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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Central Building and Changes to the Albion College Campus

Front side of Robinson Hall postcard (ca. 1908).
Anyone who really knows me understands the special connection that I have with Albion, Michigan. Not only is this the home of my alma mater Albion College, this is also the place that launched me in my career in historic preservation.Needless to say, when I ran across a postcard of the Central Building I had to acquire this for my personal collection. What I did not expect, however, is how this one postcard launched me on a path of discovery that helped me to better understand changes to this building and the broader Albion College campus.

What jumped out to me initially was how the postcard captured the structure, form, and materials of the original "Central Building" as it was constructed on the campus of Albion College around 1841. The Central Building was originally 100 by 50 feet and set atop a rise of ground called "the hill." Built of brick, it was covered in stucco to simulate the appearance of stone. Sometimes the original building was referred to as Ladies' Hall. There was a reception room, rooms for the preceptress, and well furnished rooms to accommodate 60 women students. 

After decades of service it was announced in the 1905-1907 Albion College Catalog of the intention to rebuild this first college structure. At that time a three-story, 45 by 60 foot addition was added off of the center of the east elevation. The work completely renovated the structure and along with upgrades to the original building delivered a like-new building. Within the new addition were biology laboratories, biology lecture room, work rooms, and store rooms. The building was renamed Robinson Hall in honor of George O. Robinson of Detroit who contributed the funds for the improvement of the building.

The Albion College Catalog of 1922-1923 stated "within the old walls a modern interior will be constructed providing an adequate home for the Biological Department and its laboratories." Regrettably the building was severely damaged by a fire on December 16, 1922. The Biology Department was the worst hit. Only quick action by students managed to save Dr. Chickering's prized microscope. A collection of original slides documenting nine years of work were lost. The English Department faculty also lost personal notes, photographs, and furniture. Many of the College's historical records from 1835-1922 were also likely lost during the fire. Following the fire the building was rebuilt again with an atrium rising from the basement to the upper floors. This created lounge areas for students and faculty on each floor. 

While this article could ostensibly be just about Robinson Hall, what impressed me was something on the reverse side. The senders name was "P.N. Ogden" who lived in Albion at the time that the postcard was sent in September 1908. The return address that he listed was 606 East Porter Street. This date placed the postcard some time after the first campaign to rebuild the structure between 1905-1907, though well before the disastrous fire of 1922.
Reverse side of Robinson Hall postcard from P.N. Ogden to Miss Grace Ball (ca. 1908).
The specific date that the house at 606 East Porter Street was built is as of yet unknown. The 1900 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows houses at 604 East Porter and 608 East Porter, though no house at 606. By the time of the next available Sanborn Fire Insurance Map in 1907, the house appeared for the first time. This indicates the house was built some time between 1900 and 1907. Returning to the postcard, the 1908 postmark would seem to indicate that Mr. Ogden was one of the first people to reside in the house in the years just after it was constructed. In many ways the house at 606 East Porter Street was tied up in the growth and development of the campus over time. 

Location of 606 East Porter Street in red (1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Development of the Albion College Campus
The historic core of the Albion College Campus was the Central Building (1841), flanked by the North Hall (1854) and South Hall (1870) where chapel services were held. One last later addition was the Old Gymnasium (1892) to the east of the Central Building. 

A pivotal moment in the growth of the campus was in September 1874 when the Albion Common Council vacated Ingham Street between East Cass Street and East Porter Street. This effectively led to creation of the central Quadrangle or the "Quad" as it is known today. Additional buildings followed including the Observatory on East Cass Street just west of the area of Ingham Street that was vacated. The McMillan Chemical Laboratory (1893) and the Gassette Memorial Library (1902) were both built on East Porter Street anchoring the south side of the Quadrangle and leading to its present form. We also see a shift beginning around this time in which the Quadrangle was given over exclusively to academic uses and residential areas for students were pushed outwards to areas immediately around the Quadrangle.

The campus continued to expand and grow from this historic core. Originally the core area was surrounded by buildings of residential character. Over time countless homes were lost as the campus expanded and new college buildings were put in their place. East Porter Street was particularly prone to this process of creative destruction, whereby earlier buildings were demolished and replaced by newer ones. 

