Expanding Preservation of the 1950-1970s

Liz Almlie, Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historical Society

One of the newer challenges of historic preservation is the preservation of resources from the mid-20th century.  One of the eligibility considerations for the National Register of Historic Places is the age of the resource.  Sites newer than fifty years need to meet special considerations in order to be eligible for listing.  In 2021, that means that preservationists can be regularly evaluating resources built up to 1971.  In South Dakota, we do not have a large number of sites from the 1950s-70s that are listed in the National Register, but we know that preservation for this period will be a growing part of our work.  Following are some featured resources that we are increasingly using for research, evaluation, and technical assistance.  We share them here, hoping they will be of interest and use to those of you who will be working on preservation projects for such properties as well.

A few years ago, my office, the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) invested in a statewide historic context study for single-family housing in South Dakota built between 1950 and 1975 (link below).  There are a lot of houses across the state from that period.  SHPO, cities, historical societies, federal agencies, and more entities will need to evaluate their significance and integrity under the National Register criteria.  To do that, we need historical context and information for comparison.  While this context study was a big step given the volume of resources and the volume of research materials out there, it is just a first step.  More historical information on Modernist multi-family and apartment housing, commercial architecture, schools, churches, and other building types, as well as studies specific to certain towns or cities, would be useful projects for the future.

This study, conducted by Alan Higgins, documented various factors that impacted the landscape of single-family housing.  His text includes the evolution of planning efforts, changing population demographics, the impact of the automobile, histories of fair housing and urban renewal, and trends in architectural design and construction within the homebuilding industry.  Higgins also prepared information on different house types and styles, evaluation guidance, and recommendations for future work.

“Modern Residential Architecture in South Dakota, 1950-1975: A Thematic Context Study,” by S. Alan Higgins, Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc., 2016: https://history.sd.gov/preservation/docs/SouthDakotaModernResidential_Master_Final.pdf

The Building Technology Heritage Library is an online resource managed by the Association for Preservation Technology and available to the public through the Internet Archive website.  It is a set of scanned ‘ephemera’ materials from the building industry, including plan books, promotional materials, and product catalogs.  And it is a continually expanding collection.  Users of the website can search for particular words, or narrow browsing by topic and/or year of publication (for those publications that have a recorded date).  The collection includes a large volume of materials from the 1950s-70s.  There are catalogs for flooring, lighting, and office equipment; house plan books; and promotions for modernizing commercial storefronts.  Browsing these sources, it is easy to see broad trends in the use of ranch house forms, International style commercial and institutional design, and materials like glass, aluminum, and concrete.  Detailed study can give information on the composition of period materials, the intended installation and function of building elements, architect or manufacturers’ design intent, and more.

https://archive.org/details/buildingtechnologyheritagelibrary

The site USModernist is compiling a library of architecture periodicals that will be a resource for the study of the midcentury period, its design trends, and its architects: https://usmodernist.org/library.htm

The Illinois SHPO has a number of materials on commercial storefronts and the modernization efforts that many were subjected to from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Carol J. Dyson’s 2008 “How to Work with Storefronts of the Mid-Twentieth Century” (the second link below), in particular, clearly lays out different design elements and materials that can be considered “historic character defining” for the period.  Features discussed include awnings, cantilevered display cases, programmatic neon signs, slipcovers, enameled glass and metal, stone and tile veneers, and more.  The Illinois page on Mid-Twentieth Century Preservation has links and PDFs for a number of additional articles about this period of Main Street architecture.

https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/Preserve/mid-century/Pages/midcentury.aspx

Several other states and cities have come out with interesting context studies, surveys, and style guides for this period.  A few examples:

And there are a few national contexts, including:

SD SHPO has in-house copies of both of the above that could be used by request on a research visit to the Cultural Heritage Center/State Archives.  The State Archives also has a “Historic Preservation Library” section with other books that might be of use in research.  Their library catalog is online at: https://sdsa.booksys.net/opac/sdsa/#menuHome

There is also information coming out through conferences and webinars that has not yet been codified in published format.  Organizations and offices like the National Park Service’s Technical Preservation Services and DOCOMOMO-US (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement) are hosting continuing conversations on the history of Modern architecture and preservation/rehabilitation options.  There have now been three “Preserving the Recent Past” conferences, with proceeds for the first two printed in 1995 and 2000, and the third only just held in 2019.

https://www.hpef.us/preserving-the-recent-past

There is still a lot to learn.  Around the country, many building owners and preservation planners are facing difficult decisions about restoring or replacing mid-century materials—there was a lot of experimentation in the building industry in those decades.  Some features are more easily repaired or replicated than others.  In some cases, owners, architects, and preservation reviewers—in consultation—have determined that a material, design, or an installation method has failed over time and should not be exactly replicated.  There are also mid-century materials that are not manufactured anymore, and no restoration replicas have come to market.  Architects and contractors on big rehabilitation projects are having to be creative with adaptations while preserving the design intent of significant architectural examples.  More modest examples of mid-century architecture may not receive that level of attention until preservation solutions are more widespread and accessible.

In South Dakota, we certainly have some significant examples of Modernism to preserve.  Buildings that have become landmarks in our communities, buildings that marked architectural or engineering innovations, and buildings that represent the work of influential architects and builders of the period will come up for evaluation.  There will also be a lot of modest Modernism that still represent the period well.  We are working on building our knowledge base for this period to understand the buildings on their own terms.  Like earlier architecture, buildings from the second half of 20th century can be adaptable, useable buildings for us today.  We can apply an ethos of preservation to a 1968 bank just as we can to one from 1915.  It is still of environmental value to reuse existing buildings, in consideration of the embodied energy invested in them.  They can still help us understand the history our communities, still embody trends in architectural design, still transport us back in time. 

“… the point of preservation is not certainty, but humility.”
— Ruth Graham, “Can buildings be too young to save?” Boston Globe (MA), December 8, 2013.

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