The past imperfect

Structures considered landmarks by many are at risk because they're not quite old enough

January 20, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

GETTYSBURG, Pa. --Millions of Americans, young and old, have learned about one of the Civil War's decisive battles by filing into the Cyclorama Center here and peering at a huge circular painting depicting the climax of that epic three-day bloodbath.

Yet on a landscape steeped in history, where statues and monuments abound, there is no plaque commemorating the work of this building's renowned architect, Richard Neutra, famous enough in his day to make the cover of Time magazine. In fact, though only 45 years old, the building's days are numbered, as construction proceeds on a new, more commodious visitors center on a less hallowed spot on the battlefield, away from where the fighting raged..

Last month, however, a Virginia-based group calling itself the Recent Past Preservation Network filed suit against the National Park Service, seeking to block the Cyclorama Center's demolition.

"I just think it is too important a building to just throw in the dumpster," says Christine M. French, president of the group.

While Baltimore has been roiled lately by disputes over protecting historic buildings, some dating back to the city's early seaport days, architects and preservationists point out that many noteworthy structures built since World War II aren't even on the radar screen because they are not old enough to be thought of as historic. And, well, they look modern.

On the outskirts of Washington, for example, sits the former Comsat Laboratories, a futuristic-looking aluminum-and-glass structure in Montgomery County. It was designed by another noted architect, Cesar Pelli, for the company that launched the first private telecommunications satellites into orbit.

Neither building has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places, though the Cyclorama Center's historical and architectural significance has been noted. The register, run by the park service, normally does not list any building or place that is less than 50 years old.

But advocates of preserving modern architecture contend that in today's sped-up development environment, many extraordinary structures built in the past 50 years will be lost before they could qualify for official recognition and protection.

"Building cycles are now more like 30 years," says Mary Corbin Sies, an associate professor in American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Something can be easily mown down or bulldozed and paved over without much thought about whether it can have historical significance when it was built in the post-World War II era."

Sies and a colleague, Isabelle Gournay, an associate architecture professor at College Park, have conducted a statewide survey to identify distinctive modern buildings or groups of structures in Maryland that they believe are worthy of preserving. They came up with 18, but say there are many more, and that additional research is needed to document their significance.

Yet in a state colonized nearly 380 years ago, recently built structures often get short shrift.

"Modernism has been popularly depicted as something that really is not very popular," Sies says, "that is very cold, that is alienating and that sort of insists on a kind of design purity that makes it not necessarily amenable to human habitation."

Many of the notable Modern structures built in the Baltimore-Washington corridor are more "down to earth," she says. Custom and tract homes built in some parts of the suburbs were sited and designed to fit into the landscape, and used lots of wood and stone in addition to glass to establish visual connections with the surrounding environment.

"We really use the term `baby boom Modernism' to summarize the kind of houses and churches and office buildings and shopping centers that went up in post-World War II suburbs," Sies says. "Architects told us that is where the money was, where people were moving."

While some notable Modern structures in the state have been recognized, including Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Baltimore and Bethesda and a Neutra building at St. John's College in Annapolis, the University of Maryland professors' survey highlighted lesser-known sites such as Baltimore's Highfield House condo building, designed by Mies van der Rohe; Goucher College's Towson campus; and several synagogues and churches in the suburbs.

Some exceptional Modern buildings have undergone alterations over the years, Sies says, but few in the state are as important as the Comsat building. She says it is one of the most significant early works by Pelli, an Argentina native who designed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as well as some of the world's tallest buildings. His structures often feature curves and metal, and the Comsat building "sort of telegraphed his style," she says.

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