Late in August, the Baltimore Sun ran the headline “Plans for Mechanic Theatre Site Stir Controversy.” The theater in question was designed by legendary Modernist John Johansen, FAIA, in the style of Brutalism. As might be expected, a proposal to demolish a building by an acknowledged midcentury master has provoked no small controversy. It doesn’t help the case of Johansen’s building that it’s been vacant for eight years, or, as one blogger wrote, “I’d come close to heart attack walking up all the stairs in that damn place just to get a seat where you couldn’t see the stage or hear the actors.”
The most passionate defense of Mechanic Theater seems to be more a matter of respect than love, which puts me in mind of a similarly challenged midcentury building in Boston.
Almost from the first day it was opened to the public, the Boston City Hall, designed by Kallman McKinnell & Knowles, has ignited fierce passions. Architects admire it; the public and those who work in the building admire it less so. Part of the issue here, and in Baltimore, stems from the negative impact both buildings have had on the existing urban fabric: Boston’s ragged but much beloved Scollay Square was erased, and in Baltimore streets were eliminated around the theater to create superblocks.
The ultimate fate of these two buildings—indeed of much of the architecture of the middle decades of the 20th century—raises difficult questions: What of our architectural heritage is worth preserving, and why? Who makes these decisions, and what are the criteria? When do such discussions begin? After 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?
The U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties” helps shape an informed discussion. But even this resource raises the question of what is worth preserving. Take, for example, this sentence from “Criteria Considerations” published in the National Register Bulletin, which attempts to guide nominations: “A property achieving significance within the past 50 years if it is of exceptional [italics added] importance.” For architects, “exceptional” can mean something quite different from how the general public sees it, and we can get into real trouble if we argue that our experience and training qualify us to be the final arbiters.
Humility and openness are perhaps wiser qualities to call on when discussing how a building contributes to a community’s quality of life and special sense of place. After all, was it so long ago that Victorian architecture was roundly despised? Yet imagine for a moment how much poorer our towns and cities would be without the sheer delight of Arts and Crafts, Italianate, and the purple prose of Queen Anne architecture. On second thought, it’s not so difficult to imagine, because so much of it actually was lost.
One block from the AIA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters is the Old Executive Office Building (1888), designed by Alfred Mullett. Work began on the building at the height of the fashion for French Second Empire architecture, but by the time it opened its doors, Congress and the public had lost its taste for the style. Right up to Eisenhower’s presidency, there were several proposals from Congress, the public, and architects to tear it down, or at least to modify it. Fortunately, by the time the money was found to do the job, people discovered they rather liked the flamboyance of Mullett’s work. Today, it’s an esteemed neighbor to the White House.
In the end, questions of what we bequeath to future generations are perhaps best answered by our grandchildren. Whether by neglect or intent, once a building disappears a piece of our architectural legacy is irretrievably lost.
Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President