate baus, modernism, and post modernism, and will use any factoid to argue that point, but I really do not think that is what explains the rise of the HP movement. The period of the 1930s - 1940s was also a period of rising interest in folk culture, folk music, etc - there was a taste for "authenticity" what was a reaction to the conditions of modern life (and that had been expressed by modernist poets, for example) not to "modern" architecture.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

My positions are not relativist at all! I dislike outrageous monumentalism in all of its forms - only I don't pretend like my tastes are popular.

I don't know why you brought up the issue of problematic clients. I dislike buildings that still look imperious, no matter who the client is.

The Tea Party thing is pretty simple: an elite group appeal to unquestioned traditional values, sow doubt in expertise, and manipulate the legal system to achieve self-serving ends. How is that different?

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

Marc,
I wouldn't look to Neil for any kind of clarification of why "a small cadre of individuals with a tea-party approach to architectural expertise who want to enforce their vision of urbanism on everyone." is anything more than a mean spirited attack on those he disagrees with. I've tried several times to find common ground with him, but it's an all or nothing proposition with ideologus, similar to a tea-partyers approach to politics, all or nothing.

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

Thayer,

That's the whole point. Any Joe Shmoe can and should keep the columns out of a sight line and fulfull every other functional requirement, but why can't the public ask for something beautiful?

Sure, the public should ask for something beautiful. There are a few challenges, however: Who is "the public?" Does the public have consensus on what's beautiful?

And, as it fits into the larger question: what does that have to do with historic preservation? Quite a leap between those two.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

Thayer, I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't know why you personalize everything. I simply described the behavior of the National Civic Arts Society, the Committee of 100, and all kinds of NIMBY groups in the DC area. This is not ideology, it's experience, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm cynical about preservationists.

Plus, the "build it on your own property" comment was a joke that I thought you'd get.

unless some high schooler went down to the Capitol Building one day and was disgusted with it's "imperialism"

That's precisely what happened. School had nothing to do with it.

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 1:06 pm • linkreport

Right Alex, who is the public? Should we let that whole point die as if we couldn't try to answer the point? The connection between the public and preservation has already been made, but in the case of Greenwich Village, the public's voice was lead by Ms. Jane Jacobs. In the case of Grand Central, the public's main voice was Jackie O. See the pattern? They wheren't architects.

To Walker,
The defensiveness towards expressing some kind of fault with modernism seems to be on high alert today. You can't fault someone for liking a particular style, but you can look at the same history apparently and come up with wildly different conclusions.

"I would think the late 19th century fashion for historicist skins (going back to classical and medieval) shows a lack of confidence in contemporary arch that preceded the bauhaus."

So let me get this straight, the Pantheon was a temple with a historicist skin that showed a lack of confidence in contemporary architecture? What historicist skin or pastiche (if you prefer) does the Chartres Cathedral wear?
This kind of pseudo analysis is silly, but still seems to hold sway for so many architects and critics.

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D - thanks, you articulated my points way better than I did! :-) I was hardly arguing that the improved function of the new stuff was unimportant (good function is a self-evident prerequisite for all architecture). But you can do a lot more (and we once did) than just satisfy basic utilitarian function. So in the GCS example, maybe uplifting the spirit of the traveler was just as much a literal "function" as was designing a way for passengers to get to a ticket counter and platform easily.

Given that people want to preserve modernism, including such crappy things as mid century shopping centers in Arlington, and brutalist buildings, I would say its age, associations, and fears about change in urban design, NOT the impact of the Bauhaus.

Ah, but look at the individuals behind the preservation of the Big Idea stuff (Brutalism, for example) and you will find mostly architects and ideologues! That's the case with the impending Mechanic demo in Baltimore or the war over the Orange County slab by Rudolph in New York state, for example. (Many Joes want to get rid of this stuff; the architects don't.) And sure, there also are plenty of average Joes that want to preserve the postwar bowling alley or shopping center because they have fond memories of the place that have nothing to do with the architecture.

There are a few challenges, however: Who is "the public?" Does the public have consensus on what's beautiful?

