Saving Midcentury Modernist Buildings In PA Cities

Jan 4, 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more of this report at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads