Notes on SESAH’s Keynote


Robert Ivy spoke about the precarious state of modern architecture in the South at SESAH's keynote lecture

Friday evening’s SESAH keynote lecture was co-hosted by MSU’s College of Architecture, Art + Design (CAAD), and I was glad to see a number of local architects in the crowd, along with a few young people who I presume were students at the 5th-year program just down the street. The night was cold and rainy, but the ambiance of the War Memorial auditorium was just perfect, with the circular fixtures casting their light up on the ceiling. Of course, I love that auditorium whether it’s rainy or sunny, night or day. I’m bad at estimating crowds, but it seems like there were about 100+ people in attendance?

Robert Ivy, editor of The Architectural Record and a Mississippi native and former professor at MSU, spoke on the topic of the precarious state of modern architecture in the South, but put our current preservation issues in the context of an extended look at the history of the preservation movement as it expanded from historical sites like Mount Vernon, to architectural masterpieces, to entire districts or neighborhoods of mostly modest buildings that fit together into a more significant whole.

He also traced a change from the early years of preservation when “expert opinion” held an important position in deciding what to preserve, to today when preservation (and society in general) has become much more democratic and open so that vernacular buildings and even sites of nostalgia are considered worthy of recognition and preservation.

Moving into modern architecture and the South, Ivy took us on a tour of a few of our most important Southern Modernist architects, including Bruce Goff (whose fantasyland Gryder House in Ocean Springs defies description), Fay Jones (of the Pinecote Pavilion and the Pine Eagle Lodge), John Portman (who designed the amazing Hyatt atrium hotel in Atlanta), and New Orleans’ Charles Colbert, and he wondered about the future of their work. Goff, he said, is so idiosyncratic and sometimes space-age that many don’t take him seriously (I do! I do!). Many of Jones’ most beloved structures are in fragile environments and of an ephemeral nature. Portman may also suffer from the same problem as Goff, where people don’t really appreciate the artistry of his work because its such a sensory experience. And Colbert has the misfortune of being so hard-edged that the neighbors hate the buildings.

And this led to perhaps the most interesting point (to me at least) in the whole lecture (although I of course thoroughly listened and engaged with all of the talk): Ivy pointed out that by democratizing preservation, we have reached a point where our best argument is often “the community loves this building,” and thus we tend to preserve only those places that a particular community loves at a particular time, excluding opinions of historians who may have a more comprehensive understanding of the importance (or lack thereof) of particular buildings or places. So, he believes, we may lose all or most of these important works of Modernism because at their most vulnerable moments their communities have turned against them.

I agree that preservation has become broader and more democratic over time, but I’m still pondering the implications of Ivy’s argument. Couldn’t it be said that in the past, even when experts were calling the shots, buildings that a community didn’t love or get talked into loving probably didn’t get preserved? And in the case of Mount Vernon, was it the efforts of experts or of a band of women dedicated to the memory of George Washington and the Revolution Era in general that saved the property?

I definitely agree that some of these modern buildings were foisted on the public who maybe have hated them all along, but aren’t we re-writing history when we say that the public has “always” hated the buildings? Looking through newspapers from the 1940s-1960s, as I sometimes do to pass the time, I see overflowing praise for the modern buildings going up, glowing descriptions of all the marvels they possess and how convenient and comfortable they will be. Granted some of this was just hyperbole, but surely you couldn’t say that the newspapers of the time were that disassociated from their readership, who, it is now said, “always hated” the buildings in question.

If the public really hated Modernism for all that time, why were almost all of the shopping centers in Mississippi (and around the country) designed in that style? I would think that a shopping center whose style was universally hated would suffer from a lack of shoppers and either do a quick style change or go bankrupt. In fact, if you look around at post-WWII neighborhoods and districts, it seems that the only building type that didn’t go “modern” in architectural style was the house (although if you looked inside, you would see modern appliances and other systems), whereas offices, industrial buildings, dept. stores, grocery stores, and practically every type of small business-related building, were Modern or at least a “Builder’s Modern.”

So I guess the question for me becomes whether Modernism is just going through a bad phase now, like the various heavy and dark Victorian styles went through in the 1940s-1960s, from which it will emerge in a few years as all the rage. Or will it be a hated style forever, condemned to demolition or, the ultimate indignity, having columns foisted upon it in order to “save” it? I predict we won’t know the answer to that important question for another 5-10 years.

SESAH Keynote audienceThe talk was long, about 75 minutes, but there was a good period of discussion afterward, and even after everyone was dismissed, many people lingered talking, and that’s my definition of a good lecture. One lady from Newport, Rhode Island, said that preservation was under such threat there (in Newport??) that there was a movement to overturn the preservation ordinance and delist the historic districts. Ivy commented that preservation has been so successful in saving threatened landmarks and districts that many, especially in younger generations, don’t see the reason for it anymore and feel that the restrictions are too burdensome.

