It can be hard to look at something from a time you recall and have it labeled “historic.” Of course, in fashion, a decade is all it takes for styles to be revamped and recycled, which perhaps leads to a more open mindset among the fashion-conscious crowd? Architecture tends to strike a more personal chord with people than a pair of trousers, perhaps…and passions can rage on both sides of what is considered both aesthetically pleasing and historic.
I welcome the news that Lexington, Kentucky mayor Jim Gray has proposed $150,000 from the budget to help move the 1961 Peoples Bank Building, a mid-century modern commercial building, with lots of glass and an eye-catching zig-zag roofline. Empty for years (despite requests from business owners to rent the space), the building inspires devotion from some, and derision from others. I’ve never been a fan of evaluating a building’s meaning and significance by looks alone – yet as a preservation professional, I am all too aware of how the appearance of a building influences public opinion. (On a side note, changing the National Register’s Criterion C to another letter of the alphabet would be an interesting exercise – no longer would I refer to it as the “cute” criterion.)
When I started in this field, I was amused by the stories recounted by my elders (note: elders does not mean the same thing as old) regarding their first few years practicing preservation and architectural history. In the 1970s and even 1980s, the Craftsman style – represented in the Bluegrass by thousands of bungalows – was not considered cool, beautiful, historic, or worth saving. And these same professionals heard from their superiors about how hated and despised Victorian houses were in the years before World War II and into the Cold War era.
The point being: just because you think it is ugly and not old enough to be important doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Lexington is, in many ways, a town that cherishes tradition, whether that tradition be positive or negative. Tradition has often meant that the icons judged worth preserving only told one side of the story – and most of the time, that is the story of those with power and money.
When I was in graduate school, we often discussed the early days of the preservation movement, and the focus on saving the houses of “dead rich white men.” That narrative and that choice ignores a vast percentage of our population, and in doing so, presents a one-sided view of history.Urban renewal decimated Lexington’s downtown, a trend that unfortunately continued into the 21st century. As other cities rushed to embrace their distinctive building stock, realizing that visitors and residents alike benefit from a sense of place that is not the cookie-cutter banality of shopping centers and sprawl, Lexington plowed right on with the same mindset of new is better. I am not sure that a new hole in the ground is any better than an old hole in the ground, but even seven years later, it is hard for me to talk about the Centre Pointe debacle.
The Peoples Bank building speaks to the Atomic Age with vigor and intensity. Does it look like the bank buildings from the 1930s or 1920s? No. But in 1961, the United States was in a dizzy, exciting place. There was a handsome, young president! We were sending men to the moon! Thousands of men went to college on the GI Bill and many families were able to buy a house in the exotic suburbs. Why wouldn’t architects respond to the energy of the times with a sculpturally engineered building that trumpeted its differences from traditional architecture in every zig and zag and shimmering blue tile surface?
In a 2012 New York Times article about the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY (and if you think Peoples Bank is hard to love, try feeling warm and cuddly about Brutalism), John Hildreth, a vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, spoke succinctly about the arc of changing architectural taste. “There was a time when people weren’t concerned about saving Victorian houses, bungalows, Art Deco buildings — all were not favored styles,” he said. “You have to focus on the significance of the building and not its style, because styles will come and go. We’re at a point where we’re evaluating the recent past and coming up against that.”
I think it is time Lexington celebrated the vestiges of what is left of our different, unique, and quirky landscape. The Peoples Bank Building is one of a handful of modernist buildings still standing – testaments to a time when the world seemed possible, and even a slow, sleepy county seat town could claim a radical, new, exuberant building in its downtown.