Oh yeah! Look at what makes up the place where most people in the US live: suburbia. It's like 99.5% "evil historicist pastiche." Maybe some people don't just want a soulless "machine for living in," maybe they want something MORE that could be conversant with history and culture. Now I'll admit that a lot of this stuff is poorly, tastelessly done, but the common architect response to this apparent preference for "traditional" stuff is that people are too "dumb" to "get" the Modern stuff. Maybe, but I think laymen are just not as allergic to history as so many architects seem to be.

Personally I like any style that's textured, human-scaled, and ornamentally/patterned expressive. If it's an ornamented Modernism, then cool, I love it!

by Marc on May 14, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

My positions are not relativist at all! I dislike outrageous monumentalism in all of its forms - only I don't pretend like my tastes are popular.

They aren't. And when they get imposed on the public in the form of crappy, crappy disposable modern architecture, the public suffers for it. Do you wear only Mao Suits every day because you don't like your clothes to be disgustingly ornate or too "stylish"?

by JustMe on May 14, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

"To Walker,
The defensiveness towards expressing some kind of fault with modernism seems to be on high alert today. You can't fault someone for liking a particular style, but you can look at the same history apparently and come up with wildly different conclusions."

I happen to like SOME buildings built in pre bauhaus styles (including both those that harkened back to the middle ages, and some, like Art Deco, that did not so much) AND some Bauhaus buildings, and some buildings I think of as "post modernist".

What I have issue with is someone blaming reaction to bauhaus for the more extreme versions of preservationism, which I am convinced come from different roots.

"So let me get this straight, the Pantheon was a temple with a historicist skin that showed a lack of confidence in contemporary architecture? What historicist skin or pastiche (if you prefer) does the Chartres Cathedral wear?
This kind of pseudo analysis is silly, but still seems to hold sway for so many architects and critics."

I was thinking more of some of the ringstrasse buildings (which I have read about, not seen) or many examples of vernacular historicist 19th century buildings I have seen in the USA. Im not sure why arguing from the very best modernist examples is wrong, but arguing from the best historicist examples is okay (BTW, chartres cathedral was built in the 12th C, I think - it was cutting edge at its time, NOT an historicist skinning of a new building with a centuries old (and mostly departed) style)

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

"That's the case with the impending Mechanic demo in Baltimore "

Shit, theyre tearing down the Mechanic? I liked that building, and saw some great shows there. (note, I am not an architect)

" And sure, there also are plenty of average Joes that want to preserve the postwar bowling alley or shopping center because they have fond memories of the place that have nothing to do with the architecture."

which is precisely my point - that the extremes of the HP movement arent about architecture (and therefor are NOT about the dislike of bauhaus)

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

"Somebody has to make our public spaces beautiful. It might as well be us when we have the chance."

"We built far more beautiful, durable stuff when we were a much poorer, less technologically-advanced society!"

I think a good part of it is the all-consuming culture war: elites throw our hard-earned money away on elitist architecture! It's even worse in the hinterlands, where a well-designed and constructed municipal building would cost any politician his job.

Real America smothered Aesthetics in its bed a few decades ago. Now unless a building is an unpainted Quanset Hut housing a Pentacostal Church and a Cinnabon, it's "elitist" and must be purged.

http://www.kunstler.com/eyesore.html

by oboe on May 14, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

"suburbia. It's like 99.5% "evil historicist pastiche." Maybe some people don't just want a soulless "machine for living in," maybe they want something MORE that could be conversant with history and culture."

yeah, there are so many neogothic suburban houses, right. MOst of the historicist stuff in this region is neo georgian colonial, and its preferred not for its arch, but because so much has been built for so long that it doesnt "date" the way "contemporary" houses do. I think you will find that excluding the colonials, contemporary and other modernist styles far outnumber all the other historicist styles. And in metros where the critical mass of neocolonials never developed (many parts of the west, for example) you will see more modernist houses than historicist, I think)

also many of the colonial styled houses ARE soulless machines for living, with a colonial skin on top - but inside are very much influenced by FLW, etc, afaict.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

Just Me, I wear one of those Kim Jong-il suits with the zipper up the front cuz I'm super lazy.

But I never said anything about ornament in this entire thread. Just that I hate the grandiose, skin-deep, charmless Beaux-arts architecture that Marc was suggesting as the style that we should all be using. Classicism is also about winnowing away unnecessary details without destroying the sense of wholeness. Why is that a bad thing?