Albion College Campus, 1888 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Albion College Campus, 1913 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
Albion College Campus, 1947 (Sanborn Fire Insurance Map)
The 1947 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map captured an interesting moment in the growth and development of the campus. Relatively few additions or changes had occurred between the 1910's and 1947. One notable exception was addition of the Epworth Laborary (1916) and the construction of the Stanley S. Kresge Gymnasium (1925) anchoring the western edge of the Quadrangle. The Sanborn map from 1947 showed the campus well-developed within the historical confines of the Quadrangle, and with even a little room to spare.

Following the end of World War II the student body as well as the campus grew by leaps and bounds. This required expanding out from the central core, and taking over surrounding blocks that had once been used exclusively for residential use. Students increasingly were housed in large institutional buildings specifically built for them, rather than the private residences and boarding houses that had been more common before. One after another of the older houses on streets facing the campus were taken over and demolished as this process progressed. This deliberate strategy to concentrate students in College owned housing on an ever-expanding campus had a considerable downside. Students had once been more integrated into the Albion community, and this provided opportunities for learning and exchange not afforded by being surrounding only by other students. Also, students not finding the once-friendly and comfortable associations of small town living, identified how there was "nothing to do" in Albion. This required each student to have a car of their own. All of these cars needed spaces to be parked. So this further led to an further unraveling of the rich tapestry of historic buildings surrounding the campus, and along with this increasing disassociation between city and college.

An interesting birds-eye view drawing was published on the back inside cover of James Fennimore's voluminous The Albion College Sesquicentennial History that was published in 1985. This provided a snapshot, albeit somewhat stylized, of how the campus appeared then. By this time the campus had expanded northward (which is in the lower section of the map as it is oriented). The block on East Porter Street between the railroad track and South Hannah Street had been fully cleared. The Carl A. Gerstacker International House (1971) was built at the southwest corner of East Porter Street and South Hannah Street. As the campus expanded northward, the two blocks between the Quadrangle and Susanna Wesley Hall (1926) began to be cleared and taken over by institutional uses such as the Bobbitt Visual Art Center (1966), Goodrich Chapel (1958), and the science complex between East Cass Street and Michigan Avenue. By 1985, Albion had consolidated nearly all housing on campus, including the fraternities which were relocated from their large and stately houses on East Erie Street, to several cookie-cutter buildings between East Porter Street and East Erie Street, just east of South Hannah Street. What this 1985 birds-eye drawing also showed is that the house formerly at 606 East Porter Street along with all others nearby had been ignominiously replaced by a surface parking lot.

The original academic buildings (North, Central, and South) had staying power though several subsequent building were demolished at one point or another. East Porter Street did not fare well. The McMillan Laboratory on East Porter Street was demolished to make way for Olin Hall. The nearby Gassette Memorial Library (1902) was demolished in early 1998 just months before my matriculation as a student. 

Birds-eye view of the Albion College Campus, ca. 1985. Areas demolished in red.
(The Sesquicentennial History: 1835-1985)
The story was not all loss. The Bonta Admissions Building (1996) was constructed at the corner of East Cass Street and North Hannah Street on the site of a former parking lot to give prospective students a warm and welcoming introduction to campus. The Dean Aquatic Center and adjacent athletic fields were greatly expanded too.  An extensive renovation was carried out in North Hall, upon which it was renamed Vulgamore Hall in 1997. The former South Hall, also received an extension just as the Central Building did nearly a century before, and was renamed the Kellogg Center. And the Ferguson Administration Building was built on the former site of the Gassette Memorial Library in the early 2000's. Expansions to the science complex on East Michigan Avenue also took place, along with construction of a new residence hall for students on East Erie Street.