I had planned to show a few pictures from Saturday’s bus tour, but I’ve gone on too long–I’ll do that tomorrow.

I know some of you also attended the talk, so maybe we can carry on the discussion here–let’s hear your thoughts.

Categories: Architectural Research, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Preservation People/Events, Recent Past

24 replies

  1. Great article! I grew up in Mississippi as well as Los Angeles during the sixties and seventies, and I can remember being fascinated by the modernist architecture of both places.

    Are there any unique midcentury modern neighborhoods around Mississippi?



    • There aren’t any entire neighborhoods to my knowledge–maybe someone can correct me if I’ve missed one–but especially in Jackson we do have sprinkles of Modernism throughout the post-WWII neighborhoods, which represent our greatest period of growth. I think Fondren/Woodland Hills especially has some good Modernism, in both its commercial and residential buildings. You can see one of our premier examples in tomorrow’s post, the Wiener House, built 1951.

      There were also a number of really strong Modernist houses along the Gulf Coast, most designed by New Orleans architects, but unfortunately, those that survived Camille were all washed away by Katrina.


  2. Your comment about not appreciating the recent past is spot-on. I pretty much grew up without even thinking much about the modern buildings around me. It was really only until much later that I gained a true appreciation for Modernism and later still that I would learn to hear the music in the modern vernacular buildings which are now fast disappearing from our landscape. Thanks for the food for thought for the day. I wish I could have attended the conference!


  3. Me too, Tom! I grew up with an architect father who reviled those mid-century buildings and I grew up hating them and everything associated with the period. Perhaps out of rebellion or maybe because the mid-century hipsters brought some of the design elements to my attention, I now can’t get enough of the style; I think I may even be too fond now of bad buildings and design.

    I have heard a lot of grumbling from my neighbors in Belhaven about the restrictions the neighborhood association now puts on people who want to renovate. I’m sure that does cause a lot of problems for preservation.

    I brought my teenage daughter to the lecture. She likes beautiful buildings and design and is an artist herself, but she calls me an architecture nerd. She sat bored to death through the first half of Ivy’s lecture. When he showed Goff’s Gryder House, though, she sat up and took notice and when he questioned who could love a building like that she, along with many of the students, raised her hand. A new generation may be the answer …


  4. Although not a fan of most modern architecture in most cases (tend to favor earlier buildings), I was saddened by the number of modern buildings threatened and, in some cases, already lost because a community does not fight to save it.

    I think this is where professionals – historians, architects, and planners – really have a chance to embrace creative adaptive reuse projects. With a project in mind that meets the community’s needs AND reverses the effects of disrepair (which I have a feeling is part of why many communities dislike the buildings currently), these modern structures can have new life – and perhaps even live long enough to see a new generation appreciate them more than those of us so close to the “recent past” do (as a whole).

    For example, Ivy had several school buildings in his presentation – if they no longer serve the community as a public school, perhaps they need a shopping center or office space for small businesses. Or use it as a space for a community recreation center or YMCA facility.

    Ivy’s lecture also raised issues about Historic Preservation as a sustainable and environmentally friendly practice. This is an on-going discussion in many circles (I know the National Council on Public History will have a group discussion on it at their annual meeting / conference in March and I recently heard that the Urban History Association meeting next fall is seeking papers on the topic as well). Perhaps that would be an avenue of future discussion here as well.


  5. As someone who has researched in old newspapers, whenever a new building is described in them, in any era, it is always in a positive light. Newspapers are heavily boosteristic in many cases, interested in what is new because new equals progress. Old does not equal progress, so preservationists and those who lament the loss of historic structures are the enemies of progress.

    I agree that the Midcentury Modern era architecture now is akin to the Victorian era architecture in the 1930s to 1970s in that both are perceived to be hopelessly out-of-style. What I feel many preservationists who champion Midcentury Modern architecture miss is that many of the buildings constructed in that era are not architecturally distinguished and that they replaced superior buildings in many circumstances. Look at many of the modern courthouses built during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and my point will become clear.

    Another point is that then, as now, people have little influence on the built environment around them. You or I have no influence on the developer who builds a strip mall today in terms of design. The only parameters that a developer of that type has to conform to are local codes or any local design ordinances (which are non-existant in many areas). People in the era where Modernism permiated the landscape also had no say in how these modern buildings looked. Newspapers said they looked great; the businessmen who constructed them said they looked great. Both had vested interests in making them appear as great buildings because if these buildings succeeded then both would become more prosperous.

    While I am not a great fan of modernism, thinking that most of it is bad architecture in terms of exterior design, land use, etc., I agree that some examples need to be preserved. I am a great fan of Bruce Goff; his designs are original and inspiring. The same can be said for Fay Jones. Many of Edward Durell Stone’s structures are worthy of preservation as he brought a sense of ornament back to architecture after most architects had concluded that ornament was an abomination. Arthur Q. Davis and many other local modernists deserve for their buildings to be preserved. Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, Louis Kahn, John Portman, and many others had bestowed upon the public many terrible buildings that should be eliminated and replaced with structures that are not as hideous (which would be nearly every other architectural style except Deconstructivism).


    • Definitely, newspapers and businessmen have an interest in boosting their own interests, as you say, but to argue from that that Modernism was foisted upon an unwilling American/Mississippi public doesn’t account for the thousands of “vernacular” Modern buildings constructed by regular contractors for small-time business owners or even as speculative ventures. These weren’t people who were trained at Harvard or Yale, they were just smart people looking around at new architect-designed buildings and liking what they saw enough to build something similar for themselves. Putting ourselves back into the post-war era, I think we can see that in a world of dark and massive Victorian and Craftsman buildings, it would have been refreshing, a relief really, to see these light and easy buildings going up.

      There were Modern buildings that replaced older, better buildings, such as courthouses, but in many of our communities, the 1950s was a time of great expansion, suburbs and shopping centers in what had previously been farmland. Those buildings should certainly be judged on their own merits, and as for the others, how long should we hold the demolition against them? The 1894 courthouse in Lexington replaced what was probably a c.1850 Greek Revival courthouse designed by William Nichols–is it ok to love that courthouse since its construction involved the demolition of what no doubt would have become a much-beloved landmark had it been allowed to continue standing?

      I completely agree with you that not all Modern buildings, and not even a majority need to be preserved. There are lots of duds out there, but there are others from the 1940s-1960s that are really interesting and well-designed structures that I think are worthy of a second look. They certainly don’t deserve the unthinking scorn being heaped upon them at present by the vast majority of people. As Robert Ivy pointed out, we need to get our scholarship moving, surveying what’s out there and coming to a consensus (as much as we can) about what are the “best” Modern buildings–and I would emphasize “in each state and region” because so far, the consensus seems to be that the only “good” Modern buildings are in NYC and LA.

      At the very least, apart from any aesthetic considerations, many of these buildings were much more solidly built than the buildings that will replace them. Even the frame buildings have better wood. MSU in particular seems to be on a tear to demolish the whole period and replace the old concrete and steel-framed dorms with wood-framed residence houses that probably have a 20-year life, at best. That’s a terrible legacy of wastefulness to give to the next generation.

      Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, yes agreed many of their buildings are imaginative but hard to love. Louis Kahn? Wow, I love almost everything I’ve seen of his stuff, even if he did seem to secretly accrue multiple wives and children. I’m not as familiar with Portman’s work, and as you say, he may have lots of bad buildings to his name, but I’ve been in the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta and it’s one of the truly incredible spaces I’ve ever experienced–I think even Bruce Goff would love it!

      To your Deconstructivism, I would have to add Post-Modernism, a lazy, leering, and cheap style that I wish would finally go out of style in Mississippi.

      And by the way, welcome to MissPres! I hope you’ll continue to lend us your point of view and become a part of the on-going discussion about preservation in Mississippi.


      • Er, how about: there are no “bad styles” only bad buildings?

        I had a conversation with a volunteer yesterday about how he thinks the MDOT building in downtown Jackson is one of the better buildings constructed “lately.” I would not normally give it a second look and generally feel that it intrudes on my view, but this is a person who is not ignorant of design and aesthetics. It does not make me like the building any more than before, but it does remind me that there are more valid opinions than my own …


        • I’m not familiar with the concept of “there are more valid opinions than my own.” :-)

          I very much hate the MDOT building, not necessarily because of its style–well, ok, I think it’s overbearing and pretentious in a winking, knowing way–but because of its fake stucco (Dryvet), possibly the cheapest most unworthy building material ever created.

          That’s just my opinion though, and I’m told that perhaps there are other opinions, although still not sure they’re as valid as mine. . .


      • I am aware of the new construction at MSU. I agree with you that the new dorms are constructed poorly. I have lived in Evans Hall and am currently living at Hull Hall (the two oldest dorms currently on campus). Both are solid buildings. Hull is a product of WPA construction with what I can only assume are solid concrete walls and the original windows. Evans has a great courtyard area with mature crepe myrtles. However, they both suffer from a serious lack of maintainence. This is why they are not popular dorms with students as they are seen as dumps.

        By the way, if anyone has a desire to see Suttle Hall, it will be demolished during the Summer of 2010.

