In the early, wild west days of the World Wide Web, a lot of important content was thrown up, only to disappear five or seven years later. As a fan of chrome diners, one website I still miss dearly was called DinerCityUSA; if I was going to be in an eastern seaboard American city, I’d make a list and my dinner plans were solved. Problem is, many of these early sites were run by one person and lacked the funding to stay alive.
Fifteen years ago, I stumbled across Triangle Modernist Houses, which documented the high concentration of modernist houses in the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill triangle of North Carolina. And, because one such house there, the Eduardo Fernando Catalano house (now demolished) reminded me so much of the Cleeve and Jean Horne house north of Pickering, Ont. – both have wild hyperbolic paraboloid roofs – the site stuck with me. But since I’d never had occasion to travel to that area, I simply filed it away and assumed that it had probably disappeared.
Boy, was I wrong. Today, the site has morphed into USModernist.org, and is, without a doubt, one of most comprehensive archives of residential modernist architecture in the United States ever created.
“You know, it’s what happens when, over the years, an idea presents itself and you [say] ‘how hard could that be?’” George Smart says with a laugh.
Mr. Smart is the indefatigable force behind the architect’s biographies, house lists, four million pages of scanned architectural magazines, 270 podcasts and curated tours and events.
And because there are some heavy financial hitters propping up the website – Diane Bald and the Budman Family are listed along with high profile realtors – and there is a board of directors and a phalanx of volunteers, a long life can safely be assumed.
“Warning: Highly Addictive!” is tongue-and-cheekily stated at the bottom of the site’s main page, but it’s true. Click on “Architect/House Archive” and one’s screen is filled with a grid of black-and-white faces, all listed alphabetically. Click on a familiar face, such as Marcel Breuer and find a biography, a few YouTube links, and then a list of built and unbuilt works – there are so many, your scrolling finger will need a break. Try an unfamiliar face (to this author, anyway), such as “Davis,” and learn about Mary Lund Davis (1922-2008), one of the first woman architects to be licensed in Washington state. While there are only a dozen projects to study, they show handsome, West Coast, post-and-beam work typical of the era, except for her own 1969 house at Gig Harbor, which features a complex, Asian-inspired roofline.
If one tires of reading, the site’s podcasts are a ton of fun, since they eschew the scholarly and, as Mr. Smart quips, “dreary” format found on other architecture sites in favour of a casual, fun, late-night talk show format that sometimes includes a musical guest. In one episode, Mr. Smart interviews Celia Bertoia, Susan Saarinen, and Charles and Ray Eames’s granddaughter Carla Hartman, who travel and speak as the “Daughters of Design.” In another, he tells the “real story” of Dr. Edith Farnsworth with the help of Nora Wendl and Alice Friedman; to keep things light, he interviews artists who paint the mid-century lifestyle, such as Josh Agle (“Shag”) and Danny Heller. Musical guests of USModernist Radio have included Dean Martin’s daughter Deana Martin, Dave Brubeck’s son Darius, Frank Sinatra Jr.’s only acknowledged child, Michael Sinatra, as well as Jennifer Warnes, Diana Panton and Jane Monheit.
“We started that because whenever I’d go into a modernist house [on a tour], they’d be playing jazz, so we thought, okay, I wonder if we could even get people to come on the show,” Mr. Smart says. “And we’ve had, I think, 50 or 60 musical guests now.”
But it’s not all entertainment. In addition to passively advocating for the preservation of modernist architecture, the folks at USModernism have helped sellers of modernist houses find buyers, and taught homeowners worried that their house might get demolished about preservation easements, “which are like homeowner’s associations for one house, and how they can set that up” so as to have “full legal enforcement power and can preserve a house forever,” says Mr. Smart, who, before running the website was a strategic planner.
In one case, Mr. Smart and Co. helped Celeste Racette in Wichita, Kan., form a group to save Century II, a domed-roof performing arts centre designed by Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice John M. Hickman in the mid-1960s. Today, thanks to their efforts, news reports discuss fixing the roof and updating the WiFi rather than demolition.
And then there are the excursions, which, in 2016, began to include European destinations. Site-goers are encouraged to pay $10 a month to join “The Mod Squad” (42 of its members are currently visiting Dubai) to get early notice on ticket sales.
It’s all so exciting, it causes this columnist to ask if there are plans to expand into Canada since, in his 19 years at The Globe, he’s encountered more modernism than he’d ever dreamed possible.
“Well, you know, there’s still so much to be discovered in the U.S.,” Mr. Smart says somewhat cagily. “We want to finish documenting all the major iconic houses in the U.S., because then we can turn our attention more full time to doing the advocacy, which becomes more important year by year.”