Despite these clear signs of progressive growth and development of the campus, there were a number of notable losses as well. The Epworth Building was demolished and a labyrinth walkway put in its place. The compactness and integrity of the Quadrangle was compromised as a result, creating a hole in the well-defined northern edge. In an even more bizarre move, the Carl A. Gerstacker International House was demolished in December 2009. The removal of one of the newer buildings on campus from 1970 was quizzical. At the time College officials stated "The design was such that (the building's) usefulness today was limited. It was at a point in its life where the mechanics needed to be upgraded." When considering a pricetag of renovation from $3 million to $4 million dollars, it was decided that the more expedient solution would be to demolish the building for $128,000. Never mind the associations of several generations of Albion College students had with this building. As an aside, I spent one summer living there myself and found the building charming and exceptional at a number of levels from its landscaped courtyard, glass interior walls surrounding the courtyard, and soaring ceilings in several dorm rooms that allowed ample light in. Never did I ever think that this building would be a candidate for demolition. Indeed, it was one of the finest and most welcoming residences that I stayed at on campus.

Some college officials tried to claim that salvaging materials as part of the demolition was somehow sustainable. A truly sustainable action would have found ways to have kept the existing building in place. Many commentators nationally have already noted how the "greenest building is the one already built." Regrettably, the opportunity for a truly sustainable project was lost as a result of a poorly calculated demolition.

Some Closing Thoughts
This brings us roughly back to the point where we began - to that postcard of Robinson Hall and the newly built house where the writer of the postcard lived at 606 East Porter Street. Were Mr. Ogden to return to Albion today, he would surely be shocked by what he saw. While there are several notable additions and great evidence of progress (new dormitories, new academic buildings, etc.), the loss of so many iconic buildings (Gassette Library, McMillan Laboratory, Epworth, and too many houses to mention including his own) would be startling and disorienting. 

Not having the benefit today of being able to query Mr. Ogden of his views, I would like to close with a reflection on the impact that removal of his house as well as all other houses along East Porter Street has wrought. Had these buildings been maintained all in a row facing the campus, today they would make ideal residences for faculty, older students, and everyone with an interest in the life of the college. Instead, there is a massive surface parking lot. In addition to the loss of rich historical and cultural associations associated with each of these houses (and the many other buildings in Albion that have been demolished), the City has been deprived of tax revenue, and this whole area between the railroad tracks, East Porter Street, East Erie Street, and Hannah Street has proven difficult to develop ever since. The International House anchored one corner of the block for some time, but with nothing else to buttress it, this newer building became vulnerable.

What passes for campus planning and urban design in Albion today hardly measures up to work that was carried out over 100 years ago. When Ingham Street was closed by Council action in 1874, this allowed for growth and development of the Quadrangle as we know it today. Regrettably, vacating East Porter Street and demolition of the nearby International House has failed to result in a design or space of similar quality to the Quadrangle. At various times in its history the College has demonstrated a sensitivity to preservation of important character defining features (North Hall, Central Building, South Hall, and others). This regrettably has not extended to buildings constructed from roughly the period of the 1890's now through at least 1970 when the International House was constructed. To have nearly a whole century of Albion College buildings threatened with demolition at any given time is something to give any administrator, alumnus, or potential funder pause. For the building put up today, may be gone tomorrow. Rather than allowing this destructive cycle to continue and along with it loss of the buildings and places that carry the rich academic and cultural history of Albion, I hope that a realization will emerge that the most enlightened action would be to re-purpose the extensive historic buildings that Albion still has, incorporate meaningful notions of sustainability into the growth and development of the campus (including meaningful notions of sustainability and historic preservation), and find ways to repair the damage that has been wrought by relentless demolition that has partially erased the history that makes Albion so unique.

During the time since I graduated from Albion College just over a decade ago, the change has been nothing short of dramatic. There have definitely been many positive improvements to the college, though there is plenty of work left to do. In my career as a preservation professional I have been able to affect positive change in numerous communities throughout the U.S. by encouraging people to celebrate and protect their rich cultural and built heritage. It was in Albion, however, where my journey in historic preservation got its start. I hope that someday Albion will be adopt a far more ambitious, comprehensive, and forward-looking vision of historic preservation. If and when that day comes, I'll be first in line to help out. Meanwhile, I continue to harbor grave concern that this place that I once knew and love is one that I will never be able to return to and still see familiar places tied to my own memories. In that sense, I suppose you could say that Mr. Ogden and me have something in common.