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

Neil, Chill out ma brother, you like stripped down buildings, nobody has a problem with that. It's all the sublte intellectual bullying that's getting old. Reminds me of my kids when they say, "but I was just..."

@ Marc,
Thank you. I've been defending the tea party's right to pastiche ever since leaving architecture school twenty years ago, and the critics are still making the same points, so I've had a little practice. All my professors spoke about modernism as inevitable, but how many of them do you think chose to live in it? None. You said, "maybe uplifting the spirit of the traveler was just as much a literal "function" as was designing a way for passengers to get to a ticket counter and platform easily." That's spot on. Not only have scientists recently made great headway into the science of well being, but John Ruskin himelf understood that beauty and identity, all things that make macho modernists weak at the knees, is essential for our mental health.

Speaking of modernist buildings that I've always admired, the TWA terminal rocks, and I love the Newseum. It's like music, not everyone can hear the harmonys, but most of us smile when we do.

@ Walker,
"yeah, there are so many neogothic suburban houses, right" Good point, that's what I was thinking when reading historicist pastiche, gothic! "excluding the colonials, contemporary and other modernist styles far outnumber all the other historicist styles." So scratch the bungalows, loose the Capes, ditch the four squares, disqualify the tudors, ignore the Arts and Crafts. Infact, just look at all the teardowns in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, bastion of Tea Party politics, and quaranteed you'll find one modernist styled building for every twenty traditional ones, that's if you're into a controlled sample from which to scientifically understand an argument.

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 2:03 pm • linkreport

Most of the historicist stuff in this region is neo georgian colonial, and its preferred not for its architecture...

How do you know? Why doesn't neocolonial age as poorly as "contemporary?" Maybe it's exactly the enduring popularity (i.e. "tradition" in other words) that's preventing it from dating? Same goes for the bungalow or Craftsman stuff out west.

BTW isn't Modernism just as historicist as any other style out there? All those new glass-and-steel boxes could just as easily have been churned out by Mies in 1929! So when's the cut-off date for what's "historicist?" Is being inspired by anything that predates CIAM wrong and being inspired by anything built afterwards OK? Isn't all architecture really just an exercize in building on precedents?

I would agree that HP veers into extremes. I would also definitely agree that HP is not a reaction to the Bauhaus - maybe it's more a reaction to all the aggregate crap that came afterwards? But why did this aggregate crap emerge in the first place? Greedy, cheap developers? But this is hardly new: were 19th century robber-baron builders any more benevolent or noble or selfless than the guys that throw up today's "lifestyle centers?" So maybe a spartan machine aesthetic Bauhaus ideology that legitimized cheap, crappy, throwaway buildings is what HP eventually fought against.

Neil, those are just more silly, anxiously-relativistic assertions. As long as starchitects and their sympathizers continue to exhibit this attitude, don't expect HP to go away.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

But I never said anything about ornament in this entire thread. Just that I hate the grandiose, skin-deep, charmless Beaux-arts architecture that Marc was suggesting as the style that we should all be using. Classicism is also about winnowing away unnecessary details without destroying the sense of wholeness. Why is that a bad thing?

Because "unnecessary details" contribute to a sense of wholeness. My pocket square is an unnecessary detail-- I certainly don't use it to blow my nose, but it contributes to the whole.

It's when we started tearing away everything in buildings we declared to be "false" that we suddenly got left with stark and empty architecture.

by JustMe on May 14, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

What does "anxiously-relativistic" mean. We're obviously not seeing eye-to-eye, so it would be nice to see what position you're arguing for.

by Neil Flanagan on May 14, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

"How do you know? Why doesn't neocolonial age as poorly as "contemporary?"

not age, date. If you see a neocolonial in FFX county, you cant easily tell if it was built in 1930 or 1950 or 1970 or 2010. OTOH a 1960s contemporary doesnt look "contemporary" any more. I suppose someone COULD try to build 1960s contemporaries to get the same Real estate value effect, but usually people with that as a focus just go for the neocolonial cause there are so many of them (thus particularly obscuring the tendency to date) while the folks who LIKE contemporary arch, would just as well get something thats actually contemporary.

