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  • Writer's pictureTodd Pitman

Dwell ...Historic Preservation Friend or Foe?

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

I remember when Dwell magazine first came out. I eagerly subscribed to the new magazine and was a loyal reader for years. As a landscape architect and planner "sustainability" became a buzz word and seemed to embody everything that I saw as important in landscape design, architecture and urban design. Those first few years Dwell was a fantastic resource for new materials and progressive design. They also happened to be one of a very few magazines that were paying attention to historic mid century architecture. They typically would include at least a small piece on modernist architecture or design every month. It was kind of a natural fit. After all mid- century architecture and contemporary design shared an aesthetic. Minimalism, simplicity, blurring the lines between inside and outside were fundamental to what was being done now as well as the historic modernism of the prior century. So it would seem that Dwell was on the front edge of the renewed appreciation of mid century modernism as a historic style.

In the years since a few tings have become evident. The term "sustainable" is less a design ideal and more a marketing term that is used to encourage consumers to send what they have to the landfill in favor of something that someone is selling. Usually lost in the conversation of sustainability is the fact that normally the house that is already there is far more sustainable than the one you haven't built yet. This sustainability thing is probably best left to another post but suffice to say that I believe strongly that the most sustainable thing you can do is keep the old house you have and preserve it.

Also unfortunate was the use by many in the historic preservation field of the term "contemporary" to describe a sub style of mid century modernism prevalent from the mid 50s to the late 60s. By way of Merrium-Webster "contemporary" means, marked by characteristics of the present period. So what qualifies as contemporary changes every day. In 2068 your 2018 house that is now "contemporary" will be old; historic if you are lucky.

So unfortunately what has happened is that these preconceived an erroneous conceptions of sustainability and aesthetic amalgamations of contemporary and mid century design have led to the loss of an extraordinary amount of historic mid century homes. By flipping through the pages of Dwell today you might be surprised to learn that bamboo floors, vinyl windows, glass filled fire pitts and zero edge pools were not hallmarks of mid century design.

Case in point the recently remodeled 1949 Lloyd Ruooco design for San Diego jeweler Sylvan Baranov. The home was notable for its hybrid steel and wood structural post and beam system allowing for a very open floor plan. Further, Baranov's hand could be seen in the design with the more opulent use of terrazzo, built-in furniture and ornamented wood detailing. Completing the design was a landscape by renown landscape architect Milton Sessions. Kate Sessions' nephew worked on only the earliest Ruocco residential projects. Sessions and Ruocco likely met while both worked together for Richard Requa on San Diego's second Exposition in Balboa Park in the 1930s. This home and its original landscape remained in nearly pristine condition under the care of the original owner as late as 2008.

Living Room Lloyd Ruocco Baranov Residence 1949. Photo 2008

Rose colored terrazzo and finely detailed wood built-ins were unusual features in Ruocco designs but reflected the personal tastes of the commissioning client

Tropical foliage at the outdoor foyer leads to the solid glass front door

The landscape design provides comfort and privacy to the glassy enclosure

The landscape plans by Milton Sessions were still prominently displayed in the house in 2008.

Dwell recently featured an article on the remodel of this home. Presumably as exemplary with the headline A Renovated Midcentury in San Diego Is Sharp and Sustainable. The architect Jesper Pederson notes his intent "to bring it into the present while embracing the spirit and integrity of the classic property's original design". That sounds like about the right approach so it's interesting to see where he went with it.

Not to give it away but I like parts of what Mr Pederson has designed if looked at through a "contemporary" lens. Maybe a bit too cold and too much white but the indoor outdoor connectivity is well done and the design seems functional and attractive. My complaint is that he did it at the expense of a wonderful, completely original historic home. Is it really sustainable? Does it really honor the original design? Probably not but it looks good in the pages of Dwell.

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