Timothy Rub Speaks on Preserving Modern Architecture at Cleveland Restoration Society Luncheon

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Sun, 01/11/2009 - 14:15.

The Cleveland Restoration Society's 36th Annual Community Luncheon, Thursday, December 11th, was an opportunity for Clevelanders to reassess their relationship to Modern architecture, as well as an opportunity to get to know Timothy Rub, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, better.

Timothy Rub has been the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art for three years. His identity in the community has been strongly shaped by the Cleveland Museum of Art's monumental expansion campaign, though it began well before he was chosen as its seventh director. Most Clevelanders know little about Timothy Rub's career prior to him taking the reins of one of their most sacred institutions and few Clevelanders know anything about his scholarly interests. His talk, titled "Reshaping Our Past: A Vision for the Future", allowed him to share his scholarly expertise as a historian of architectural history.

Rub was a captivating speaker. His talk was impressive; it was meticulously well organized and well composed. He covered a large amount of information in a relatively short amount of time and his talk seemed thoughtfully crafted for the audience of this event.

Timothy Rub spoke of his role in preserving and renovating the buildings that house the Cleveland Museum of Art, particularly the Breuer Building. The Breuer Building is one of Cleveland's most important examples of Modern architecture, though, as Rub stated, it has not been "well loved" by Clevelanders. Rub recounted the selection of Marcel Breuer by Sherman Lee and the Museum's board in the 60s; Mrs. Norweb, the board president at the time, championed Breuer. Breuer was chosen based on the strength of his addition to the Whitney, which was designed only a few years earlier than the addition to the CMA.

Lee called The Breuer Building his "most important acquisition of Modern art" -- a statement that might do a little to redeem his reputation (at least for me). Sherman Lee is known more for passing up opportunities for acquiring Modern and Contemporary art than he was for acquiring them.

I am very familiar with the five buildings (each the work of a different architect) that make up the Cleveland Museum of Art. I have visited the Museum hundreds of times, as a student, an employee, volunteer and visitor, and I have grown quite attached to its two faces; one Beaux Arts style, one Modern. I was relieved to hear that the Breuer Building would be saved, when plans for the expansion were revealed several years ago. I was also very pleased, a few years ago, when I read in the Plain Dealer that Rub held the contractors of the Rafael Vinoly addition to high standards, making them replace pieces of the striped granite facing that he felt were not a good match. His hands on approach has no doubt made the project a success, thus far.

A good portion of Timothy Rub's talk was like a survey course that could have been titled Modern Architecture 101. He covered the big names and famous buildings, such as Paul Rudolph's Art & Architecture Building, at Yale University, Saarinen's TWA Terminal and Louis Kahn's Salk Institute. These buildings should have been familiar to most members of the audience, many of whom were architects. But I don't think anyone minded see them again. They are beautiful buildings and by now also widely recognized as great works of twentieth century art. You might have dismissed this portion of Rubs talk as just filler if he did not argue for a reassessment of our relationship with the architecture of our more recent past.

Timothy Rub offered some insightful analysis of the obstacles to preserving mid century Modern architecture.

As I mentioned previously, he said that the Breuer Building was never "well loved." The same has been true for many mid century Modern buildings. Architecture of the 60s and 70s has overall had a poor critical reception and received even less public appreciation. This is certainly a great obstacle to preservation.

Post Modern architecture is characterized by more personal expression, creativity, diversity and eclecticism than many other styles of architecture. It more challenging to experience and understand than classicism.

It is also challenging from a renovation point of view; each Modern architect's work presents different problems for updating and modifying for new uses.

Timothy Rub stated that Americans are uncomfortable with their past (this is particularly true of the recent past). We love to make fun of the style of the previous generation (this goes for fashion, decor, and design as well as architecture) With architecture, after deriding something for decades it is difficult, even embarrassing, to recant and halt the wrecking ball.

Americans are even more uncomfortable admitting they are wrong than they are uncomfortable with their past.

Prior to Timothy Rub's talk, Kathleen H. Crowther, Executive Director of the Cleveland Restoration Society, made the opening remarks and held a brief membership meeting.

As part of the membership meeting, Marjorie H. Kitchell was nominated as an Honorary Life Trustee of the Cleveland Restoration Society for her twenty years of service to CRS as a volunteer attorney.

Kathleen Crowther proudly told the audience that there were 78 participants in the Heritage Home program in 2008. She also discussed the results of a Cleveland State Study of the projects homes -- the study revealed what one might expect... investing in historic homes increased their market value and the market value of surrounding homes, reduced foreclosure/loan default rates and resulted in home owners staying in their homes longer.

She reminded the audience that "buildings embody human stories" -- a most poignant statement. People often mistakenly see historic preservation as merely an aesthetic issue.

As the audience gathered and started their lunch, there was a slide show of photos celebrating some recent success stories of The Cleveland Restoration Society and the Heritage Home Program. The loop of photos repeated without captions or commentary but many of the buildings were easily recognized. I think a few brightly painted Victorians were from Ohio City.

While approximately 250 attended the Cleveland Restoration Society's 36th Annual Community Luncheon and celebrated the renovation of the The Cleveland Museum of Art and other recent projects, Cleveland really has little to celebrate. Cleveland has very little to be proud of, in the area of historic preservation.

In the last few years, an astounding number of buildings have been demolished and others have been allowed to stand disgracefully neglected.

On more than one occasion we have graciously funded boorish developers to destroy our architectural history.

Recently we have lost the entire East bank of the Flats - part of the authentic industrial history of Cleveland.

Cleveland State demolished their Student Center built in 1974 by Donald Hisaka. It was a classic example of the Brutalist style of architecture. I attended Cleveland State in the 90s and found it to be a very inspiring and functional building.

The garage and outdoor squash courts of Mather Mansion were also lost.

Speaking of Cleveland State's Mather Mansion, there is hardly a trace left of Millionaires Row, a neighborhood that could have been Cleveland's version of Newport's Belvue Avenue or the garden District in New Orleans.

The Modern style J. Milton Dyer Coast guard station continues to decay.

The Hulett ore unloaders are gone (we shall see if the one that was saved will ever be reassembled).

Around University Circle, many circa 1900 homes and apartments have been leveled, erasing any sense of a neighborhood or community surrounding the University and other institutions.

Early twentieth century apartments, mixed used buildings and healthy mature trees on Superior at East Boulevard succumbed to parking for the VA Hospital.

Mount Sinai Hospital, with classical facade inspired by the old Louvre, was torn down -- it seems such a shame that it could not have been adapted for another use.

Between the Cleveland Playhouse and Cleveland Clinic, more grand early twentieth century apartment buildings disappeared.

The deco style building that houses the Podiatry School awaits its end.

And, maybe I was the only one to notice, but a charming 1920s gas station with a Spanish tile roof at the corner of Woodhill and Shaker Boulevard was gone in the blink of an eye.

There is a great need in Cleveland for more educated leadership and a more educated population that recognizes value in our architectural history. There is much that could be done to combat the misconceptions that preserving our architectural heritage is too costly and that any new construction is better than renovating the old. But sadly so much has been lost already. Some of the best preservation opportunities now are in residential architecture.

Perhaps the recession will be good for historic architecture in Cleveland. In Newport and New Orleans many historic buildings remain today because of economic downturns; when there is little money for new development fewer buildings are torn down.

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