Maybe it's exactly the enduring popularity (i.e. "tradition" in other words) that's preventing it from dating? Same goes for the bungalow or Craftsman stuff out west.

"BTW isn't Modernism just as historicist as any other style out there?"

It could be, sure. If someone just tries to do early bauhaus all over again. That is indeed what most gave the impression of modernism being crappy - lots of very imitative stuff done in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I can tell, contemporary architects (and starchitects) generally prefer to do stuff that departs from Bauhaus in many ways. I suppose there are folks still doing "historicist" copies of Bauhaus, but I wouldnt think there is much of a market for that - since the folks who adore historicism usually dont like Bauhaus.

" Is being inspired by anything that predates CIAM wrong and being inspired by anything built afterwards OK? Isn't all architecture really just an exercize in building on precedents?"

I dont know what CIAM is. I would think that building on precedents can be great - as, in some instances, can be a conscious challenge to precedents. I suppose since anyone who isnt doing something modeled ona pre bauhaus style is owning something to the Bauhaus, its impossible to not be building on SOME precedent today (and isnt that what POST modernist really means - that the modernist revolution is done, and in some ways is no longer relevant?)

"I would agree that HP veers into extremes. I would also definitely agree that HP is not a reaction to the Bauhaus - maybe it's more a reaction to all the aggregate crap that came afterwards? But why did this aggregate crap emerge in the first place? Greedy, cheap developers? But this is hardly new: were 19th century robber-baron builders any more benevolent or noble or selfless than the guys that throw up today's "lifestyle centers?" So maybe a spartan machine aesthetic Bauhaus ideology that legitimized cheap, crappy, throwaway buildings is what HP eventually fought against."

Then what created the craving for folk music in the 1930s - what led to the beat poet reaction against consumerism? Why all this artisanal everything? Its a longing for roots, in a rootless world. Its not about the buildings (and again, IMO those 19th c developers threw up some crap as well - theres a lot of deep anachronism going around - disdain for towers in the park housing projects from people who never experienced life in an overcrowded old law tenement, for example)

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

JustMe, those are great points. Reminds me of this guy's musings on why the anomalous "ornament is a crime" mantra has remained dominant among architects.

Thayer-D, I love the TWA too! To me Scandinavian (Saarinen) or FLW Modernism is often far more comforting than the cold ideology that emanated from the Bauhaus. Though I love some strict Bauhaus architecture too, like Tel Aviv's White City (maybe that's because it's on a traditional urban "chassis" with plenty of bays, awnings, balconies, and other human-scaled facade/street features that delight the eye?)

BTW there's an interesting piece on the science of well-being as it pertains to arch here:
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/design-and-the-mind/201002/unhappy-hipsters-does-modern-architecture-make-us-gloomy

by Marc on May 14, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

"Good point, that's what I was thinking when reading historicist pastiche, gothic! "excluding the colonials, contemporary and other modernist styles far outnumber all the other historicist styles." So scratch the bungalows, loose the Capes, ditch the four squares, disqualify the tudors, ignore the Arts and Crafts. "

wow, you went to architecture school.

yeah, here in NoVa, there arent that many todors and other styles that people copied in the 19th c. Since we were discussing grand central and all, I was thinking of the kinds of historicist styles that were the rage in the 19th c. I suppose if you add in Capes, there may be MORE non neo colonial historicist houses than there are moderns, but not by 99.5%. Its mostly not a pastiches, its mostly neo colonials, with a smattering of other historicist styles, and a smattering of "contemporaries".

"Infact, just look at all the teardowns in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, bastion of Tea Party politics, and quaranteed you'll find one modernist styled building for every twenty traditional ones, that's if you're into a controlled sample from which to scientifically understand an argument."

You mean the mcmansions? Or the houses torn down? Hear in Va the mcmansions are almost never modernist or Post modernist - Id say the overwhelming majority are Georgian, though there ARE a pastiche of historical styles. But I would also say that the majority of suburbanites find the majority of McMansions tasteless, probably especially all those pseudo French chateaux (sp?) I mean if thats the example of being conversant with history and culture, Id say its on very shaky ground - I rather suspect most of the folks who live in those houses dont have the foggiest notion of the history and culture there homes allude to, other that it looks "Wealthy". At least the folks in the georgians know who the founding fathers were. Try asking about Cardinal Richelieu to a random neo French Chateau inhabitant.

sheesh.

