Mods versus snobs

Modernist architecture is for the elite, right? Not any more. The movement to preserve modern structures is finding new energy in populist appeal and as a counterbalance to today's McMansions and Viagra villas. The debate over a Ballard Denny's is just one squabble in a growing national discussion about preservation, proportion, and pedigree.
Crosscut archive image.

The Denny's restaurant in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood (top and bottom), with a resembling information booth at the 1962 World's Fair.

Modernist architecture is for the elite, right? Not any more. The movement to preserve modern structures is finding new energy in populist appeal and as a counterbalance to today's McMansions and Viagra villas. The debate over a Ballard Denny's is just one squabble in a growing national discussion about preservation, proportion, and pedigree.

The historic preservation movement is rife with class issues, stated and unstated. Few people question saving an historic mansion, but a lowly Denny's? That raises hackles and lifts noses in the air. Few question the noble virtues of the Stimson-Green Mansion or a grand Victorian. But a Ballard diner? It's "riff-raff."

A key arena for the class debate is the argument over modern architecture, which has been criticized by Tom Wolfe and others as being designed by snobs who were heartless in stuffing 20th century American workers into glass-box high-rises inspired by German worker housing. There are plenty of people who can't wait to put modernism in history's dustbin.

But many historians and preservationists are beginning to see value in saving the day-to-day stuff from the mid-20th century, not just the grand commissions of superstar architects. And that is turning the snob debate on its head as preservationists argue over diners, car dealerships, and burger joints. There's a sense that saving modern architecture is now actually striking a blow for the common man.

Some of that is apparent in a couple of recent stories worth reading. The new May/June 2008 issue of Preservation magazine published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation is devoted to the theme of saving modern architecture: "Modernism: A Star is Reborn." The package includes pieces ranging from Seattle's own Manning's/Denny's controversy ("Gaga over Googie") to saving modern classics at the U.S. Air Force Academy ("Air Age Gothic") to a modernist tour of Palm Springs, home of Sinatra, Paul Schell, and Sputnik-inspired homes ("Palm Springs Eternal"). Most interesting, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger offers "The Modernist Manifesto" that lays out a rationale for why we should care about preserving modernist structures.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I found a couple of passages particularly interesting and relevant to Northwest controversies. Goldberger first makes the case that many modern buildings are, in fact, part of history: 1972 is indeed a remote time now. He helps make his case with this stunning fact: "When Pennsylvania Station was torn down in 1963, it was only 53 years old, barely older than the Seagram Building is now." The destruction of Penn Station is considered by many to be a disaster in the annals of historic preservation – Lewis Mumford called it an act of "public vandalism." It also served as a catalyst for the pro-preservation movement.

But besides history, what else is there to merit modernist preservation? Goldberger writes:

Even if we admit that modernist buildings are as old as plenty of other objects worth preserving, isn't there still a problem in that such an overwhelming number of them are commercial? And weren't they considered ordinary, not special, in their time? Some of them are ordinary, sure, just as the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries produced plenty of everyday and mediocre structures. I know that modernism did not produce as good a vernacular as many other periods – a modernist city does not have the appeal of Georgian London, say – but that is another discussion. For now, just because buildings were built for ordinary purposes and not created as major works of art hardly makes them less worthy of saving. The ordinary commercial vernacular of this country is one of our most valuable possessions, and it deserves to be protected. Besides, enormous numbers of "everyday" modernist buildings – the libraries, the schools, the airports, the office buildings that are threatened – have contributed hugely to their cityscapes and streetscapes.

It's interesting that he makes the case for modernism's populist wing. It's the very commercial and workaday nature of so many modern structures that makes them interesting and significant. That's certainly part of the appeal of Googie roadside architecture and other local icons from the Hat 'n' Boots to the Pink Elephant Car Wash. It's also part of the strong sentiments that have fueled non-landmark controversies over saving the Blue Moon Tavern or Sunset Bowl. We live in a culture where the public square is commercialized and commoditized, where our "third places" are private business establishments. But that makes them no less valuable to people for the collective memory and experience they embody.

Another reason modernist preservation is valuable, according to Goldberger, is that it can remind us of an era of restraint. That seems counterintutive in the age of glass towers, but here's his point:

Modernist preservation has another benefit, beyond purely aesthetic reasons, beyond the fact that modernist structures are fading into history and deserve the protection that we afford to the best work of all other periods. So many modern buildings now represent a degree of restraint and modesty that provides a welcome, not to say urgent, lesson today, in the age of the McMansion, when we seem to believe that no decent American family can possibly be expected to live in anything less than 12,000 square feet. New Canaan, Conn., where Philip Johnson's Glass House is on its way to becoming a kind of mother church of the modernist preservation movement, once had a huge inventory of first-rate houses from the postwar years. A great number of them have been lost, almost always because people couldn't comprehend living in 1,500 or 2,500 square feet. And so new buyers tore those houses down.