Albion College Campus, 1998 (Google Maps)
Albion College Campus, 2005 (Google Earth) 
Albion College Campus, 2012, showing the approximate location of 606 East Porter Street in red (Google Earth)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Shared Design Legacy - The Texas and Michigan State Capitol

Michigan State Capitol,
June 1, 1999 (Photo by author).
Texas State Capitol,
May 23, 2012 (Photo by author).

Elijah E. Meyers (1832-1909), a native of Springfield, Illinois, designed numerous county courthouses, including a massive one in Carlinville, Illinois, prior to building the Michigan State Capitol between 1872-1878. Other Capitol buildings that Meyer designed include the Idaho Territorial Capitol, built between 1885 and 1886, the Colorado State Capitol, built between 1887 and 1908, and the Texas State Capitol, built between 1882-1888. We'll go about comparing the Michigan Capitol and the Texas Capitol to discern similarities and differences between these two remarkable buildings.

Location and Plan
While Lansing and Austin share many similarities - being the state capital, presence of a major research university (Michigan State University and the University of Texas respectively), and a number of related businesses, activities, and events generated by these factors - there are clear and obvious differences between the two places and the Capitol Building in each one. Lansing is less developed and with a smaller population of approximately 114,000 people in the city and 464,000 people in the metropolitan area, as opposed to Austin which has approximately 790,000 people in the city and 1.7 million people in the metropolitan area.

The Michigan State Capitol Building may be approached via East Michigan Avenue. This major thoroughfare is laid out as part of the gridiron plan of Lansing that is aligned with the four cardinal directions. Approaching the Capitol building from the east, one crosses Grand River two full city blocks before approaching the Capitol itself. Austin is laid out on a somewhat grander scale. While also organized around a gridiron plan, this is rotated approximately 22.5 degrees clockwise, to orient the city just off of due north. In Austin the Capitol is aligned facing Congress Avenue and accessible nine full city blocks north of the Colorado River.

Now that we understand the location of the two buildings, we can now shift to discussing their plan. The Michigan Capitol is 420 feet in length and 267 feet in height. Comparatively the Texas Capitol is 566 feet wide by 288 feet high. The United States Capitol building reaches to a height of 289 feet for comparative purposes. The plan of both buildings is very similar with wings radiating from a central dome that anchors the whole composition. The legislative chambers are aligned to the east and west in both buildings, while the Governor's office representing the executive branch is to the north. 
Michigan Capitol Plan, Third floor (Kathryn Bishop Eckert, Buildings of Michigan, 1993, p. 292)

Texas Capitol Plan, Ground floor (The Texas Capitol: A Self-Guided Tour)
Architectural Features
The Michigan Capitol is noted as "one of the nation's best surviving examples of civic architecture displaying the decorative painted arts of the Victorian period." The same source goes on to note that the "Woodgraining, stenciling, striping, glazing, gilding, freehand painting, and the use of metallic paints were employed to provide rich embellishment." The decoration in the Texas Capitol is somewhat restrained when compared to its Michigan counterpart. The decorative arts on display in full force in the Texas Capitol. Near the entrance to the rotunda the sculptures of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston by sculptor Elisabet Ney were unveiled on this spot on January 19, 1903.

Polychromatic painting, decorative
features, and milled wood in the
Michigan Capitol (Photo by author).
Simply painted white columns and
comparatively restrained detail
in the Texas Capitol (Photo by author).

The floor beneath the dome of the Michigan Capitol is covered in a metal grid with inset glass block. Originally the Texas Capitol had a similar feature, though this was covered over by a terrazzo floor with the Texas Great Seal surrounded by the six seals of countries whose flags have been flown over Texas at different times. This new floor was installed in 1936 to celebrate the Texas Centennial. Interestingly, the metal grid remains beneath to support the glass block floor, though it was felt unwise to touch the terrazzo floor during the most recent restoration attempt in the 1990's.

View downward of the Michigan Capitol rotunda,
with the glass block floor at ground level (Photo by author).

The legislative chambers of the Michigan and Texas Capitol provide probably the most stark differences. The Michigan House chamber is decorated in terra cotta and teal colors, whereas the Michigan Senate chamber is decorated in blue and gold. Behind the chair of the House speaker in Michigan is a plaster and paint version of the state coat of arms. In Texas the House speaker has a fragment of the flag from the decisive battle of San Jacinto behind him. Texas has a comparatively restrained color palette of many whites and off-whites. Hardly the profusion of color that Meyers prescribed in Michigan.

The ceiling of both the House and Senate chambers in Michigan has glass panels with the coat-of-arms for each state in the United State. These help to better light the room below. And while Texas tour guides relish on pointing out how the original glass ceiling panels in Texas were ill adapted to the climate and allowed heat and light to stream in, one wonders whether Meyer called for similar glass panels with the seal of each state as opposed to the plain glass panels that were originally installed?

Panorama of Texas State Senate Chamber (Photo by author).

Panorama of Texas State House Chamber (Photo by author).
At the apex of the brightly colored Michigan Capitol dome is a deep blue field painted with bright gold stars. The Texas dome by comparison is surmounted by a massive star in the center that is eight feet from point to point. This star was installed in 1958 approximately 218 feet above floor.

View upwards toward the dome in the Michigan Capitol (Photo by author).
Restoration Efforts
In 1991 the Capitol Oversight Committee of the Michigan governor and legislature undertook a full restoration of the Michigan Capitol under the direction of Architect Richard Frank. Special efforts were made to restore the richly colored High Victorian decorative interior painting to surprising effect.

The Texas Capitol underwent a similar restoration during a similar period of time. Between 1990-1995 the Texas Capitol Preservation and Extension Project returned the building to its 1888-1915 appearance and updated the safety and mechanical systems. An Extension was built to the north housing the Senate and House offices, a gift shop, cafeteria, hearing rooms, auditorium, and two levels of staff parking.

These two buildings are united in the fact they are both part of the design legacy of Elijah E. Meyers. After building the Michigan State Capitol Building, this served as a model that many other states followed. While the Texas State Capitol shed some of the ornament of its northern counterpart, its massiveness extended earlier design concepts by Meyers on an even grander scale. Both stand testament to the deeply felt importance of beauty and gracefulness in civic buildings. Few buildings like these exist anywhere else in the world. To this day countless people who pass through are indebted to Meyers and the public officials who oversaw construction and continued maintenance of these impressive structures.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why a Michigander Living in Kentucky Supports the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

Upon receiving my membership renewal confirmation from the Preservation Resource of New Orleans recently, I briefly paused and reflected on why it is important for someone like me - a guy from Michigan who lives in Texas - to support this important organization. The PRC has been on the leading edge of preservation advocacy efforts in New Orleans since its founding in 1974. To-date the organization has restored nearly 1,400 properties and touched the lives of countless thousands of people. The historical and cultural inheritance of New Orleans that the PRC protects is one of the finest concentrations of historic architecture in the United States, if not the world. Due at least in part to the French ties from its earliest settlement, New Orleans feels more European than it does American. There are so many features to extol there from the historic architecture as I've already mentioned, to distinctive neighborhoods, a vibrant and active cultural life, and a uniqueness and quality of place to challenge nearly any other place around. Period.

Interestingly, Wal Mart was one of the only stores open
where I could stock up on essentials.
What makes my connection with this place particularly strong is that I visited for the first time during one of the most challenging but also proudest moments. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina and Rita struck, I was given an opportunity to serve as an emergency relief contractor for FEMA. After arriving in early 2006, there was a one-week waiting period until my security clearance went through. Once staying at a hotel in Baton Rouge for my first night with many of those who had been displaced, I resolved rather than sitting still in one place for a week that it would be best for me to get out and see the area. That led to my visit to New Orleans for the first time. I remember approaching in the early morning hours. As I crossed the causeway heading into New Orleans the rising sun filled the sky with a beautiful hue. 