Like I said, Im very interested in real cultural continuity. You dont get that by tacky imitation of a 16th century style, any more than someone building a glass skinned office building in tysons in 1975 got Weimar Social Democracy.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 2:34 pm • linkreport

@Walker,
"If you see a neocolonial in FFX county, you cant easily tell if it was built in 1930 or 1950 or 1970 or 2010."
Really? I'll give you some tips then. Of all those, the 1930's one will look the best, although the kitchen will need some updating and opening up some of those interior walls won't hurt. The 1950's ones are passable, but the 1970's ones have their colonial trim reduced to extruded plastic lipstick. The 2010 one's going to look like a bloated house compared to the others, but the detailing will have improved as the general knowledge of tratitional buildings has become redescovered by a segment of the architectural community.

"I suppose there are folks still doing "historicist" copies of Bauhaus, but I wouldnt think there is much of a market for that - since the folks who adore historicism usually dont like Bauhaus." It's hard to have a substantive discussion when you won't acknowledge the inherant historicism of a neo-Bauhaus building. Most people wouldn't even care what historical precedence one can trace in a building's aesthetic if one liked it. This fetish of beng original is the provenance of modernist ideologues. The general public tends to be a bit more pragmatic.

"I dont know what CIAM is." Neil might be able to help there, despite his disdain for "tea-party approach to architectural expertise", I'm sure he'll be happy to help. Be gentle with him, Neil.

To you're last point Walker,"theres a lot of deep anachronism going around - disdain for towers in the park housing projects from people who never experienced life in an overcrowded old law tenement" I'm not sure one has to be ignorant of a crowded tenemant building's charm to dislike a housing project tower in a park. Where's the King of Spain when you need him?

by Thayer-D on May 14, 2012 2:43 pm • linkreport

"@Walker,
"If you see a neocolonial in FFX county, you cant easily tell if it was built in 1930 or 1950 or 1970 or 2010."
Really? I'll give you some tips then. Of all those, the 1930's one will look the best, although the kitchen will need some updating and opening up some of those interior walls won't hurt. The 1950's ones are passable, but the 1970's ones have their colonial trim reduced to extruded plastic lipstick. The 2010 one's going to look like a bloated house compared to the others, but the detailing will have improved as the general knowledge of tratitional buildings has become redescovered by a segment of the architectural community. "

er, not an architects walk through, but a lay persons view, often a driveby. The sort of thing that matters to a suburban buyer, who knows that faced with a 1960s colonial in Vienna (virginia, not Austria), and a 1960s contemp in say Lake Barcroft, the parents who drop off their kid for a play date with his won't be sure how old his georgian is, but when they see the 1960s contemp, will see that it screams "I (the house, not the owner) am 45 years old!" And in picking a 2012 house, has to worry that if he buys a 2012 contemp, different though it is from the 1960s contemp, it will look dated in a few years. Obviously if he buys a 2012 neo georgian, he has to deal with the fact that 2025 neo georgians wont be precisely the same, and 2025 architects will know all the differences, but still its more likely to hold its value.

"It's hard to have a substantive discussion when you won't acknowledge the inherant historicism of a neo-Bauhaus building. "

I'm sorry, im in that group of people who has read something about architecture, but doesnt have an arch degree. Im not even certain what the above sentence means. I guess you can give up having a substantive discussion with me.

I still dont think that the extreme of HP (which is what thsi thread is about) would be any different if no bauhaus.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

...Disdain for towers in the park housing projects from people who never experienced life in an overcrowded old law tenement, for example.

Good points in that post (don't want to requote the whole thing), but I would argue that HP is exactly a defense against "rootlessness" as manifested in rootless architecture! And of course today's tacky McMansion pastiche doesn't necessarily make one conversant with history. It merely reveals a hunger for something that some architects seem to blithely dismiss (so they leave it up to the production homebuilders to cheaply commercialize because they refuse to do it themselves).

