Housing

Honey, Our House is Historic!

Buildings from the mid-20th century are becoming eligible for landmark status. Local governments are trying to decide which are worth preserving.
by | October 2006

Arlington, Texas, with all its suburban sprawl, seems an odd place for two young architectural historians to be spending their time. But when Jennifer Ross and Sophie Roark go out scouting the city's subdivisions of ranch houses, they actually are in the vanguard of their profession. As Ross turns her Honda SUV down a curvy street lined with small tract homes shaped like shoe boxes, Roark explains how she can identify, intuitively, the age of a particular neighborhood.

"You know how when you see a John Hughes movie you can tell by the fashions that it was the 1980s? That's how we get about houses. You just sense it. Like if you see a Members Only jacket, you know it's 1984."

Roark's radar tells her that these modest brick ranches were almost certainly built in the 1950s. Most of them have low-pitched roofs, picture-frame windows, and filigreed, wrought-iron columns flanking the front door. It's safe to say that every suburb that participated in America's post-World War II development boom has a few neighborhoods that look more or less like this one. Arlington alone has got dozens of them. Frankly, most people driving down this street would not notice anything remarkable at all.

But Ross and Roark do: They see a potential candidate for an Arlington historic district. It seems that this plain mid-century neighborhood, merely by turning 50 years old, has reached a magic number in the world of historic preservation. Generally speaking, the homes here are now eligible for landmark status, and for the legal protections and tax breaks that go along with such designations. So Arlington decided to take stock of its enormous supply of 1950s neighborhoods, and look for significant examples that might be worthy of preservation. The city hired Hardy, Heck & Moore, the Austin-based firm that Ross and Roark work for, to do the survey work.

It's an enormous task, perhaps the largest effort of its kind anywhere in the country. Although overshadowed by nearby Dallas and Fort Worth, Arlington is a metropolis in its own right, with a population of 360,000. Developers built some 10,000 houses in Arlington in the 1950s, most of them ranches and almost all in platted subdivisions. Finding them all, let alone documenting their past and current condition, will take the two women and their colleagues much of this winter. "Preservationists haven't had to deal with this era of architecture before," Ross says.

But doubt lingers in the back of many minds in Arlington: Is there really anything "historic" about cookie-cutter subdivisions? And if the ubiquitous tract house is worth saving--well, what then? Is the rest of postwar suburbia--McDonald's, strip malls and motels--also headed for the National Register of Historic Places? These issues are only beginning to surface in American communities, especially in the South and West, where the bulk of everything that's ever been built came after World War II. As local officials are increasingly asked to pass judgment on a period that preservationists call "the recent past," they'll have to sort out for themselves the parts of suburban sprawl that are worth saving from redevelopment.

These soul-searching questions aren't for the suburbs alone. In large cities, a whole generation of glass-box office towers and minimalist civic buildings is turning 50, too. Dallas, for example, nearly lost its most glamorous mid-century hotel, the 1956 Statler Hilton. The grid-faced structure, which won awards in its time, has been vacant for several years. But when Mayor Laura Miller proposed tearing down the Statler for a downtown park, preservation advocates screamed. Miller backed off. Revised plans show the park occupying a parking lot across the street--turning the Statler, ironically, into prime park- front property. "The mayor was like, 'I hate that building; it's the ugliest building in town,'" says Dwayne Jones, head of Preservation Dallas. "She's actually really good on preservation issues--she gets it. But she just didn't get the modern stuff."

Even those who love modernism admit that spare 1950s styles don't capture the public's imagination the way Victorian- and Art Deco-era architecture do--at least not yet. "It's one thing to love an old train station with ornate ornament," says Greg Ibanez, a Fort Worth architect who is active with Docomomo, an international association promoting the preservation of modernism. "But it's sometimes harder for the general public to get that warm fuzzy feeling about a glass curtain-wall building."

Preservation consultant Donovan Rypkema is more blunt in his assessment. Writing in a recent issue of Forum Journal, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rypkema argued that postwar design was most often anti-urban and anti-pedestrian, "an aberration from 3,000 years of urban history from which we are finally beginning to return." Therefore, he continued, "we ought not now designate as 'historic' buildings and neighborhoods whose defining characteristics are the polar opposite of what good cities, good neighborhoods and good buildings are all about."

As Rypkema sees it, the steady decline of craftsmanship in the postwar period requires preservationists and local officials to set a high standard when deciding what's worth saving. "Let me write what most of us intuitively know," Rypkema says. "The vast majority of what has been built in America in the last 50 years is crap."