Once there I tried to get my bearings. One of my first and most urgent tasks was to find lodging that was affordable with my government stipend of about $150 a night. After a dozen attempts, I finally found something through the Degas House. It was not in the Degas House proper, but in a building several blocks that they also owned. Later I was informed that the Deputy Director of FEMA also stayed there though he was away for a few days. With my accommodations in place, this allowed me to get and out explore a little more. My journey took me far outside of town to places that had been most battered by the storm. Along the way I saw some terrible and desperate things. A ruined church all but ruined except for a cross on the front. At another spot a house had been lifted and deposited halfway on a street with the sardonic phrase "crack house" sprayed on it where the house had literally cracked in half after being lifted and moved by the storm. After travelling for a while the road actually ended and was only marked by a hastily erected sign on a plywood board. This was enough sign for me that I had gone far enough and it was time to turn around.

Once back in the city I drove all around and sought out evidence of the storm, and the floods that followed which were in some respects even more disastrous. The physical damage in areas I visited like the Ninth Ward was extreme. Buildings all over had spray paint marked on doors, likely assessing the condition of the building and whatever was found inside.

While in the city I sought out and found the headquarters of the Preservation Resource Center. It was a stunning building inside and out. I happened to be arriving just before they had planned to hold a workshop on rehabilitating storm and flood ravaged homes. As I sat through that workshop with a dozen other people or so it became apparent to me that the PRC "got it" and was providing much needed education and training at a time that it was needed most. It was also inspiring to see people coming together to do the work needed to bring New Orleans back, and to make it even strong than what it was before.

During my visit to the PRC I met a fellow Michigander Jim Turner. He was a volunteer there like me, doing structural assessments of buildings that had been targeted for demolition. We drove together through the various neighborhoods and had a discussion about the similarities we found between neighborhoods in New Orleans and neighborhoods in Detroit. Both had French origins. Detroit was founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701. New Orleans is a comparatively younger city founded in May 7, 1718, by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Both cities had parallel stories of early growth and development as Colonial outposts, becoming vibrant cities with a cultural life and activities that had the power to draw people from throughout the world, and finally in the case of Detroit over the last half-century, and New Orleans since the storm - a great challenge posed by the loss of population, physical destruction to the urban fabric, and local economies struggling to make a rebound. As we traveled from building to building throughout New Orleans distinct neighborhoods, I felt connected to a cultural tradition that was both similar and different at the same time to what I had been familiar with in Detroit. That helped me appreciate some of the universal appeal of New Orleans to people from throughout the world, but also its uniqueness and the need to protect this.

While the signs of damage were apparent, what impressed me even more was the resilience of the historic places and the local people. In the famous cemeteries the mausoleum stood strong even if the high-water mark reached high up their walls. In another spot in the French Quarter I enjoyed seeing an outdoor plaza with sculptures of jazz musicians and a cafe was fully operational. The number of restaurants and bars that had reopened and which were fully operating by the time I got there was truly something amazing to behold. Among the best meals I've ever had was Gulf Coast shrimp in the Bourbon House. Later that evening, I joined a bunch of locals at a neighborhood bar, hearing their stories of struggle, but more importantly relating. To them it did not matter that I was a newcomer, and to me I felt as if I was being invited in to one of the most inspiring stories and vibrant local cultures that I had ever witnessed or been part of.

Eventually my week in New Orleans came up and I was assigned to an area in western Louisiana. No matter how much my heart was in New Orleans and my head understood the great need that was there, off I went to western Louisiana. That area had been barely touched by the storm. As such, someone with my experience in historic preservation planning was not really needed. So after just a short time there I eventually made my way home. For a moment though I considered staying in New Orleans and getting involved in the recovery effort. Had I done that my life might have taken a very different course. Afterwards I reflected how the power New Orleans had to seduce me and make me want to stay there, even given the desperate conditions, was a powerful endorsement of the quality of this place and its people.

