From this month’s newsletter – RPPN_Winter2015 – we present this letter from the President:
Dear Recent Past Preservation Advocates,
We are at an interesting moment. Recent past architecture is entering a new phase. The timeline preservationists follow to determine the recent past “cut-off” – the ever-present Fifty Year Rule – is upon us. So how do we now define “recent past?” How does RPPN, and you as advocates, tackle these issues?
RPPN has always had a dichotomy within its mission. From the get-go, RPPN set out to advocate for resources less than fifty years old. This timeframe, at the time of our formation, included buildings from the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as those through the 1960s and 1970s. This included our work with the Cyclorama building in Gettysburg, Penn., which was built in 1962; when we got involved, it was a mere thirty-five or so years old. But our second level of advocacy has often included those older than fifty years old. We supported the efforts of Save Fenway Park to preserve the much-loved home of the Boston Red Sox when the park faced potential wrecking balls; the site was already older than eighty years when we supported their work. We also supported the preservation of diners and drive-ins, most of which were well older than fifty years. As a board, we considered these types of sites unloved and vernacular. We saw the need to bring everyone under the big tent.
Yet now we are looking at a new issue. One of our board members, Rebekah Dobrasko, recently sampled Endangered Places lists from around the US. What she found was that most of the sites are from the 1950s, which means the bulk of “recent past” sites on these lists are actually now within the Fifty Year Rule. At this point in time, fifty years ago is 1965. In fact, Rebekah found only one site that is less than fifty years old. Built in 1977, it is the only site in her sample that meets RPPN’s original goal of advocating for buildings less than fifty years old. So I can’t help but wonder: Has “recent past” as we defined it at our founding gained acceptance in the preservation community? Have we reached our goal?
RPPN has recently noticed a cultural trend—recent past is now cool and hip. Midcentury modernism has been accepted into the mainstream with publications like Dwell, shows like Mad Men, and even the recent work by the National Trust for Historic Preservation at places like the Philip Johnson Glass House. Even a place as iconic to the recent past preservation movement as the Glass House is now sixty-six years old, well within the scale of the Fifty Year Rule. Farnsworth House is sixty. Places like Miami Marine Stadium, the Astrodome, and New York State Pavilion have just turned fifty or are now within the Fifty Year Rule. Even the Gettysburg Cyclorama building would have been fifty-three by this point and perhaps spoken in the same sentences as Astrodome and Miami Marine Stadium. Does the organization benefit from this coolness? Should we ride those coat tails?
If the organization stays with a fifty-year limit to our program, what buildings are we protecting? Bell bottoms and big hair might be coming back, but what about the architecture? Who cares about this architecture? Johnson’s AT&T Building, Transamerica Pyramid, and Weisman Art Museum are a few big examples. And let’s not forget the big elephant: Brutalism. Are these sites being nominated to endangered lists and rejected? Or are we, as a field, ignoring those sites under fifty years old again?
This brings the question: How does RPPN define recent past? Does RPPN stay with the Fifty Year Rule? Or does RPPN expand the definition of recent past to include anything in the last one hundred years? Are there groups out there fighting for sites built in the last fifty years, or has the field acknowledged that the 1950s are simply safer to fight for and anything newer isn’t worth the time? And what of our suburbs? Do the preservation programs at our universities now include architectural education about the buildings of these time periods? Or are we still focused on Victorian and early-20th century places? Everyone loves a bungalow now, but in the 1950s they weren’t so hip. Bungalows replaced those houses that we now see as Queen Anne and Italianate. We are now facing a time when the bulk of American homes were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Studies show them to be less energy efficient and, often, built to a lesser quality. Additionally, many Americans, particularly of younger generations, are moving back to cities and away from suburbs. Do we as a field need to step in and preserve these sites? To what end?
There are many questions as we examine the next five, ten, twenty years out. The question we put to you is what role do you see RPPN taking on? Should we continue to advocate for those sites less than fifty years old? When should draw the line to say, “We don’t advocate for those resources because they are older than fifty years?” What audiences are we seeking to educate?
Please take two minutes of your time to let us know your thoughts through our online survey. (I promise, it’s only two questions!) We look forward to your thoughts and comments. And as always, please connect with us on Facebook and Twitter to join us in our discussion.