"This Place Matters"
April 28, 2009 11:31 AM   Subscribe

National Trust Releases 2009 List of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple. Additional detail and sites from past years here.
posted by Miko (18 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did any of FLW building's actually stand up to the elements? It seems like they need to be stored inside to last, or rebuilt using modern materials. Thank God no one built the mile high skyscraper.
posted by smackfu at 11:56 AM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

What's that? Frank Lloyd Wright designed a building with leaks that have required $700,000 of maintenance to repair in the past 5 years alone? Well, color me surprised!
posted by shii at 12:05 PM on April 28, 2009

Did any of FLW building's actually stand up to the elements?

I think it was Philip Johnson who once said "Great architecture always has leaky roofs."
posted by dersins at 12:13 PM on April 28, 2009

I don't know of the longevity of FLW buildings, but here's a list by state, and a list by name, though this wiki category only lists some 170 of the 532 buildings by FLW. According to the first page, 400 of those buildings are still standing.

Note that there is no discussion about how much upkeep was done during the life of the buildings. Flat roofs are always a pain to keep from leaking, but if no real upkeep was done to even the most basic of building, time and weather will do some damage.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:13 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

My parents' house was by FLW. The roof started to leak after only a year or two (the stained ceiling was a conversation-piece.
posted by RichardS at 1:14 PM on April 28, 2009

Thank God no one built the mile high skyscraper.

Bartlesville, OK built a version of it.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:15 PM on April 28, 2009

I think it was Philip Johnson who once said "Great architecture always has leaky roofs."

I hear that philosophy worked out just dandy for the British auto industry.

If it's not inhabitable, it's not architecture, it's sculpture. If you want to create sculpture, go for it, you don't have to have a degree or license, or be approved by various safety boards, but if you're going to design things for people to, y'know, live in, for God's sake, make it LIVABLE.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:16 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let's build a stadium . . . on water!
posted by exogenous at 1:58 PM on April 28, 2009

"Great architecture always has leaky roofs."

But then at base FLW was a very silly man.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:59 PM on April 28, 2009

Unity Temple is just over 100 years old. It's gonna have some issues no matter who designed it.
posted by LionIndex at 2:06 PM on April 28, 2009

I love Wright as much as the next person, but don't just get hung up on Unity Temple (which is stunning, certainly worth preserving!). There are some interesting stories in the mix. I love this annual list because it's not just a bunch of show houses all in a row - it's some really thought-provoking locations with an embedded cultural history. In this year's list is the Enola Gay's airplane hanger, and a school for former slaves, among other things.
posted by Miko at 2:38 PM on April 28, 2009

That hangar sure is a tough one though. Historical, yes, but what do you do with it?
posted by smackfu at 4:14 PM on April 28, 2009

Historical, yes, but what do you do with it?

I've been wondering that about all old items. How much of history should we keep around for historic reasons? When do we let go and allow things to change? Do all historic buildings still need to be functional? Or can they be simply preserved for art's sake? If the congregation dwindles down to nobody, what do you do with the old church?
posted by filthy light thief at 4:55 PM on April 28, 2009

Those are all good questions, and the answers vary by site. There are a lot of stakeholders involved in any potential historic site - so there's never one "we" deciding what happens to a place. It usually requires a coalition of interests that align helpfully - some contributing money, some contributing vision or education, some contributing talent -- and sometimes it also depends upon what else is going on around the site. Is it part of an area losing an older industry and now seeking a new life in tourism or retail? Is it it in a preservation district already? Is it totally unique? Is it significant? Does it mean a little to a lot of people, or a lot to a few people? The National Trust does a pretty solid job of choosing save-able endangered locations - I heard today that out of 220-something sites they've listed since the 80s, only 7 were not preserved.

When do we let go and allow things to change?

I don't think there's really a dichotomy. We can't stop change at all, and preservation is definitely not about not allowing change - preservation doesn't have the power to prevent change. But it does have the power to influence the direction of change. It's about maintaining a place's identity and creating a useful sense of history.
posted by Miko at 5:12 PM on April 28, 2009

We need to build more shit like the pyramids, if we REALLY want it to last. ten-foot by ten-foot stone blocks can't be beat as a building material for the ages, and a pyramidical structure made of them really stands the test of time. Pretty hard for the elements to knock over.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:22 PM on April 28, 2009

I grew up in in FLW's Unity Temple (until they kicked LRY out).
I clearly remember a huge preservation push in the early 70's. The outside concrete was all redone and sprayed with linseed oil (it was sticky for years). The main doors and entrance were renovated, the temple woodwork, the roof, it went on for a seemly long time.
Shame that it wasn't kept up.

Fun fact: in the Unity Temple itself there are 4 huge column's. One of these is hollow and has a ladder up into the space between the stained glass ceiling and the roof. More than enough room to listen to the organ, singing and worshiping in our own way :)
(Jan Theun van Rees has photos of this area here )

Note to any unity kids, stay out! it's what 40 feet down to the pews.

Yours truly
Brother Stefan of the Flaming Orbital Laser of Unassuming Moderation.
posted by blink_left at 7:51 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

How much of history should we keep around for historic reasons? When do we let go and allow things to change? Do all historic buildings still need to be functional?

Believe me when I tell you that preservation advocates have seriously considered and debated these topics for decades.

If a site is important enough, it certainly should be preserved if possible -- the classic museum state.

But there isn't any way to preserve every building that way. Not economically, not practically. Most buildings are made to be, well, buildings. Thus the concept of adaptive reuse has long been a primary means to preserve architecture or history for future generations.

If Unity Temple is abandoned by its congregation, which has certainly happened to other historic religious structures, then it could be adapted for use by another religious group if it weren't to be kept as a museum. In a less desirable scenario, it could be adapted to another purpose.

As to Wright and rain (and other elements), there's little doubt that his often-experimental architecture sometimes had problems. In some ways that's par for the course. A building is subject to its site in different senses. Most of them have outlasted any reasonable building lifetime, and so what? Wright fans love the visual appearance and the natural (unusual, ahead of their time) materials and even get used to the low ceilings (after many a bump).

There's a number of current historic preservation debates going on in my hometown. We have a spectacular Italianate mansion by a forgotten lawyer which the city has failed to maintain, leading to a $2.5 million to-do list. Then there's a charming old mansion next to the courthouse that has been stripped of architectural detail in a crude insulation project. The attitude to some is "why spend the money, let it rot, if somebody wants to save it spend their own money". Whether it's taxpayer funds (the first) or tax credits (the second), the attitude seems to be that these are only of need or interest to a few. I feel like 20 years of progress has slipped away in a few years.
posted by dhartung at 11:51 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah - but on the flip side, even as a big preservationist I accept that sometimes projects that have just a few champions aren't worthy of the effort. In one case, near my hometown there is a coastal beach, now a public beach and a natural reserve, with an old Army installation out on the end. THe installation was primarily built around the Spanish-American War. There are a number of lovely old officers' houses and camp buildings there. But we've ended up in a situation where the supposed preservation of these buildings becomes a justification to open it up to commercial development (the buildings and land are in the public trust - they're leasing them to a developer). This development is really poorly planned and an obvious boondoggle.

When it comes right down to it, the buildings are nice old houses...but not outstandingly significant. They look like Army buildings of that vintage elsewhere. They are in need of millions in maintenance which the public funds can't sustain - but allowing private use brings with it an insane number of problems, including threatening the natural coastal environment. I hate seeing a preservation ethic used this way. When it comes down to it, preserving this stretch of barrier beach, dune, and salt marsh from the depredations of overuse in the midst of a dense urban area beats out any putative architectural or historical significance of these buildings. In this one case, I've been saying: thoroughly document them, and then let them go. The bargains involved in getting the money to 'preserve' them are too costly for the public and for future generations.

But I think that's more of a weighty discussion than the general 'let 'em rot' sentiment that I also hear.
posted by Miko at 7:28 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

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