Throughout the recovery effort the Preservation Resource Center has been a vigorous and vocal advocate for historic preservation. Every time a demolition is proposed, the PRC is right there to challenge it. I'd argue that fewer groups locally have had a greater impact on recovery efforts than the PRC. One of the reasons why is because they were already doing great work before the storm hit. This leadership role that they played was only amplified afterwards. Seeing this sustained and active advocacy effort through the years is one of the leading reasons why I support the PRC today.

Ever since my fate filled visit, I have had nothing but admiration and appreciation for the Preservation Resource Center. Personally and professionally the PRC and New Orleans continue to exert a powerful pull. Some day I hope to visit again and celebrate the heroic work that is being done to make this great American city great once again. That is why a guy from Michigan living in Kentucky supports the Preservation Resource Center. I'd encourage others to become members too and support the work of this important organization.

Editor's Note: The title and contents of this blog post were updated on 11/30/2012 to reflect the author's recent move from Texas to Middlesboro, Kentucky.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The National Trust's New Logo - A Bold Step Forward

Among the many exciting changes happening at the National Trust for Historic Preservation was the quiet launch of a new logo last week. This coincided with the America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places announcement. Other than a launch party held in a D.C. storefront, attention paid to the new logo was relatively limited. I was smitten from the first moment I saw it and felt it important to write a few words.

The new National Trust for Historic Preservation logo.

What excited me most was what a lively and youthful image the new logo portrayed. There are three buildings and the silhouette of a landscape all set at an angle that reach towards a vanishing point. At first the shapes reminded me of people. Later I went back and saw they were meant to each represent a place. One is a Gothic tower with crenellation, the second is a tree and river set in a landscape, then there is a Neoclassical looking bank or temple, and finally a simple building with a parapet oddly reminiscent of a Spanish Mission. Then there is a small bird that is most likely an eagle just off center. The bird, clouds, and eagle all make a reference to natural resources, while the illustrations of buildings keep the logo grounded in place. Oftentimes we forget that most if not all places are situated in a natural environment - no matter how well tamed that environment may be.

What impressed me about the new logo and its use is how the circle form of the symbol can be easily matched with other graphical elements. The circle is one of the best shapes to use when designing logos for this very reason. The two images below show the symbol used with text in color and black and white, and with differing text treatments. The color version is the banner taken from the National Trust website with the NTHP title prominent. The second is black and white and used for the America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. For this second logo, the NTHP is subservient to the program title. Both have a tasteful, elegant, and refined look to them.

Symbol and text harmoniously blended together with the new NTHP logo.

A Brief History of the National Trust Logo
The National Trust for Historic Preservation received their charter from the U.S. Congress in 1949. The earliest version of the logo we could find was from the first issue of Preservation News published in 1960. Incidentally, the Preservation News archive from Cornell University Library was very helpful in identifying past logos and their approximate dates of use. An early logo from the first issue of Preservation News shows an eagle resting on the capital of a column, with garland beneath, and the text "Guarding America's Heritage." This appealed to a very patriotic sentiment the roots of which might be stretched back to the 19th century and the efforts of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association among others. 

A slightly different version of this logo was used between Feb. 1967 and Dec. 1972 when the logo ceased to appear on the masthead of Preservation News altogether. The same graphical elements remained, though they were encircled by the text in an oval shape spelling out "National Trust for Historic Preservation," and a few stars were thrown in for seemingly added patriotic effect.

Early logo for the NTHP, used between 1960 to 1966.

New NTHP logo that first appeared in Feb. 1967.

Some version of the same eagle from 1960 continued to be used through the 1990's. January 1973 brought with it a revision to the Preservation News format in which the logo was omitted from the cover altogether, and instead was consigned to page 4 of the publication in the publisher credit block. By January 1974 use of the logo in Preservation News was omitted altogether. The eagle proved to be irresistible and returned in January 1975 in the center of an elaborately festooned advertisement for National Historic Preservation Week. This was relatively short lived, and the eagle along the logo disappeared for a long while from Preservation News in favor of plain text. This shedding of representation and symbolism was oddly reminiscent of Modernist experiment in architecture, shedding away ornament and representation in favor of pure forms. 

National Historic Preservation Week advertisement from January 1975.