And sorry, I should have clarified: CIAM was the Congrès internationaux d'architecture modern (i.e. the institutionalization of modernism).

Anyway, in the above quote part of that post, aren't we veering off architecture into urbanism/urban design? A lot of lavish older buildings had people packed into them at appalling densities. What does that really have to do with architectural style?

Interestingly enough, those very same NYC tenements and DC rowhouses are popular today (Millennials are knocking each other over in their rush to get in!). Turns out once you reduce the allowable population density (you can't have one family per room anymore), scrub the soot and grime off the facades, and update the tenement/rowhouse with modern utilities, it works just fine. No need to experiment with a radical new urbanism (Modernist urbanism).

The towers in the park didn't work urbanistically as a means for warehousing poor people. Even if these isolated slabs had been done up in lavish Beaux Arts masonry they would have failed. They work fine for rich people (Lafayette Park) or for the elderly (if they turn into NORCs), but I suspect most of the people that defend them never had to live in them. Even today some intellectuals will defend the NYCHA as an example of "successful" public housing (LOL!), but I doubt any of them would want to live in them!

by Marc on May 14, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

You're asking an interesting question when you're trying to get at the roots of preservation in this country.

I'll submit that the rise of preservation marks a kind of cultural shift. Preservation only becomes viable when a society gains a sense that its origins are distinct from its present and future.

Preservation requires self-awareness. We're more able to preserve things when they fit in with our cultural ideas. Take California, for instance: Spanish origins grew to be an essential part of California identity from the 1920s. The idea rose to the level of myth, complete with pageants and, especially, a notable interest in the preservation of Spanish missions.

Witness, also, Viollet-le-Duc's (now much-lammented) restorations of medieval castles in France, at the height of the new France's power.

The preservation of purely functional objects, like trains and warships, follow a similar timeline: a few isolated cases like HMS Victory and USS Constitution in the early 20th century, as tokens of 19th century glory, followed by a flurry of new museums from the 60s on, as steam engines and WWII artifacts went to the scrapyards. The Royal Navy was sinking surviving sailing ships-of-the-line even in 1946: no one cared.

Don't misread the currents of authenticity though. Folk music might have been a revelation to some middle-class urbanites, but plenty of people were playing and dancing to that music because it was the sort that they knew best.

by David R. on May 14, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

There is, of course, also the role of nostalgia in propelling preservation and this drive for memorials. Monuments on the Civil War battlefields date mostly to the golden years of Civil War veterans. Historic Deerfield? It came on-line just as the last people to know agricultural New England, with fields and pasture rather than forest and cellarholes, were fading.

The great deeds we did when we were young! or the pain we feel for those small frontier towns that we never knew!

by David R. on May 14, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

@marc

Actually you should spend some time on a NYC RE forum - plenty of college grads looking for NYCHA units "which NYCHA building are safe?" given the way the world is now, I would not be surprised if quite a few were recent Architecture grads.

Ive also had a chance recently to spend some time in one of the trade union tower in a park buildings in Coney Island. They are surprising liveable. Lots of light, space, etc. I am NOT suggesting we should build that way now (esp the 1960s planning that kept corner stores away) - but they arent awful.

BTW I doubt many people are fighting to get into OLD LAW tenements - I dont think many survive in NYC - they are fighting I think to get into NEW law tenements, which have air shafts for light and air. The old law ones with no central light wells, IIUC, would be pretty bad even today. As for DC rowhomes, I dont think theres a comparison.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

David, that's a fascinating point on how much Viollet-le-Duc's "preservation of ideals" differed so much from contemporaneous (and contemporary) notions of preservation. (i.e. in his eye you don't necessarily seran-wrap a historic object and preserve in its surviving state, you are allowed to freely modify it to reach some ideal condition: i.e. renovate an old Gothic church to be "more" Gothic than actual Gothic architecture really was.)

I would definitely agree on the points over nostalgia. To me, however, the disturbing thing is that some starchitects seem to sneer at nostalgia (the word is thrown around a lot by architects), as if it's some sinister emotion that has to be suppressed at all costs. I'm not arguing that we have to free-float with nostalgia in an uncritical manner (definitely not!), but it is a natural part of the human condition that can be appropriately expressed in architecture (like so many other emotions). To me today's starchitecture is more about the detached intellect (hidden behind a screen of inscrutable archibabble in all the high-end design magazines) than it is about acknowledging non-literal-function human comforts (i.e. spiritual stuff that goes beyond finding a good place to sit and shovel down your dinner.)

I recommend Steven Semes' "The Future of the Past." Great discussion there on the history of preservation that alludes to a lot of the stuff in this comments thread.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

LOL AWalker, it's not surprising to see people ask "which ones are safe?" I'll admit there are plenty of quiet, naturally-occurring retirement community (NORC) towers that are doing just fine - apart from the reality that they just weren't built to last. And crime is still an issue, even if it's not as bad as it was in the pre-Broken-Windows Crack Era.

My point was that a lot of old architecture can be made habitable if you address all the familiar old concerns (sardinelike densities, outdated utilities, smoky nearby industry, etc.) A comparable example to DC rowhouses might be the old rowhouses along Baltimore's harbor(Fells Point, Fed Hill, Canton, etc.) These were once the seediest parts of town (rowdy port districts). Now they're the most highly sought-after parts of town (industry gone, smoke gone, sanitation introduced, grime removed, houses updated). Or there's the relatively modest rowhouse fabric in Philly's Center City. Or old parts of Boston. Or Brooklyn? (Admittedly more palatial rowhouses that all the other cities, but not with their own shortcomings.) Or scores of smaller cities - Albany, Charleston, Providence? This stuff can endure if cared for.

And yeah, it's curious how so many US public housing towers omitted corner retail. The weird thing is that this was the opposite scenario in many parts of Europe (i.e. the dreary plattenbaus with retail either in their bases, on various levels within the building, or in adjacent cinder block sheds). Dunno why that rarely caught on here - maybe the retail was initially there, but driven out by the crime? In any case, it's not like the European stuff did much better.

by Marc on May 14, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

Marc,

Maybe it's just me arguing semantics, but density is for buildings. Crowding is for people.

Density is good, overcrowding is bad.

by Alex B. on May 14, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

"LOL AWalker, it's not surprising to see people ask "which ones are safe?" I'll admit there are plenty of quiet, naturally-occurring retirement community (NORC) towers that are doing just fine"

Im not sure what you mean by NORC - the coney island towers had become mostly seniors, then the seniors were replaced by recently arrived Soviet immigrants of a range of ages. And from what I could gather, even a few less than hip young americans.

" - apart from the reality that they just weren't built to last."

They are over 40 years old. Im sure maitenance is an issue, but im NOT sure its worse for them than for 19th century buildings - anyway, thats a question of construction techniques and materials, not details or arch, IIUC.

"And crime is still an issue,"

NOt much no. They may not be defensible spaces, but theres still very little crime.

"My point was that a lot of old architecture can be made habitable if you address all the familiar old concerns (sardinelike densities, outdated utilities, smoky nearby industry, etc.)"

And MY point is that a lot of drove what we think of as modernist mistakes was reaction to conditions of the time. Can you spend a lot money and make SOME crappy older buildings habitable (not the old law tenements, though, I think) Well sure. But those resources werent necessarily easily available to the folks building low and even moderate income housing projects from the 1920s to the 1950s.

"And yeah, it's curious how so many US public housing towers omitted corner retail."

They were ommitted due to the same urban planning principles that held in suburbia, where the SFHs were built with Georgian (or Tudor, or other historicist) skins. The people whose craving for historicists cuddliness is SAID to have motivated their preference in skin styles and rejection of modernism, in their choices relative to Urban Design and planning, more or less completely accepted the rejection of the urban design principles of "anti modernists" like I guess, Sitte (sp?)(and in fact many are still fighting it tooth and nail, as we see on this blog every day) Which is yet another reason I do not buy that the preference for pre-modernist SFH architecture was really a rejection of the "coldness" of modernism.

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

BTW, perhaps you are confused = these are NOT NYCHA buildings Im referring to

by AWalkerInTheCity on May 14, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport

The house is a POS.

If you want to save it, buy it yourselves.

by Chef on May 15, 2012 7:44 am • linkreport

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