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The Unusual Suspects? They're on the List, Too

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Like the famous amplifier in "Spinal Tap," the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual Most Endangered list goes to 11. And like most "top 10" lists, it is a publicity exercise, a manufactured news release issued annually since 1988 and meant to focus attention on something that happens slower than things we feel urgent about (swine flu, systemic economic collapse) and faster than things that are permanently simmering on the back burner of the news cycle (the demise of Social Security, global warming).

The announcement was made last month at the Century Plaza Hotel, a 1960s structure with a storied history of celebrity guests but endangered by the wrecking ball if plans for new development go forward. The hotel, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who designed the World Trade Center, is a gently curving behemoth punctuated by a severe pattern of square windows and balconies. It could be set down into the middle of L'Enfant Plaza without too many people noticing any dissonance with the nearby late-'60s architecture of I.M. Pei or Marcel Breuer.

The Century Plaza is a hard building to love. But the National Trust's annual list -- which reflects increasing concern about the preservation of mid-century modernism -- has never been exclusively devoted to the easy issues in preservation. When they hold their yearly adopt-a-puppy day, they don't slight the mutts, the mangy and the ill-tempered. The list is always way out ahead of public opinion, which is where the Trust should be. And it often serves more as a guide to the philosophical problems of preservation than a simple gazetteer of historic or beloved buildings.

This year, there's nothing local on the list. But that doesn't mean the list doesn't have clear local import. Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., is a far greater and more essential building than Araldo Cossutta's 1971 Third Church of Christ, Scientist, on 16th Street near the White House. And the Unitarian Universalist congregants of the Wright's 1909 temple are desperate to save their house of worship, while the Christian Scientists who worship in Cossutta's concrete box have successfully appealed to the city to bypass a 2007 historic landmark designation so that it can be demolished and replaced with something more congenial.

But it is the dilemma of the congregations that reminds us how often people and groups who never signed up to be preservationists are thrust into the role. Schools, churches, hospitals all have primary purposes that make it awkward and sometimes impossible for them to be stewards of historic structures.

The current list also includes an airplane hangar in Wendover, Utah, about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City. It was the home, during the development of the Manhattan Project, of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that would drop the first atomic bomb. The hangar, which is falling into ruin, is a purely functional building of no particular aesthetic merit, and its preservation raises painful memories and debates about the United States' use of the atomic weapon.

It's daring of the Trust to put it on the list. It also reminds us of how quickly history can convert temporary structures into icons. It is no doubt a very good idea to preserve the Wendover shed, but imagine if the temporary World War II-era structures that once cluttered the Mall -- some of which weren't removed until 1971 -- had lasted just a few years longer. Would we be living with them still?

"Now that you think of it, maybe we should have preserved one or two," says Richard Moe, president of the NTHP. He suggests they might have done duty as a World War II museum.

And what of the temporary security measures that can be found all over Washington, ruining the landscape? In 50 years, will our children preserve Jersey barriers to remember our own anxious moment of history?

But the most striking parallel to local preservation issues is the presence of several campuses or small villages on the National Trust list. Among these, the Human Services Center in Yankton, S.D., will remind anyone who follows local preservation of the dilemma of the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia.

Like St. E's, which appeared on the Trust's list in 2002, the Yankton center was built as a hospital for the mentally ill, and like the large and elegant west campus of St. E's, it has been superseded by more modern facilities. The state wants to tear down some of the Yankton facility's historic buildings and redevelop the site. Plans are already far advanced to tear down some structures at St. E's and redevelop it as the headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security.

Landmarking a campus means more than landmarking buildings. It also about preserving place, landscape and the relation of buildings to one another. But easier said than done. If it's difficult to preserve one antiquated building, it's all the more difficult to preserve 10, 20 or, in the case of St. Elizabeths, dozens.

If St. Elizabeths is preserved as a high-security facility, its once pastoral campus will be ruined by millions of square feet of new office construction, and it will be all but off limits to the public. The buildings will stand, but the campus will be isolated and lost to all but the employees who work there. That's not preservation in the eyes of the National Trust, which has always been daring about seeing its charge as more than a matter of preserving architecture or buildings.

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