Yes, minimalism has a moral point to make in a world of decreasing resources and looming eco-crisis: A sustainable future involves scale. The Northwest architectural style highlighted nature and emphasized a kind of Asian simplicity. It offered elegant solutions and living in less space than the lot-consuming Monster Houses we know today. You can see some of this history along the shores of Lake Washington where big older mansions are now cheek-by-jowel with newer Viagra villas. But occasionally, you still see simple, modernist homes of the 1950s and '60s on lots where the conspicuous nature of consumption is the lack of consumption. These 20th century trendsetters gave up 4,000-square-foot fun rooms to have a landscape with some gorgeous old cedars, a status symbol you can't order from an interior decorator. Such aesthetics were echoed in thousands of other homes throughout the region, many in the suburbs. Money didn't always mean excess.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer's architecture critic Lawrence Cheek is also a fan of small and unusual, at least some of the time. He writes in a recent column on what modern structures in Seattle are and aren't worth saving:

An equally quirky oddment from the late '50s is the tiny Egan House on Lakeview Boulevard East overlooking Lake Union. It's pure geometry, a white wedge chiseling into a forested hillside like an alien starship's landing shuttle. Historic Seattle acquired and rehabbed it 10 years ago, and has been leasing it to assorted residential tenants for the past several years.

Does anything make it more worth preservation than the [Ballard] Denny's? Although its nonprofit savior wouldn't dare put it this way, it's a valuable illustration of midcentury modernism's attitude that architecture had a divine right to trump nature. This is one of the reasons for architectural conservation – keeping a record of civilization's cycles of thinking, including those that now appear foolish, arrogant or even destructive.

The Egan House has the added advantage of being extremely small and cute. That's another principle that's now becoming apparent: Most forms of modernism worked better as small buildings than big ones. There's a tiny, 1960, glass-box office building at 1264 Eastlake Ave. E. that's almost pure Mies van der Rohe, and it's sheer delight. But scale Mies' puritanical minimalism into something the size of the late and unlamented 1959 Central Library, and you had mind-numbing banality.

The Egan House is a well-known Capitol Hill oddity. And the wonderful little Eastlake building is well known to modern preservationists and anyone who drives by and wonders about what it would be like to work in that cantilevered workspace that hangs in the air. It was built by a group of architects for their office and sits in a neighborhood that is home to many works by Northwest modern masters like Paul Kirk and Paul Thiry.

But all small and quirky modern structures aren't equal, and Cheek is no fan of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's which he disparages a "Daffy Duck" structure that's the historic equivalent of an old comic book. He dismisses it thusly:

If the Denny's had been an honest effort to develop an authentic Northwest regional style – and there are good contemporary examples, such as Paul Hayden Kirk's Magnolia Branch Library of 1964 – the argument for preservation would be solid. But the Denny's is pure California, a cheap carnival of look-at-me design that says little about Seattle's character or the Northwest's natural environment.

Cheek and I are good friends and collaborators, and he used to write regularly for Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly when I edited those papers. Reasonable people can disagree over the value of the Ballard Manning's/Denny's, and on this, we do.

First, there is no requirement whatsoever that a local landmark – modern or otherwise – be in any kind of unique Northwest regional style or designed by a Northwest architect. If that were true, many Victorian, Craftsman, Beaux Arts, and Modernist landmarks would have to be stricken from the list, including the International Style Norton Building, which isn't remotely regional.

Second, Googie architecture is often carnival-like, space-age, look-at-me, and eclectic – that's what defines it. That's like criticizing Deco because it's streamlined. The restaurant was meant to grab the attention of drivers on a busy thoroughfare, not unlike the architectural equivalent of a carnival barker.

Third, it is not "pure California," though that state is ground zero for Googie. Its architect, Clarence Mayhew, built something very unusual drawing on Pacific Island and Scandinavian architectural styles – a direct response to Seattle influences. The co-owner of the Manning's chain said at the time of its opening that the architecture was a "marriage of Northwest and Polynesian longhouse in the idiom of Paul Bunyan." In fact, at the city landmarks hearing that resulted in its designation, consultants from California arguing for the owner maintained that it was so unlikeanything in California, it couldn't possibly be Googie. The landmarks board decided it was a landmark, Googie or not.

Some experts who have looked at it have concluded that he was almost certainly inspired by a temporary pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. On top of that, the materials used – particularly in the incredible vaulted wood beam interior – suggest the strong influence of the Northwest's "natural environment." Partial proof of its success in pleasing local tastes with its regional and ethnic influences is how strongly people in the neighborhood bonded with it. They protested its possible demolition in the early 1980s, scarcely 20 years after it was built and long before it qualified for landmark status.

The general thrust of Cheek's preservationist piece is right on, however: Modernism – even in the manifestations we might dislike today – has its place in the community time capsule. And I think Cheek and Goldberger are right to look to the past for lessons when it comes to scale, diversity, and celebrating the everyman qualities of modernism. These structures deserve a place alongside the architectural aristocrats that get so much time and attention from preservation's old guard.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.