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Architectural Geekery, Part I, posted by Kurt

Architecture is like beauty; its worth is commonly in the eye of the beholder.  What may be an architectural treasure to one person may be a derelict ruin to another.  Even two architects can disagree on whether or not a particular building or style is appealing.  My advisor in grad school, for example, once half-joked that we needed to demolish everything built in the 1970s before it turned 50 years old and we’d have to work to save it.  Can’t say I disagree with that sentiment… ok, maybe there’s one or two buildings worth saving from the Decade of Disco.  I kid, it’s more like a handful.

Anyway, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a powerful advocacy group dedicated to saving our nation’s built heritage, released their annual list of the top endangered places in the United States.  Looking at the list, all of these places are worthy of saving in my mind for one reason or another, and no doubt they probably will be.  The Trust is pretty powerful, and when they throw their weight behind a property at this magnitude, chances are it will be saved.  In the decade or so they’ve been producing this list, I think only four named properties have met a grisly end.  The rest were either saved or continue to exist at some level of limbo.

You’ll notice several recently historic buildings on this list.  We’re talking things built in the 1950s, mainly, although the 60s are on the edge of that magical 50-year mark (in the United States, federal law defines “historic-age” as 50 years or more).  Many people don’t appreciate 1950s architecture, but I’m not one of them.  I love it, I think it’s swell.  A recent survey report I authored argued that several 1950s Ranch houses were worthy of recognition.  The state reviewer at TxDOT looked at me like I was crazy.  “They’re classic examples!” I tried to argue, but he just shook his head and started rattling off a variety of reasons why they were not special.

Number one, of course, is that Ranch houses are everywhere.  He’s right, of couse, they are everywhere.  You can’t throw a rock in a mid-century neighborhood and not hit one.  Most are rather sub-par specimens of mid-century architecture, too.  Thinking about these particular Ranch houses, I realized he was correct.  They weren’t all that special, so I gave in.  They were not really in danger from the project anyway.

It did get me to thinking, though.  One decade’s crap is a future decade’s treasures.  Early twentieth century homes were destroyed by the hundreds in the 1930s through the 1960s, because they were old and busted, not the new hotness.   Such urban renewal was one reason the preservation laws we have today exist.  Now we look at that lone surviving 100 year old house on a street and try to imagine what the entire neighborhood must have looked like back then, when they were everywhere.  It’s good we have places like the Trust to help promote the worth of more recently historic buildings, but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.  Will people 50 years from now do the same with a lone Ranch house from a 1950s-era neighborhood once filled with them?

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