Michigan Modern

I recently attended the annual conference of the MHPN in Saugatuck. One talk regarding Mid-Century Modern (preservationists’ latest cause célèbre) included several homes of my former professors whose work is increasingly eligible for listing on the National Register. Seeing the familiar names associated with these homes, I recalled a lecture by one professor, where he described his repeated attempts to detail a brick garden wall without a top cap, presumably because the typical limestone used for such caps was guilty of the "crime" of ornamentation. After several attempts, which failed when water infiltrated, then froze and damaged the wall, he acquiesced and added a stone cap.

With the benefit of hindsight – not to mention centuries of experience – we know that omitting the cap was a questionable idea. If this building been located in a historic district, and the later addition of the cap had been presented to a historic commission, could the change be justified under Secretary of the Interior’s Standards? In particular, Standard #3 states:

Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.

The initial choice to omit the wall cap was deliberate, a Modernist's attempt to express the pure language of brick. Therefore, it would probably be defined as a character-defining feature of the building. With the growing acceptance of Mid-century Modern buildings as cultural resources, historic district commissions will need to address these buildings’ built-in shortcomings and consider whether to perpetuate bad design in the name of architectural character.

No comments: