Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mid-Century Modern at the Historic Landmarks Commission next Thursday

Maybe you need something to distract you from the sabre-rattling of the moment.* It looks like DOCOMOMO, Documenting and Conserving the Modern Movement, might be giving a presentation to the Historic Landmarks Commission next week, on Thursday the 20th.

The agenda item's a little vague, and maybe it's just a topic for discussion and not a formal presentation - "Docomomo Oregon & Association of Preservation Technical Workshop." No matter. It's a timely topic.

Post's Carnegie Library (1912), Belluschi's YWCA (1952),
and Belluschi/Doyle Pacific Telephone and Telegraph (1930)
Buildings are generally eligible for the National Register of Historic Places after 50 years. Right now that's 1967, believe it or not.

But for most of us, Historic Preservation's main context has been for buildings from before World War II, especially those from the 19th century. That's a legacy from the previous generation's pioneering work.

It's time to think about mid-century modern - even as autoist as it often is!

Pietro Belluschi's 1946-8 First National Bank:
Demolition permit (again) issued last fall
You might remember a post from 2013: "Mid-Century Modern in Salem: Four Buildings Better than the Bank."

In the intervening years, the fate of the First National Bank of Pietro Belluschi has come to look pretty much sealed. It's cooked. Multiple times a demolition permit for it has been reauthorized, and there has been opportunity for someone to step up with a new use or a purchase of it. So while in a strict sense you could say it remains in danger, it would take an extraordinary effort to save it. Prospects for its preservation seem wholly theoretical at the moment.

Belluschi's Breitenbush Hall at the State Hospital is in process of demolition.

So it's time to focus on other Belluschi buildings and to think about other examples of mid-century modern in Salem. (For more on Belluschi in Salem, see notes here.)

State Street between Winter and Cottage (top image) has the most perfect ensemble of buildings on a block face in Salem: The George Post Carnegie Library of 1912, the Belluschi YWCA of 1952, the Belluschi/AE Doyle Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building circa 1930, and the Hallie Ford Museum of Art from the mid-1960s. These buildings are very nicely proportioned, human-scaled, and present a delightful variety in detail. (It's too bad they face Willson Park, the telephone building' State Street entry has no public-facing use, and together they are a little orphaned from the main blocks of downtown. There is a latent dynamism in the collection.)

Only the Belluschi YWCA, however, languishes without a use.

Unlike the bank building, it greets the street with a front porch and, so far as these modernist boxes go, has an inviting entry. It's an interesting building. It deserves institutional attention for preservation.

St. Mark's Lutheran
St. Mark's Lutheran on Winter and Marion dates from 1958. If Belluschi went for the cool, boxy forms, designer Harold E. Wagoner here went for maximum modernist warmth. It's badly underappreciated in Salem and a modernist gem in a different idiom. Right now it has an active congregation, and may need no help or attention. But if the congregation wanted, it could probably be listed on the Register, and at least would have a case as a "Local Landmark" for the City of Salem.

And of course there is the Brutalism of City Hall and the Library from 1972.

Brutalist rhythm at City Hall, via DOCOMOMO
Sometimes scorned, sometimes invisible, and rarely celebrated, modernism in Salem isn't talked about enough. It also suffers from siting and forms that are autoist and too often deny or work in tension with walkable urban fabric. DOCOMOMO has only two entries for Salem, the Civic Center and the Belluschi County Courthouse. As these modernist buildings reach the end of a 50 or 75 year use, and require serious upgrade, reuse, or face demolition, we will need to think more critically about which ones we might value more, which ones have or should have a future, and which ones we therefore want to make efforts to preserve.

Retrieving, cataloguing, and celebrating mid-century modern in Salem is a worthwhile project, and it's great to see the Historic Landmarks Commission start to consider it in any detail.

* And if you don't need the distraction, here's a little Cold War nostalgia for you:

Shelter at the Elsinore, 1965
(Salem Library Historic Photos)

No comments: