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Modern History--Preservation

by Susan McElroy last modified Sep 11, 2005 01:42 PM
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Modern History--Preservation

Posted by Susan McElroy at September 02. 2005

This is a kind of continuation of the topic on one less modernist... earlier, but I wanted to change the focus just a bit from outrage to a sense of what can or should be done about those MCM's that still exist and why the issue of preserving them might be so complex. As I've said before, I'm not a professional, just a consumer interested in the topic because I happen to co-own one of these places like a some other folks on this list. The questions are different from those who want to build new modern houses.

First, here's a link to a letter to the editor about the recent Austin house that was destroyed; I think it's telling because it relays what can be the biggest tragedy of riches for these centrally located, landscape-rich places: too much money:

It must be really hard for somebody with a very hefty mortgage on a small, quirky MCM to not fall victim to the predatory buyer with an eye towards upsizing/maximizing profitability when the RE market is on fire. These houses were built for families with a lifestyle relevant to a different time--the kind of family that wants this kind of simpler life is not likely to be able to afford the mega-payments that (it seems) resulted from the bidding war that took place over the Meredith house.

Another problem is that frankly, a lot of the experiments in materials that took place after WWII just weren't good ideas in the long run. The corrugated siding in our house is partly asbestos, which is supposedly not dangerous in this form but is frankly getting brittle and will eventually need replacing. FGranger loved this stuff. Most MCM houses I've been in and loved are plagued with mold, as the plywood wasn't treated the way it is now, and besides, it's just old. Many don't have good insulation. Tar and gravel built-up roofs can be built to not leak over time, I'm told, but I've lived in them in one form or another all my life and I've never known them to be free of leaks. Was something not done right? It takes a true lover of modern style to overlook these problems and not want to raze it and start over.

It's not difficult to start a non-profit in Texas, so I'm thinking of starting one locally not to raise much money or anything, but to serve as a platform to at least preserve in digital pictures these houses. If one can be saved, great, but at least we can have a detailed archive of some of the things that make these houses as great as they are/were. Personally, I would like to see the Meredith house reconstructed--it's really a great idea for Austin climate. Some of the details I see in MCM homes that I really love aren't quite the same in the new-moderns, and if I ever build my own private new one, I'd like to include some of those details.

It's hard to get a discussion going, and maybe this won't catch on, but does anyone have an opinion about saving or not saving these houses? I donate to the Heritage Society here, and was wondering what I would say if I ever attended one of their meetings and had to answer the question of why MCM's are worth saving.

Any thoughts?

Re: Modern History--Preservation

Posted by Mark Meyer at September 03. 2005

Thanks for starting this thread Susan. I know there is a LOT of interest in this sort of thing. SRubin and I discussed some of these issues the other day when she called me to ask about where to go to find more research on her '73 vintage Emerson Fehr house in TarryTown. She wants to document the importance of the house enough that when she sells it in the near future she can be sure to sell it to a lover of the house rather than a developer out to make a buck. The best way to save these houses is obviously through deed restrictions and selling to people that will appreciate them. Of course in this market that we have imposing deed restrictions is probably going to mean that you will get less $$ for your property, should you find an interested buyer. In the last months I can think of 3 Fehr Granger homes that have been demo'd. One on Matthews (near Scenic and a few blocks away from the Meredith property), the Meredith house and the one across the river off Stratford. Add in the house down the road from Susan's place and that is 4 MCMs to go under the blade of the bulldozer this summer, and those are just the ones we KNOW about. We do need to do something. It should maybe be the point of discussion at our next modernists meeting.

For what it is worth, in the past week I've discovered a few large caches of MCM homes that I didn't know existed. The first one is all along Scenic Drive closer to 35th St. There are some truly amazing homes, most of which are actually quite large, so should be safe for a while. The other area is along Brady St. in RollingWood. There are obviously a BUNCH of A.D. Stengers along that road, as many match other Stengers in Zilker. I have a friend that is RENTING a modified A-frame house that sits over cast-in-place concrete moment frames that cantilever out to hold 2 bedrooms and a bath in lower gabled boxes to each side of the central A-framed nave. The place is so very james-bond chic it hurts. There is even a raised round tiled fire-pit with a suspended sheet metal flue (which I found a soot encrusted light fixture dangling within) It was quite a discovery.

Mark Meyer

Re: Modern History--Preservation

Posted by Susan McElroy at September 03. 2005

I happened to find myself at one of those houses in Rollingwood last Saturday for a party, though not the one you describe. It's amazing how the mansions are right on the river but a short block inland you still find the MCM's. I've also been surprised about how many are hiding behind the modest facades of Crestview and what I call Brentwood (the blocks around Brentwood school). Highland Park West is a treasure--there's also a dead-ringer FG up there with a butterfly roof that is surely in danger as it's on the crest of the mountain looking over the lake towards the NW, and it's fading. I'm scared to give the address.

I'm back in possession of our FG, as the kids we were renting it to had one keg-er too many and I laid the law down; they promptly moved out, of course. I'm in the process of cleaning and getting back to the restoration (superficial, at first) that I was into when I found Live Modern in the first place. The fallout from that little fracas is why I didn't follow thrugh on my offer to host a Mod meeting last time, but things should be shipshape by October, if anybody is interested. Our dream is to landscape the acre site and keep it that way as a kind of retreat for small meetings and such, so a meeting with the Austin Mods is right up there with what we want to do in the long run anyway.

I'm still calling for feedback--why should we want to save a mid-century house? What do you/we say when someone says these things are just plain ugly? What do you guys who want to buy one see in them that we can use as a justification for saving the ones that are left? Are they going to be too small soon for growing families, as my dear alleged new neighbor (yes, the same ones who destroyed the Meredith house tore down the one down my street, and they act like they're moving into this one too) claims? If this catches on will we be seeing McModerns?

Re: Modern History--Preservation

Posted by sydney rubin at September 03. 2005

The midcentury homes I've owned have been boxes of light -- expansive window walls, shiny floors, high ceilings and interior courts that offer both privacy and illumination. I like the integration of the indoors and out, the clean lines and sculptural forms that convey a sense of order that is calming. And, maybe more important to me, these houses speak very distinctly of a particular time and place in American life that was gentler and more optimistic -- or so I've been told.

There's also a kind of playful boldness about these houses with their impractical flat roofs or stone walls that shoot right through a window and into the garden. A house with an airplane wing for a roof or a street facade devoid of windows, these houses don't give a hoot what the neighbors think. They may be ugly to some, but to me they are lovely places to live and are the aesthetic inspiration for a great many of the new modern homes being built around Austin now. But often, of course, these older houses are much better made. When I was complaining to an inspector recently about all the things he'd found wrong with the midcentury homes I'm buying, he said, This is a great house. You should see my inspection reports on most new homes.

So, like others on this site, I think it's a shame when they're torn down, particularly when they're torn down by a liar seeking to make his next boat payment. If others are interested in raising local awareness of the value of midcentury style, count me in. Host a party, Susan. If I'm in town, I'll be there.

Re: Modern History--Preservation

Posted by Ben Phenix at September 11. 2005

I am curious, what is the process and what are the downsides (other than limiting your buying market) to putting deed restrictions on MCM homes? How flexible can they be, who monitors them, etc?

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