Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.

Celebrating new development – and recognizing what is lost

Looking at a few 2010s retrospectives at Curbed, I enjoyed looking at one detailing some of the buildings and spaces lost in Chicago in the last ten years:

The losses in Chicago’s built environment go far beyond the buildings and their architectural features. These places are symbols of greater failures: vacant lots represent a dearth of affordable housing, church-condo conversions signal the absence of community spaces, and closed schools call attention to the city’s disinvestment in its neighborhoods.

This only covers a sliver of the demolitions and conversions that have occurred in the past decade. These spaces are still mourned today, and as we reach the end of a decade, let’s take a look back at what Chicago has lost.

This is an interesting collection. And it does not even address the significant changes that may have come to neighborhoods or smaller areas through new development. Addressing how a place changes in atmosphere and feel goes beyond just buildings.

What is the proper or best way to mark these losses? Growth is often seen as an inarguable good. Don’t residents and leaders want new buildings, new options, updated spaces? Here are a few ways buildings and spaces could be memorialized:

  1. Articles, books, and websites can help keep memories alive. A retrospective like the one above makes sense but such pieces need to keep coming, particularly as the years pass and new residents do not even know what used to be there.
  2. Some sort of public marker or display in certain locations. This would be hard to do for every structure that changes but imagine having both a new building or space and a public marker with an image and some text that records what also stood on that land. This would help future visitors visualize what used to stand there.
  3. How about a museum for a lost Chicago? I could envision exciting displays with pictures, videos, interviews, text, and immersive recreations (whether parts of buildings that are reconstructed or using virtual reality displays) that celebrate what used to be in Chicago. A history museum can do some of this as could a celebration of architecture but really focusing on buildings and spaces could be really interesting and worthwhile for a city that wants to celebrate its past.
  4. Of course, ongoing historic preservation efforts can help keep this in the public eye. While it may be difficult at times to agree on a balance between saving key structures and allowing for change and innovation, at least having public discussions about important structures helps provide reminders of how something can be lost even as something new looks promising.

Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.

Wanting to preserve the past, music masters edition

A long piece details the calamitous fire that hit an important vault of music at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008:

Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault…

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost…

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”…

Today several of the company’s nearly 1,500 facilities are devoted to entertainment assets. Warner Music Group stores hundreds of thousands of master recordings in Iron Mountain’s Southern California facilities, and nearly all of Sony Music Entertainment’s United States masters holdings — more than a million recordings — are reportedly kept in Iron Mountain warehouses in Rosendale, N.Y. The Boyers, Pa., facility where UMG keeps most of its United States masters is a 1.7-million-square-foot former limestone mine. The facility offers optimal archive conditions, climate control and armed guards.

The boom in cultural products in the last 100 years or so with the rise of mass media and new technologies presents unique challenges for corporations, the public, and preservationists. How should all of this material be preserved? The amount of space needed for storage could be huge – even for digital files (see the Library of Congress efforts to collect tweets). Keeping all of that material safe from fire, temperature changes, water damage, and other forces is costly and requires constant vigilance. Technology changes and renders prior productions difficult to utilize. There may need to be an obvious payoff for whoever is storing this material in order to go through all the effort.

One solution to all of this is to get mediocre copies of things. The example at the end suggests music listeners can access so much through streaming services. One expert profiled in the story describes it this way: “The music sounds like it was mastered in a Coke can,” he says. “But on long drives, it’s the best.”” I suppose it could be argued that having access to music and films and other items is worth it, even if the quality is not that great.

But a bigger question is this: just how much material is worth saving? What will people in the future want to look back on? Will future people see big benefits from the most preserved material ever compiled by previous generations? How will future preservationists, historians, and others construct cultural narratives about life today based on so much material (both tremendously popular and not)?

If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.

Using preservation to maintain affordable mobile homes

One architect and preservationist suggest mobile homes deserve the attention of the preservationist community:

We talk about affordable housing all the time, as we should, but we never talk about mobile homes or mobile home parks—even though they’re primarily used as affordable housing. When we talk about affordable housing and historic homes as preservationists, we really need to start including mobile home parks in those discussions. They fill a critical gap [in housing opportunities], but they’re also endangered…

[Since most mobile home parks are privately owned], they become too expensive to maintain. To keep them affordable, their original infrastructure usually remains in place while their owners [find temporary solutions for repairs] until the entire mobile home park needs to be replaced. They’re sold off because it’s just too expensive to maintain and the owner is no longer making a profit; these are private places and businesses, and that is a legitimate concern.

Sometimes, mobile home parks are zoned out of their city or municipality because they aren’t wanted. That trend began in the 1950s and ‘60s, when suburbs were growing exponentially, and it continues today. When owners don’t want to own their mobile home park anymore, they sell them to developers who would rather build condos or other forms of housing that don’t have limited profit margins…

In preservation circles, I think it’s particularly challenging because mobile home parks don’t meet any current measure of architectural integrity. They are very flexible spaces, and they could be upended at any time. It would be exceptionally difficult to put them in the National Register, the way it’s set up now, but that ultimately opens up opportunities for the future. I think we need to change the way we measure and create historic places.

I have been under the impression that preservation is typically sought for (1) older and (2) architecturally significant buildings. Mobile homes could fit both of these categories: a number of mobile home communities span decades and they are a unique American form of housing. At the same time, I cannot imagine too many neighbors or communities would be thrilled if mobile home parks were given a longer lease on life because of being tabbed for preservation. Using preservation to keep affordable housing units seems to be a delaying tactic; it may protect units in a time when many metro areas need a lot of affordable housing units yet very few places would want even more mobile home units.

This argument gets at bigger issues: (1) what buildings are worth preserving? and (2) who gets to make these decisions? According to opponents, historic preservation can stall normal processes of redevelopment. According to supporters, preservation can protect significant edifices that may be demolished in the name of “progress.”