A truly notable modern building in Stamford, CT.

Before attending the DC Preservation League’s recent panel discussion, “Evaluating the Significance of Modern Structures,” I wondered if it would focus on differentiating the significant from the insignificant or just advocating for modern structures’ significance. I found a little of both, but more of the latter. As Reid wrote in a comment after the event,

I’ll say that there were some feints towards saying that some modern structures aren’t significant. But one suspects that everyone on the panel would love to keep all modern buildings around in perpetuity, regardless of their significance (let alone hostility to good urbanism).

The General Services Administration, manager of most federal office buildings, does distinguish its historic properties from the non-historic. GSA’s preservation office divides buildings into three categories: the truly iconic that already warrant landmarking, those that don’t meet National Register criteria now but may once they turn 50, and those that probably don’t merit preservation at all.

For example, the Chet Holifield Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, California has an iconic pyramidal shape. But since the architect also designed San Francisco’s very iconic Transamerica Pyramid, said GSA preservationist Kristi Tunstall, this building may therefore represent a lesser example and not eligible for historic designation now - but perhaps on its 50th birthday.

Many panelists frequently used the word “eligible”. The actual process of landmarking, of course, centers around eligibility. But none of the speakers asked whether a building might be eligible but nonetheless not warrant preservation. “Evaluating the significance,” therefore, meant not judging merit but simply determining eligibility.

And the federal eligibility criteria are very broad. For example, Lyndon Johnson had an office on the top floor of the J.J. Pickle Federal Building in Austin, which from what I can see is a plain and unremarkable concrete and glass box. Yet GSA considers that building historically significant, simply because Johnson had an office there. Tunstall admitted that the Battin Federal Building in Billings, Montana is generally undistinguished. But it’s the only Brutalist building in the state, making it potentially eligible and thus, at least to her office, worthy of preservation

The biggest debate for GSA’s buildings, said Tunstall, arises in the second of GSA’s three categories, buildings not “iconic” today but potentially eligible in the future. Under the federal designation rules, buildings under 50 years of age must meet a far stricter standard than older buildings. That’s why GSA feels the Laguna Niguel building may not be eligible now, but could become so.

Should we simply designate any 50-year-old structure that’s a good example of a certain architectural school? Tunstall and her colleagues seem to think so; she said her office’s task for the second tier is “how do we make [the] case” for preservation?” They’re not asking whether these buildings are really significant and whether we are improving our built environment by preserving them. Instead, they asked, how do we convince people to save them?

Christine French, of the Recent Past Preservation Network and another panelist at the event, focused her talk entirely on persuading the public of the significance of modern buildings. French wouldn’t have approved of Tunstall’s characterizing the Battin Federal Building as otherwise unremarkable. Among French’s tactics from her presentation were these rules: “Never admit that the other side has a point,” and “Include no statements that can be taken out of context.”

French repeatedly referred to anyone not entirely in agreement as “adversaries.” That, and her “admit nothing” rule, does her side a disservice, casting everyone who disagrees with any of any of her views as the enemy. (And yes, those of you who’ve pointed out the folly of calling development foes “NIMBYs” were making the same point.) Some audience members were indeed skeptical of some aspects of preservation; some residents of the Watergate and the Capital Park building at Fourth and G Southwest, proud of their buildings, nevertheless spoke about the financial burden of maintaining their architecturally interesting but costly balconies.

The preservationists on the panel also pointed out the large environmental cost of simply trashing an entire building’s worth of concrete. Where would all the concrete go if we tore down the FBI building, asked GSA’s Beth Savage, who’d like Pennsylvania Avenue to contain at least one structure from each architectural era. And, indeed, LEED 2009 gives points for retaining existing structures, according to Savage. The Maryland historic preservation chair, who was in the audience, had harsher words for LEED, calling it a “process that is written by accountants and construction managers,” where developers tear down an entire building, creating enormous waste, to build a “green” building, and called for a “more sophisticated” LEED system.

Besides, not all modern buildings discussed at the panel are unremarkable glass and concrete boxes. Theodore Prudon of US DOCOMOMO showed some beautiful modern buildings, like the First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, CT (which faces many similar heating and lighting challenges as the controversial Third Church of Christ, Scientist here in DC). I am a big fan of the 1965 Pan American Health Organization building, where the panel took place. And we were treated to photos of a very impressive modern house in Cleveland Park when it went on the market recently.

There are some wonderful modern buildings, in DC and elsewhere. And there is indeed value in preserving some examples of various architectural styles. Nevertheless, when almost every modern building is eventually eligible and we landmark almost every one, either we aren’t exercising enough discretion or the eligibility criteria are too broad. The question I should have asked the panelists, but didn’t think of at the time, is this: Is there a building that’s eligible for historic designation under the federal guidelines, but which you don’t feel should be designated? If so, why? If not, do you support designating all eligible buildings? I’d still love to hear the panelists’ thoughts on this. But to me, just because we can landmark a building doesn’t mean we should.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.