COMING OF AGE

Postwar preservation can be a difficult thing to bend one's mind around. One reason why is because relatively little construction went on during the Great Depression and World War II. In other words, the 1950s is the first distinct architectural era to turn 50 in quite some time. And for suburbs of that vintage that popped up in cornfields, orchards and desert plains, now is the first time they've ever so much as thought about historic preservation. Ken Bernstein, the new preservation director in Los Angeles who is conducting that city's first ever citywide survey of historic resources, notes that much of the San Fernando Valley boomed from 1945 to the mid-'50s. "These are communities that are only beginning to think of themselves in historic terms or to consider using preservation tools."

This coming of age raises some important public policy questions. Tax credits for preserving historic buildings are already scarce; now, Queen Anne grand dames will have to compete with Joseph Eichler tract houses and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers for public funds. And while today's building codes are catching up with the restoration of Industrial Era buildings--allowing narrow stairwells to remain intact, for example--mid-century structures create code-compliance issues of their own. "Those single-paned glass walls, you can't build those anymore under code," says Dwayne Jones. "Sometimes low-pitch roofs we can't build anymore. A lot of really wonderful interior stairs in modern houses have these floating steps. You can't do these anymore."

The mid-century period also presents some odd contradictions. The preservation movement as we know it basically emerged in response to modernism during the period of urban renewal in the 1950s and '60s. Now, preservationists find themselves trying to educate the public about why the style is important even when it isn't beautiful, and why examples must be saved for future generations. Then there is the politics of suburban sprawl. The National Trust and its state and local partners are big advocates of sprawl-busting "smart growth" policies--even as they now find themselves defending developments that are essentially the template upon which suburban sprawl was built.

Michelle Gringeri-Brown thinks there's a built-in prejudice against 1950s architecture. She and her husband recently launched a home magazine, Atomic Ranch, promoting an aesthetic of mid-century cool. "Most city governments are having a hard time understanding this," Gringeri-Brown admits. "A lot of people who work in government are our age--early 50s--and we REMEMBER the 1950s! It doesn't seem possible that this time we lived through can be historic!"

Yet that's exactly why preservationists use the half-century mark as a sliding scale. It takes time for people to separate themselves from their own past. Meanwhile, tastes change. Victorian architecture was out of vogue 30 years ago. And until recently, homebuyers viewed bungalows as cramped and cheap. Now, Victorian homes fetch premium prices and one can hardly imagine Chicago without its thriving bungalow belt. "We see the younger generation coming up now, and they love this '50s architecture," says Karen McWilliams, a preservation planner for the city of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The real dilemma with the 1950s is not a matter of appreciation. It's quantity. An unprecedented amount of stuff was built then, as the nation's war machine retooled into a machine of modern auto-oriented living. That story--the fairy tale of the '50s suburb--is so familiar it sounds cliche: war vets coming home, the G.I. Bill, the Baby Boom, backyards and fences, the American Dream. No doubt some scenes from this black-and-white movie must be preserved. The question is: how many?

"We don't know yet," says Stan Graves, director of architecture for the Texas Historical Commission. "We won't want to preserve every mass-produced subdivision--at some point they become redundant. Maybe the first ones were significant in that they changed the way we lived and operated as a society. But those are judgment calls we have to make. They're not all expendable, but they don't all rise to the level of preservation, either."

'50S BOOMTOWN

Cruising around Arlington, Jennifer Ross and Sophie Roark are looking for answers. For architectural historians, however, Arlington can be a disorienting place. Although the city goes back 130 years, one would hardly know it today. Arlington tore down all that remained of its original downtown in the 1970s, to make way for a concrete city hall and public library. Collins Street, one of the many four-lane thoroughfares in town, is lined with all the usual chain stores and parking lots. The most noteworthy building in town is the Texas Rangers' retro-style ballpark, which opened in 1994. Smothered in red brick, arches and parapets, it vainly hearkens to a baseball past that, in these parts, never was.

Arlington's true zero hour was 1952. That's when General Motors Corp. put a manufacturing plant on a patch of prairie in the northeast corner of town. At the time, developers raced to build subdivisions near the factory. Many of the homes they built were small ranch houses, intended to be affordable to the autoworkers. It's in these neighborhoods, the birthplace of an Arlington boom that never stopped, where Ross and Roark will spend much of their time surveying in the coming months. On this day in August, however, they are still

strategizing, pondering how to think about a trove of 10,000 houses.

There's one thing Ross and Roark know for sure: They won't find Fallingwater in Arlington. No big-name architects worked here in the 1950s. Nor were there famous people living in factory housing. "After World War II, ranch houses were built all over the United States," Ross notes. "Unless they were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the majority of these houses aren't significant on their own due to architectural merit."

