The start of the City’s modern preservation movement can be traced back to one date: August 19th, 1959.
That’s the date that demolition started on Davis Hall, the historic structure that stood in the center of the City for more than a century. With its massive marble columns, soaring vestibule and granite interior the building was considered too cold and old-fashioned for the re-imagined downtown. City planners wanted to remake the city for the automobile and decided Davis Hall would have to go in order to make room for a four-lane highway and parking garage. The building was largely auctioned off for scrap marble, but unfortunately the rest of the city’s “1964 Plan” (with the exception of the parking garage) never materialized. The children’s museum and shopping center got bogged down in a decade-long permit fight and the former site of Davis Hall remained an empty pit for years. The public outcry over the demolition began almost immediately. Although it was too late for Davis Hall, many other historical structures have been protected, as preservationists have worked to save countless buildings from the bulldozer.
However, that seems to be changing. Many masterpieces of modern architecture are in danger of being destroyed. Demolition was recently approved for the Telelectric Building, a 27-story, windowless monolith that towers over the Belgian Quarter and at one time housed a telegraph switching station. It has become a symbol for the neighborhood and is widely used for navigating through the city as an easy-to-see landmark. Stanley Kubrick recalled living in the shadow of the tower during his brief time here, and credited it with a subconscious influence on the monolith in his film 2001. Although it may be too late to save the Telelectric, perhaps this will be the wakeup call to the current generation. Several other Modern masterpieces have an uncertain future. In 1918, Louis Sullivan designed an ultra modern skyscraper in President Heights on a bet. The 10-story “Switchblade Building” was built on half of one normal townhouse lot, after a friend suggested that such a building would be “impossible and impractical.” The floors are extremely narrow (only 8’ wide in some places) and while construction was indeed possible, installing up-to-date plumbing and wiring have proved impractical, and the building is currently foreclosed, perhaps a victim of urban renewal.
Across town in the Fashion Quarter, the Parner Diston & Sons Wool Works building is also threatened. A featureless cube set upon three large triangular feet, the building’s critics have called it “cold, lifeless” and “not part of a human scale.” In its heyday, the factory was the one of the nation’s largest producers of woolen socks and mittens, and the scene for several famous labor conflicts. The most infamous of these was the Wool Fire of ’36, when disgruntled workers sets bales of wool on fire during a strike. The fire left four inch drifts of wool and ash for blocks in every direction and destroyed the west side of the building (later repaired). The factory shuttered its doors in 1965, and efforts to convert the building into condos have been foiled by the near-total lack of windows. Plans to build a stadium on the location surface every so often, but are usually derailed due to financing problems. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, city planners and architecture critics had little use for Art Deco or buildings from the turn of the century. These buildings are now considered vital to the architecture of our city. The current professional and public opinion of modernism is low—many of these buildings are considered eye-sores, and the risk is great that another historic building will be razed. Will another Davis Hall have to be destroyed for city leaders to act?
- Matt Vermeulen