Fourteen years later in March 1989 a simplified version of the original eagle appeared, along with text giving the organization's name. In the Preservation News issue from July 1990 the simplified eagle logo appeared for the first time. Subsequently the simplified eagle perched on a capital was married with a text block spanning three lines. Finally, in 1997, the simplified eagle logo was semi-retired and used as a watermark behind a heavy typeface mixing serif and sans-serif elements.

Return of the eagle in a simplified logo from Preservation News in March 1989.

Simplified version of eagle and text block used from July 1990 to April 1997.

Transitional NTHP logo that first appeared in May 1997 issue of Preservation News.

In the last decade and a half there have been two primary logos used. The woodcut logo was particularly popular among members and the general public. This introduced color and also highlighted nature and historic places. Dispensed with were the eagle and patriotic appeal. What appeared instead looked like a typical downtown assemblage of buildings that could be taken from almost any historic place anywhere. The street scene and the woodcut styling surely pulled on the sentimental heartstrings in people. The aesthetics if not the line-up of buildings themselves could have been pulled straight from Colonial Williamsburg. Though this was not necessarily the fresh and lively 21st century image that the NTHP needed and wanted.

Woodcut version of NTHP logo first appeared in November 1998 issue of Preservation News.

Much like the impulse that led to shedding of the eagle logo throughout the 1970's and 1980's in Preservation News, the NTHP once again dispensed of any illustration whatsoever and went with a simple text-only logo starting around January 2008. The designer of the text only logo described it as follows:

The old logo was… designed by me. It was done while I was at Pentagram in 2007. Our brief at the time was to design a logo that took attention away from the words “National Trust” because that was the least important part of their name, as their real mission was “Historic Preservation.” We were also told that the illustration used (the woodcut/engraving of the “Main Street” buildings) was too hard to reproduce. Our solution was a wordmark that built up in weight — all Gotham, baby! (Including two custom weights) — to their focus and we got rid of the icon altogether. The latter was the most contentious part, no one was really happy that we took away the buildings but the logo answered what they had asked us to do. I do realize I never dwell this much on an old logo, but since I’m able to shed some light on the behind-the-scenes I figured it would be welcome commentary.

For an audience so attuned to architectural details and visual communication expressed through the historic built environment, the text-only logo left people wanting more. The designer of the new logo acknowledged that "no one was really happy that we took away the buildings but the logo answered what they had asked us to do."

Text only version first appeared around January 2008 and lasted until June 2012.

This latest logo from the National Trust is a revelation to me at so many levels. It is dynamic, bold, lively, and youthful. There is a wonderful aspirational quality to it with the buildings reaching towards a vanishing point in the sky. The bird in the sky is enigmatic too. Is this a return of the eagle from earlier logos that was subsequently shed off in the name of progress? In religious symbolism birds often have a spiritual significance. Should the bird be interpreted as the spirit of the preservation movement, or more weightily the spirit of the nation? One observer commented, "The cloud and bird are nice touches, indeed giving that sense of American freedom and optimism."

As the National Trust has changed through the years - relying on public funding then no public funding, launching innovative programs like Main Street, and carrying the preservation message for over six decades -  it seems there has been a new logo and visual identity to mark every step along the way. One of the most exciting goals of the National Trust at this moment in its history is to make preservation more accessible, inclusive, and relevant in the 21st century. This new logo captures this excitement and the need to expand and grow as a movement. Looking at tag lines alone - we've come a long way from "Guarding America's Heritage" as the early logo proclaimed to "Save the past. Enrich the future." The new tag line has a friendlier and more welcoming tone. It is a statement that nearly anyone can agree with upon hearing it.

Given that the average life of a National Trust logo is a little less than a decade, here is our hope that this logo and the wonderful qualities embodied in it last far longer. It might also be nice at some point to formally "launch" the logo and acknowledge some of the thoughts and motivations that led up to its adoption. Not only does the new logo represent an organization, it captures the excitement and enthusiasm of a whole movement. By that measure, this logo is perhaps the most successful the Trust has adopted to date.