August 2003: The New Old: Nifty from the Last 50 Initiative

By Michael Houser

Traditionally, historic preservation efforts in Seattle and across the state have focused on buildings constructed before the outbreak of WWII; but what about the newer buildings we want to save for tomorrow?

In May of 2002, during National Historic Preservation Week, the State Office of Archaeology & Historic Preservation (OAHP) launched its first effort to recognize and record Washington's post-WWII resources. The "Nifty from the Last 50 Initiative" is a joint effort by OAHP and Historic Seattle's DOCOMOMO WeWa committee to encourage the discussion and appreciation of architecture that best represents the last 50 years.

State Architectural Historian Michael Houser notes that people should "have an open mind when thinking about modern architecture and should realize that a building doesn't have to be designed by an influential architect or be an architectural masterpiece to be considered important enough to survey under the Initiative."

OAHP and DOCOMOMO.WeWa are looking for everyday architecture of the last half decade, including skyscrapers, residences, churches, gas stations, office complexes and even local strip malls. Since May of 2003, over 35 modern resources have been recognized and officially recorded through this program.

A Matter of Time

In the field of historic preservation an arbitrary age of 50 years has been set to define what is considered historic and what is not. As each year passes, this fixed time frame, is always giving preservationists new resource types and styles to consider. For instance, in 1966 when the National Historic Preservation Act was enacted, 1916 was the cut-off date and resources such as the Craftsman style bungalow and the Art Deco movie theater were not considered "eligible" historic resources. Today, however, anything built before 1953 could be considered "historic" by preservationists. This is the era of the postwar building boom, the ranch house, suburbia, modernism, and expressionism.

Today's preservationists are just now beginning to explore the more recent past. In Washington, the postwar economy fueled a population boom with the state's population jumping from 2.3 million in 1950 to 3.1 million by 1970. There was, of course, a corresponding increase in demand for new buildings - both commercial and residential - allowing Washington architects the chance to pursue modern design ideas on a scale that attracted the attention of the nation.

Between 1949 and 1961, projects in Washington received 2 honor awards and 7 merit awards from the national chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Among them was the 1950 Gaffney's Lake Wilderness Lodge by the architectural firm of Young, Richardson, Carleton & Detlie, and the 1959 Washington Water Power Company Building in Spokane designed by Kenneth Brooks and Bruce Walker.

Many homes of the era from around the state were featured in national publications like Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful and Sunset. Projects like the Dr. Frederick Fischer House in Spokane designed by California architect Richard Neutra in 1951 captured the imagination of architects on the eastern side of the state. While dwellings in Tacoma by architect Robert Price, and a variety of homes in and around Seattle by architects Paul Hayden Kirk, Roland Terry, Victor Steinbrueck and Paul Thiry transformed the architectural landscape of the city.

The "Nifty from the Last 50 Initiative" has already inspired excitement among local preservationists who have discovered a building in Tacoma by famed Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg (St. Joseph's Hospital, 1974) a store in Burien by California architect Welton Becket (Tradewell Market, 1956) and numerous buildings in Seattle by native Minori Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center.

In 2002, in a rather bold move, a group of individuals submitted a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places for Gas Works Park (GWP) in Seattle. Designed in 1975 by Seattle landscape architect, Richard Haag, GWP received international attention as a prototype for industrial site conversions. The nomination was well-received but did not meet the technical requirements of the National Park Service at this time. Gas Works is on the City of Seattle and State landmarks registers.

In 2002, the national chapter of the AIA bestowed its 25-year award to the 1971 Weyerhaeuser Headquarters building in Federal Way designed by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Despite these advances not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of preserving the recent past. The State Historic Preservation Office and local preservation programs across the state are struggling to be consistent when determining what is significant from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Many decisions are based on gut reactions due to lack of information and little scholarly research, while some are based on the built-in challenge of convincing people that buildings constructed in their lifetime are worth acknowledging and preserving.

The State Library in Olympia is one very political example. Completed in 1959 by Paul Thiry (who is generally known as the father of Modernism in the Pacific Northwest), the building has recently undergone some major tenant improvements that altered much of the historic character of the large open reading room.

Additional plans call for partitions to divide the space up further and penetrate the exterior stone walls with new windows for the conversion of the former stack areas to office spaces. Many would argue that the building was more vulnerable to insensitive alterations because of its recent vintage and the lack of political will to preserve examples of modern architecture on the neoclassical Capitol campus.

In Seattle, the discussion continues on the fate of the 1962 Monorail, which despite having been declared a City of Seattle historic landmark may still be demolished. The 1960 Seattle Public Library by the architectural firm of Bindon & Wright was demolished without much public outcry. The building, the first library in the country to install escalators, was once considered the best example of International style architecture within the city, and boasted major works of art by renown Pacific Northwest artists George Tsutakawa, Ray Jensen, Glenn Alps and James Fitzgerald.

The key to preserving modern architecture is education. And while that effort may need to begin with a small group of preservations and scholars, ultimately the general pubic will need to be brought into the fold to foster a greater appreciation for buildings from the modern era.

The "Nifty from the Last 50 Initiative" hopes to start the process by putting the issue on the radar screens of preservation commissions, city councils, public officials and your next door neighbor.

Is there a post 1950s building in your community you hope will still exist in 50 years? If so, this is your chance to nominate a not-so-old building in your community. If you are interested in finding out more about the "Nifty from the Last 50 Initiative" and/or filling out a survey form, call Michael Houser, Architectural Historian, OAHP, (360) 586-3076 or log on to www.oahp.wa.gov/events.htm.

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