Ac­ci­den­tal Ar­chiv­ist

Learn how to be­come a mod­ernist sleuth—un­earthing your home­town’s his­tory and pre­serv­ing the sto­ries be­hind its mid mod mar­vels.

Atomic Ranch - - Contents - By Ge­orge Smart

MOD­ERNIST HOUSES FROM THE 1950S AND '60S ARE IN NEARLY EV­ERY CITY WITH A POP­U­LA­TION OVER 200,000. We hear the most about larger Mod­ernist com­mu­ni­ties like Los An­ge­les and Palm Springs, but there are many more scat­tered across the United States.

In your own town, there’s pos­si­bly a dozen mod­ernist houses, and if you are a true fan, you’ve likely heard or in­quired about the ar­chi­tects. “Surely,” you think, “the lo­cal preser­va­tion so­ci­ety has re­searched these houses and their cre­ators.” You call—and typ­i­cally you find the so­ci­ety prefers cot­tages, mill and Vic­to­rian houses, and old churches, among other struc­tures that wouldn't host but­ter­fly chairs. “Mod­ernist houses still look ahead of their time,” the so­ci­ety says, “so how could they be con­sid­ered his­tor­i­cal or worth pre­serv­ing?” Maybe it’s time to talk to the ar­chi­tects di­rectly.

When I started doc­u­ment­ing Mid­cen­tury Mod­ernist houses in North Carolina in 2007, 90% of the ar­chi­tects were still alive. In 2018, it’s down to about 20%. These men, and a few women, were born in the 1920s and '30s. For fa­mous ar­chi­tects like Richard Neu­tra or Charles Gwath­mey, no prob­lem, their legacy is se­cured. For Brian Shawcroft, Jim Fox, Mil­ton Small or Richard Spencer, or any of the hun­dreds of un­sung ar­chi­tects across Amer­ica, their lega­cies die when they do. The fam­i­lies throw the stor­age boxes and plans away af­ter a few years, and that’s that. Maybe it’s time for a few good men and women to step for­ward—that’s where you come in.

Step 1: Pick your fa­vorite lo­cal mid­cen­tury ar­chi­tect.

If they’re still alive, call and plan a visit. If they’re not alive, you may be hes­i­tant to con­tact their fam­ily, a con­cern which is un­der­stand­able, but gen­er­ally un­war­ranted. I’ve found that fam­i­lies love their par­ent’s mod­ernist work and are thrilled you want to cel­e­brate it. If you are lucky, that call will be the same week they’re con­sid­er­ing throw­ing ev­ery­thing away. In hun­dreds of calls through­out North Carolina, I have had about a dozen of these magic tim­ing mo­ments, and I con­nected many fam­i­lies to the ar­chiv­ists of NC State Univer­sity’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. They are the Ware­house 13 of the state’s de­sign her­itage. You likely have a sim­i­lar group at the near­est large univer­sity of­fer­ing ar­chi­tec­ture de­grees.

Step 2: Ask for a project list.

If you are lucky, that list will also have ad­dresses, but most lists don’t. Ar­chi­tects and their fam­i­lies have bits of in­for­ma­tion you’ll as­sem­ble like a puz­zle to find these houses, if they are still stand­ing. From here, you’re go­ing to have the time of your life driv­ing around town look­ing for build­ings, search­ing on the in­ter­net, ask­ing friends what and who they know in con­nec­tion to these houses.

Step 3: Cre­ate a plat­form to share your dis­cov­er­ies.

I’m talk­ing about start­ing a web­site where you share your town’s trove of mod­ernist houses, the ar­chi­tect’s bio and ask for the com­mu­nity’s help find­ing miss­ing houses. If you can write a let­ter in Mi­crosoft Word, you can cre­ate a web­site. Don’t worry about it look­ing sleek or pretty—it’s all about the in­for­ma­tion. For years our web­site had all the aes­thetic beauty of Craigslist, yet pulled in 40,000 to 60,000 page views a month. Lots of peo­ple are that pas­sion­ate about mod­ernism, just like you.

ONE OF MIL­TON SMALL'S DE­SIGNS

Ge­orge Smart founded NC Mod­ernist Houses and Us­mod­ernist Houses, to­gether the largest open dig­i­tal archives for res­i­den­tial Mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture. He is host of the pod­cast Us­mod­ernist Ra­dio, which posts ev­ery other Mon­day on itunes....

RICHARD SPENCER AND WIFE JOSEPHINE CARUSO ARE PIC­TURED STAND­ING BY THE FIRE­PLACE IN THE SANTA MON­ICA HOME HE DE­SIGNED. NOTE THE TA­BLE WITH A TELE­VI­SION BUILT IN, SPENCER MADE THAT TA­BLE HIM­SELF.

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