The Nation's Pulse

None Is Less

Modernist Masterpieces are leveled to make way for Mammoth McMansions.

By 5.24.07

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Some years ago in my hometown Felix and Susan Williams (big cash supporters of Rudy Giuliani) broke ground for an addition to their 26,000-square-foot residence. In order to obtain the needed acreage the couple bought and demolished the residence next door, a 2,000-square-foot Prairie Style home designed by architect Harris Armstrong. The Williams soon outgrew their starter palace and went on to bigger things. This time they located an even more architecturally significant home a few miles away, a masterpiece of the Modernist period designed by Samuel Abraham Marx, one designated a historic landmark by the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission. The couple bought the home and leveled it. If the Williams' live long enough, they could conceivably demolish every Modernist masterpiece in St. Louis.

Of course they had every legal right to do it: the homes were not protected by any historic preservation ordinance, nor were they listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Their moral and cultural justification is less clear. After this latest demolition I felt a sickening sense of loss, akin to the feeling one might experience if, say, Roseanne Barr purchased Jasper Johns' Three Flags, 1958 and later decided to throw the painting on the bonfire because she needed more wall space for her dart boards.

For a small city, St. Louis has an extraordinarily rich history of modernist architecture. Isadore Shank, William Adair Bernoudy, Harris Armstrong, Frederick Dunn, Charles Nagel, Ralph Cole Hall, Edouard Mutrux, Hank Bauer, and Eugene Mackey were all based here at one time or other. Most of their designs -- located in the wealthier, green and leafy suburbs west of the city -- were built during the golden age of St. Louis Modernism roughly between 1930 and 1970 when status was not to be distinguished solely on the square footage of a home.

Modernism, however, got a bad name due to its association with the soulless Internationalist Style of Ludwig "Less is More" Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson and their ubiquitous glass boxes designed for an urban population of automobiles and automatons rather than residents, tourists and shoppers. Being socialists first and architects second, Johnson and Mies were concerned mainly with political and social questions -- and thus built structures that reflected their vision of a workers' paradise -- as well as academic questions such as how to express the structure of a building externally. In the process, they forgot about the poor fish who would live and work among these sterile monstrosities.

Sadly they brought the same aesthetic to their domestic buildings, and nowhere was this more evident than in Johnson's Glass House and Mies' Farnsworth House. Historian Franz Schulze noted that the latter is "more nearly temple than dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.â€

However these domestic "temples" were the exception, not the rule. Unlike Mies's skyboxes, the bulk of modernist residential architecture was warm, open and organic, commingling brick, wood, stone and glass to create a sense of serenity which blurred the distinction between "inside" and "outside." Most important, they took into account the people who would live there. And unlike today's cookie cutter mansions, they were elegant and original. Was there ever a more breathtakingly beautiful home than Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, a home built not overlooking a waterfall, but over a waterfall.

Their modest size, however, would prove their Achilles' heel.

AMERICAN MODERNIST HOMES were chiefly built in upscale areas, thus the land on which they sit is today far more valuable than the homes themselves. Complicating matters for the conservator is the lamentable fact that wealth is often distributed among the artistically ignorant, whose bourgeois tastes more accurately reflect those of the general public, notes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. This means nearly every modernist residence not designed by a household name is endangered. Finally the high prices of these modest-sized homes means many go unsold for years and inevitably fall into disrepair. Thus when a buyer comes along willing to put down $5.95 million on a neglected property architectural significance goes out the window.

In a recent piece in the Art Newspaper, Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, notes that for every Modernist structure saved, two are torn down and many are altered. Other experts believe the number of modernist buildings demolished could be considerably higher.

But while a few iconic Wright, Johnson and Mies van der Rohe residences may escape the wrecking ball, there is less hope for the works of lesser known architects. Most landmark associations are focused on saving 19th century buildings, and are having precious little success with that. Often moving the home isn't an option, either because the cost is prohibitive or because of the way many such homes were literally built into the surrounding landscape. Besides moving them from the original surroundings in which they were designed -- aspects as trees, light, landscape and gardens were all taken into account in the original design -- also destroys much of the home's charm.

Fortunately there is a small but growing coterie of fans who are taking the threat to modernist domestic architecture seriously, and who are buoyed up to some extent by an equally small but passionate backlash against McMansions. An informal network of architects, enthusiasts and, yes, even, real estate agents is working to identify modernist homes before they go on the market in order to match them with buyers who might be interested in preserving them. But the task remains one for Sisyphus.

Roseanne Barr once said she and her former husband Tom Arnold were America's worst nightmare: white trash with money. It was probably the only funny thing Roseanne ever said. And it was funny because it was true.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.