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Past and Present: Preservation

Fletcher Powell

My research includes the study of buildings constructed from about World War II to the 1970s.

It began with a study of Route 66 and the features along the “Mother Road.” Since then, my interest in the postwar built-landscape has extended to suburban ranch homes, one of which I just purchased, and to the religious landscape of 1950s and 1960s America.

It has struck me how ambivalent we are towards these structures. Even when they were built, the population was not so sure about the benefits of modern architecture. I remember a cartoon from probably the early 1960s showing a woman dashing away from a strange, science-fiction-looking edifice and saying to her husband in the car, “I’m so embarrassed, that wasn’t a supermarket... it’s a church!”

Sometimes we don’t appreciate these buildings until they are threatened or gone. A preservation conference in Tulsa had a series of panels about preserving postwar suburbs and how they tend to be vulnerable. After all, a 1,000-square-foot house was considerable in 1952, but is now too small for today’s “HGTV” home buyer. The state preservation office is now struggling with how to preserve strip malls that are more than 50 years old and now eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Even major structures can be threatened. I found that a chapel built for Christ Lutheran, an award-winning design in its day, has been torn down. Just a few years ago, Wichitans saw the demolition of the old Church of the Magdalen to make way for Kellogg’s expansion-- that a church was torn town to preserve other features along Kellogg is itself a fascinating commentary about our society’s values. What was once decried as the “Holy Hamburger” became the focus of some nostalgia as it fell.

In our age of what has sometimes been called “disposable architecture,” postwar buildings seem easy targets for removal in favor of something more up-to-date. They are not old enough to have gained a “historic” patina and don’t always have the pretty aesthetics that inspire preservationists.

Today, some are suggesting, for example, that buildings like Century II, an icon for the city for more than 40 years, might need to be torn down for something more modern. As Elbert Conover, a church consultant from the middle of the 20th century warned, “they forget that the truly contemporary may be only temporary.”

Meanwhile, perhaps it is time to revisit those structures that we sometimes don’t think are very pretty and find that there was more than we imagined.

Jay M. Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program.