Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with historic preservation architect Don Ryden in his office to talk about his fabulous new book, Midcentury Marvels.  In talking with Don, I also wanted to clear up some haziness around what historic preservation really is.  In today’s post which is only the first part of our conversation, Don talks about why Midcentury Marvels is hopefully only the beginning of a movement, and then he talks candidly about why he would never consider Wendell Burnette’s remodel of St.Francis as historic preservation.

Below is part I of our conversation…

Blooming Rock: What was your favorite part about writing Midcentury Marvels?

Don Ryden: I suppose the never ending series of discoveries as we did our research was a favorite. And then, the design, or authorship aspects of how to figure out how best to present the material in a manner that was scholarly in its background but popular in its presentation or reading. We had two major readerships to deal with, both our colleagues in the preservation and the general public who love brand new old buildings.

Blooming Rock: What was the most challenging part about writing the book?

Don Ryden: The most challenging part was to know when or how to stop, because quite frankly the amount of love and care that went in to the book was double what the financial renumeration was, not only for ourselves and our collaborators in the book, but also for the City. The whole project was all consuming for everyone. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining in the least. It was so important that all of us hold ourselves to a very very high standard, and we just couldn’t do half a book, so I think that was probably one of the hardest parts of dealing with it. Just the anxiety of seeing so much that had to be done, and you could just never be paid back for it as part of just a project.

Some people saw the book as the end, I only see the book as the means. The pay back upfront was good for the project to float its own boat.  Really it was just the beginning of what we’re all part of right now, as people get inspired or motivated by what they read. And hopefully people like yourself and Alison King (of Modern Phoenix), and people in the blogosphere, can get these sit-at-home citizens to get up. I keep telling everybody they first have to care about these buildings by learning about them. Then they have to share what they learned and how they feel about them with everybody else. And finally they have to dare to step up and fix the buildings or speak up against someone who’s threatening them.  There’s my alliterative triad of what one must do in phase II of the Midcentury Marvels book.

Blooming Rock: Would you say that the Valley is the mid-century modern architecture capital of the country?

Don Ryden: I haven’t seen the country yet so I don’t know. My view is fairly limited except for what I can see in books and pictures and videos and things like that. But in terms of the Southwest, it certainly is from what I have seen. How would I compare it to Los Angeles, because that is the closest thing that I would have? That’s one of the only other really large metropolitan areas that has the same aspects of the automobile and air-conditioning in postwar times that facilitated its big development. So whatever is good and whatever is bad about it, I suppose people could only compare Phoenix to the greater Los Angeles area with the modern architecture there. And you can’t even really go to Las Vegas to see such things and that town I’m very familiar with. Their’s (mid-century modern buildings) are torn down even faster than our buildings here. And going to New Mexico, I’ve never seen any. So you’d have to get quite far beyond the Southwest before you’d find something comparable. There are not too many cities that are as young as Phoenix is, and really made themselves after World War II. Phoenix was founded in 1870 and Las Vegas was founded in 1905 for goodness sakes! And all the other towns on the coast are much much older. So Phoenix didn’t have a real Spanish/Colonial connection like towns in California or south of the Gila.

Blooming Rock: I’ve been covering on the Vanishing Phoenix blog the distinction between historic preservation and adaptive reuse because they’re used interchangeably in the world outside of the historic preservation. Honestly, I’ve used them interchangeably too and I’m an architect. So I would like to hear your take on that. What’s the distinction, and as a follow up, is one better than the other, or are they just different?

Don Ryden: I had no idea there was such confusion over terminology. Alright, so, I’ll put on the historic preservation hat now and give you definitions that the National Park Service uses and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation define. Here’s how it gets confusing. There isn’t one term that is the umbrella term for what it is that we specialize in. The umbrella term is historic preservation.  What’s confusing is that the word preservation is also used at a secondary level as a kind of treatment of a building. So here are the treatments of buildings: if you have a totally fallen down, messed up building, first thing you do is protect it.  I won’t do all the definitions, I’ll just give you the names. The next level of treatment, after you protect it from further damage, is you stabilize it so that it stands up and is water tight. Then you have preservation, you preserve it. That means that you don’t change anything. You don’t take it back to a period. You don’t bring it up to your era. You might take away some distracting, insignificant things from it, but to preserve it is nothing more than to keep what you’ve got. You might do that with a house that’s been badly remodeled. You take away the bad remodel stuff but you don’t put back in the steel casement windows that someone took out (for example). So that’s just preserving – hold in place – neither adding or subtracting.