So Hardy, Heck & Moore, working with Fort Worth consultant Karl Komatsu, devised a survey methodology that departs from the usual way such inventories are done. Typically, historians assess each building, one by one, for its significance. In postwar Arlington, there are simply too many homes for that. Instead, they will look at broader patterns of development, hoping to tease out features that made up the quintessential 1950s neighborhood.

Riding through one subdivision south of the GM plant, Ross explains that the ranches themselves are only one piece of that. "It's the landscape features, the uniform setbacks, the curvilinear streets," Ross says. "Sometimes developers included a shopping center, a neighborhood park or a school. What we're asking is: What constitutes a good example of a post-World War II neighborhood from a planning standpoint?" Ross notices a church and a school mixed into the neighborhood. "I'd ask myself: Are they part of the same development?"

There's also an historical narrative to consider. Since government financing drove so much development in the '50s, they are looking for subdivisions where builders followed certain rules in order to get loans. They also want to get a handle on the builders' targeted market and find examples of the modest homes of plant workers as well as the more substantial homes of managers.

Ross and Roark won't judge these few blocks of Arlington until the survey begins in earnest. But they seem lukewarm. Many homeowners have modified their ranches by turning garages into living rooms, adding gables atop low-pitched roofs or re-siding the home with vinyl or stucco. They aren't bowled over by the landscaping, either. The lack of big shade trees reminds Roark of a rule of thumb she once heard, although she's not sure if it applies to this neighborhood: "When you see hackberry trees, it means it was a cheap development," she says. "Hackberries grow really fast, but in 30 years they fall down on your house. They also drop all this stuff on your car--they're trash trees, just terrible. But they grow really fast. So it was a cheap and quick and dirty development if there are hackberries."

Ross drives a couple of miles toward the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. When she turns into a neighborhood called Southwood, she and Roark noticeably perk up. The main boulevard has a verdant green median, and the wide front yards on both sides of the street are shaded by two parallel rows of towering trees. The ranch houses here are a bit bigger, but not large by today's standards. "This is a beautiful neighborhood!" Roark says.

"Yeah!" Ross concurs. "This is more like the landscaping features we're talking about."

"This is beautiful!" Roark says again. "This uniform setback is really, really deep."

Ross nods. "The proximity to the university begs the question: Were the developers targeting professors? I don't know. We'll have to find that out. But I could see this being historic district material."

KEEPING A SAMPLE

If there is one overriding reason why Arlington is doing this survey, it is guilt. As councilman Ron Wright explains, "In the 1960s and '70s, and even into the '80s, the thing to do was to tear everything down and have urban renewal and all that. We had that old downtown core--it was pre-turn of the century. We leveled it. And we've lived long enough to regret it."

Wright is a champion of preservation on the council. He points with envy to Grapevine and Waxahachie, two nearby cities that saved their historic downtowns and turned them into big tourist draws. It takes foresight, Wright says, to protect what the public may not yet view as special. It also takes a certain faith that the public's favor inevitably grows with age. "It's easy to look back now and say, 'Gosh, I wish we didn't tear that down,'" Wright says. "It's harder to say, 'We'll want that 30 years from now.' That's especially true with the mundane things. Every city should have a good sample of what came before, even if it's ugly. It will be something that people still want to see and maybe appreciate."

With the postwar survey, Arlington is trying to get ahead of the curve. Ever since the GM plant went in, Arlington has been content to grow outward, in concentric circles, into the prairie. Soon, though, the city will be built out. If Arlington wants to keep growing, it will have to redevelop existing neighborhoods. One purpose of the survey is to integrate historical considerations into planning and development decisions. To do that, all of the survey data is to be plugged into the city's geographic information system. "If they can understand what they have," Karl Komatsu says, "then their future planning can take it into account."

As Arlington nears middle age, it is growing fiercely protective of its history--and aware of how history shapes civic identity. The landmark preservation commission recently gathered Arlington's last smattering of early-20th-century bungalows into a pair of historic districts, proudly identified by brown road signs. Suzanne Sweek, the commission's former chair, hopes the survey will yield as many as a dozen neighborhoods worthy of historic-district status. "All that stuff represents a period of our history," she says. "There needs to be some physical evidence of that preserved. The big question is how much, because we have so much."

Critics of modernism may scoff. But in a way, this thinking represents a leap forward for a suburb searching for its soul. Arlington's essence is not a retro ballpark. It's a long, flat, boxy ranch house--or, rather, a multitude of them. "This is Arlington's history," Ross says. "If Arlington wants to tell its story, really, it begins with the auto plant. That may be different from the stories that architecture tells you on the East Coast. But this is a city that boomed in the '50s, has some great postwar architecture, and they're starting to see that."

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