        Continuing on MSU, the thing I find most reprehensible about their new contruction is the terrible land use patterns. I know that universities are supposed to be green and leafy but these are green spaces with no function, where no one congregates, which merely make the journey from class to class longer. The fact that most of these are plots of grass with no trees makes it worse. If the university would plant trees, flowers, etc. to make these areas more garden-like, I would be pleased.

        Perhaps it is simply a personal preference but I dislike Louis Kahn’s work. Since I like much of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, it is not because of Kahn’s personal life.

        I do share your view that modern architecture should be preserved. I am not in favor of the wholesale demolition of that era, simply a more selective view of what should be preserved. I also agree that Post-Modernism should join Deconstructivism in the hall of shame for bad architectural styles. This mainly because of how I have seen many modern buildings clad in faux stucco, dark brick veneer, vaguely historic ornament … you get the idea.

        Perhaps this blog should undertake, as part of its mission, the documentation of modern (and other forms of) architecture. Something similar to the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) where guildlines for submissions be established so a reputable archive could be established, preferably online so that the public could have access to it. This archive could be publicized to schools and other organizations so that an appreciation of historic architecture might be fostered.


  6. Ahh, an MSU person–just so you know I’m fair, I’ve also poked at Ole Miss about the ridiculous classical portico they’ve attached to their otherwise uber-Modern coliseum. Well, actually they’re attaching classical porticos to practically anything–watch out if you stand in one place too long!

    Anyway, I’m intrigued by your Modernism archive idea. What I think you may be envisioning is something like the Triangle Modernist Houses site. Is this about what you’re thinking?


    • Yes, but not only arranged by architect. One could get a list of architects and search through that, or one could search by town/county.

      The architect list could be arranged:
      Bruce Goff
      Thomas S. Johnston
      E. L. Malvaney
      N. W. Overstreet
      Frank Lloyd Wright
      With links to their work in Mississippi.

      The geographic location list could be arranged:
      Alcorn County
      Hancock County
      Harrison County
      Hinds County
      Lauderdale County
      When a person selects a county, they can view the buildings from the county at-large or they can view by towns/communities:
      Harrison County
      Entire county
      Pass Christian
      Hinds County
      Entire county

      Also, I would not limit the archive to only modernist buildings. It needs to be all encompassing. Not only will that help the archive gain support from those who are interested in more classical architecture, a statement will be made by displaying modern architecture on par with antebellum mansions.


      • I’m not sure if this is as broad as what you’re envisioning, but I’ve been thinking of adding an architects tab at the top next to the “MissPres Archives” tab. That page would list all the architects who have been mentioned in the blog with links to the posts that mention them. The reason I haven’t started that is that I wonder if I can keep it updated. If I can’t, it kind of becomes less useful.

        What you’re talking about sounds much larger than that though–maybe a full-blown website?


  7. I think the Historic Preservation division of MDAH has something like that database in the works …

    I was reading an old edition of the New Yorker and came across this quote from John Updike. Sorry about the misspellings, etc.; I lifted it from the site.

    “Comment on the new buildings on Park Ave: Nos. 270, 280, 300, 320, 350, 375, 390, 400, & 410. They nave not so much arrived as seeped through, & they hover on their thin stilts, slightly darker than the sky. Not that they are transparent. They are curiously opaque. Perhaps the opacit of the glass buildings has to do with their refusal to accept athosphere, to melt into the landscape. They reflect only each other… Lever House courteously reflecting First National Bank Bldg. across the street. The Seagram Bldg. (375), is, of course, the stately Negro of the group, and Lever House (390) very much the fine lady. The Union Carbide Bldg. (270) has grandeur… But these three buildings zomewhat excepted, the groupmakes an insubstantial & disquieting impression. It is disconcerting to see, in those buildings under construction, such as the Bankers Trust Building (48th) how importantly what looks like wide Scotch Tape figures in the construction, & how the first story seems to be built last. These new skyscrapers do not aspire to scrape the sky; at the point of exhaustion, where the old skyscrapers used to taper, gather their dwindling energy, and lunge upward with a heart-stopping spire, these glass boxes suffer the intense architectural embarrassment of having to house the air-conditioning apparatus, and the ascent of windows ends in an awkward piece of slatted veiling. A pity, perhaps, but well suited to an age of anticlimax. Glassy-eyed from contemplation of these buildings made entirely of windows, we walked west feeling oddly empty, as if we had dined on a meal of doughnut holes.” — October 13, 1962.


  8. Speaking of 2001, I decided a few years ago that I should actually watch it since it’s such a sci-fi icon. I lasted about 45 minutes and decided I really had seen enough. Talk about boring and pretentious.



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