In 2009, after Cincinnati Magazine ran a story about a virtually unknown but magnificent early Modernist home in Woodlawn that was endangered, I drove over to see it. Or, rather, I tried.
Battered and abandoned, the Rauh House had become isolated from the street after a would-be developer subdivided its pastoral wooded acreage for a planned subdivision.
There was no easy way in. Further, from a distance, I could see a group of kids partying on its second-floor deck, treating the place disrespectfully like the neighborhood ruin it was. Too late for this one, I thought.
But in what has to be one of most amazing Cincinnati preservation stories ever, the house has been painstakingly restored — reinvented, actually, considering how badly damaged it was — and last week hosted Cincinnati Preservation’s two-day conference on Preserving Modern Architecture in the Midwest.
A lot of news and ideas about Modernism preservation came out of the conference. For instance, there’s going to be a major effort to save and revive Downtown’s idle landmark, Terrace Plaza Hotel, according to Paul Muller, Cincinnati Preservation’s executive director.
But first, a recap on how we came to be in this pristine, white-walled, two-story, brick and cinder block Rauh House, a protected Cincinnati architectural landmark, in the first place.
The house was built for Frederick and Harriet Rauh in 1938 by local architect John W. Becker, who had been deeply (and very early) influenced by the International style of architecture. That school of thought favored a clean, uncluttered openness in homes — rectangular living spaces and flowing rooms, flat roofs, lots of glass to see and be seen by nature, new construction materials and reduction of visual clutter.
It was a utopian ideal that challenged many homeowners’ urge to over-decorate or conservatively follow architectural tradition.
That helps explain how the Rauh House fell into such disrepair — and also why Becker’s own similar house in Anderson Township, built at the same time, was demolished. But the Rauhs’ daughter, Emily, fortunately chose a career in art curation, moved to St. Louis, married a member of the Pulitzer family and commissioned Tadao Ando to build the outstanding Modernist-influenced Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts museum. So she bought this house and its full lot, gave the property to Cincinnati Preservation and financed its painstaking restoration. Cincinnati Preservation will sell the restored house to a buyer who promises to preserve it. Then it will use the money for more activities.
The symposium was a way to celebrate the project’s completion. As Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural writer Paul Goldberger said at a Cincinnati Art Museum lecture to mark its close: “There are not supposed to be houses this good that no one’s heard of. Now it will become an important part of American International architecture.”
Since 1938, Modernism has evolved (and continues to do so) to incorporate all sorts of post-World War II structures, from high-rise offices to fire stations and so-called “Googie” coffee shops of the 1950s and 1960s.
But Modernism also extends to landscape design, we learned. Steve Schuckmann of Cincinnati Park Board gave a ringing defense of the taken-for-granted Serpentine Wall along the riverfront. It was done for the nation’s bicentennial by the East Coast firm of Zion & Breen Associates, which worked on New York’s Roosevelt Island. “I think that will stand the test of time as a significant urban landscape,” Schuckmann said.
Several speakers pointed out that it’s been hard to rally the public to Modernist preservation because many people don’t accept structures built during their lifetime as old. And, for that matter, a lot of them are too culturally conservative to have ever liked Modernism in the first place.
But another fascinating revelation of the symposium was that Modernist preservation is gaining ground because young people accept it as old enough to be historic but still new enough to be cool.
That subject came up during an anecdote by Mark Dollase of Indiana Landmarks’ Modernism Committee about a battle his agency had with the state highway department over demolition of a church. “Social media is playing a whole new role in historic preservation and young people have become involved,” he said.
Later, Patrick Snadon — an architecture professor at University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning — said that Modernism is “the thing that excites my students the most. If you can manage it (Modernism preservation) through social media, you’ll have an enthusiastic new audience.”
So, Modernism has a bright future in preserving its past. For more information, visit cincinnatipreservation.org.
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