Then you have a branch-off. You can go two different ways. One is restoration. When you do your research and you understand how it looked at a particular moment in time and you bring it back to that moment in time. Whatever it takes, you take it back to that and you keep its original use. The best example I could use around here is the Rosson House. It’s a period house, but it is a museum, so they had to accommodate museum. But basically, it’s still a house. That was one path you could take, which would be very academic. Now let’s go the other path, which is very practical or pragmatic and that’s called rehabilitation. Now rehabilitation is generally defined as being the preservation of a historic building while integrating sensitively a different use. The term for that is adaptive use, not adaptive re-use, because that’s redundant. It’s already used, so you’re either reusing it, or you’re adapting it. Adapt means that you are changing it, reusing it means you have the same use and you’re reusing it.

So we are reusing the State Capitol for its original governmental use to put the legislative use back into the legislative portions of the building instead of just using it for office space. That’s really reuse of the original purpose. Another one would be the Orpheum Theater, it isn’t really adaptive use because it’s still a theater. But you have so much to do to upgrade it to today’s code requirements or for the use of the building as a big theater, that it’s still a kind of a rehabilitation. So the definitions themselves are somewhat inadequate when you get right down to the finite thing.

So what’s the difference between adaptive reuse and preservation? The answer is, yes. It’s the same thing. At the higher umbrella level, but you’re mixing levels of terms. Historic preservation is the umbrella. Preservation can be a treatment. Rehabilitation is a treatment. And adaptive use or reuse is a third level down. And so what your problem in confusing the terms is in the level of complexity or detail. I guess that’s the easiest way to explain it. If you did a little family tree diagram, or an organizational chart, that’s what’s happening and people are getting them totally confused.

Blooming Rock: The reason I’m posing this question is because somebody said that the remodel of St. Francis, the old Harold Ekman office, isn’t historic preservation, it’s adaptive reuse.

Don Ryden: That is not historic preservation, that to me is a remodel, which is not in the vocabulary or the definition of the National Park Service.

Blooming Rock: So do you think that’s bad?

Don Ryden: What’s your measuring stick? It’s not bad in that they took an underused building and now it’s a nice restaurant that’s making money and causing buzz and things are happening. And that’s good. What breaks my heart is that they could have done it in a historic preservation approach that respected the character-defining features of the building instead of blowing them away. They could have gotten for the owners incentive tax credits from the IRS that they could share with their partners, they’re transferable. They could have gotten half off on their property tax by getting it designated on the National Register. And they could have applied to compete for City bond funds for fixing the façade. So whoever led that, and I don’t mean to embarrass anybody or criticize them, but they didn’t see the value added by going through the proper preservation track, which does not necessarily cost them any more than what they put into it to do it in the remodeling methodology. So that’s why I would never even think of counting that as historic preservation.

Blooming Rock: I love the architecture at St. Francis and what Wendell Burnette did with it.  Do you think if he had followed the historic preservation track, he could have been as innovative in his architecture as he was?

Don Ryden: Probably more so. Here’s what I tell people. To get to the end of the story early, to do what preservation architects do in true rehabilitations is much harder than remodeling. But it’s far more rewarding showcasing the building and showcasing your abilities as a designer. Because you have more…no you don’t have more limitations, you have greater guidance. As you well know as an architect, it’s hard to design a new building. It’s harder to remodel a building. It’s harder yet to restore a building. It’s really hard to rehabilitate a building. It’s most hard to design new additions to a historic building, to enhance it, to be compatible with it, and yet to defer to it. That is the true test of an architect’s ability and a true reflection of their sensitivity to, for example, Harold Ekman, a master architect who darn well knew what he was doing when he designed his own office, that you would respect the work of the original architect in such a manner that you would identify the character defining features of that building, protect those, play them up instead of ignoring them, or worse, destroying them.

Stay tuned for the rest of my conversation with Don tomorrow!

Photo Credit:  A hand-drawn sketch of the Rosson House by Don Ryden.  Photograph of the original sketch by the author.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Taz Loomans, Taz Loomans. Taz Loomans said: Don Ryden on Writing Midcentury Marvels and Why He Does NOT Consider the St. Francis Remodel Histo.. http://bit.ly/fc6R7R […]

  2. […] Today’s post is the second half of my conversation with local historic preservation architect Don Ryden and the author of Midcentury Marvels. If you missed part I, don’t forget to go back and take a look! […]

  3. […] is an excerpt on this matter from an interview with Don on Blooming […]

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