Rescuing Architectural Heritage From the Brink

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Monday's New York Times had a small story with big implications, on the last-minute rescue of the archives of Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center. The Michigan State Office of Historical Preservation had to send a truck the same day to beat the shredder. It's only the last chapter of the decline of a great architectural practice after the founder's death. (Link courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Yamasaki, eager to please clients, signed off on what in retrospect were some appalling compromises. Budget limits helped turn the St. Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing complex into an object lesson in social disorganization, and then there was the lack of fire suppression in the U.S. Military Personnel Records Center, also in St. Louis. Mariana Mogilevich writes in Next American City Magazine that it

housed 38 million individual service records and 4,000 employees. When it was completed in 1956, the six-story concrete and aluminum behemoth was one of the twenty largest buildings in the world. Less than twenty years later, in July 1973, a fire tore through the building, burning out of control for more than two days. It was the weekend of the official end of the draft, and the news was all bombs and impeachment. Over the previous two years, the Records Center had reported a dozen small fires, all started intentionally. This one, set shortly after midnight on July 12, appeared to be another case of arson. No one died in the blaze, set when only 50 employees were on duty, but sixteen to eighteen million military personnel files, many of them irreplaceable, were lost. Today, the Personnel Records Center informs those seeking information that, as a result of the fire, it cannot provide access to 80 percent of army files on personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960, as well as 75 percent of air force personnel discharged between 1947 and 1964. Information about hundreds of thousands of veterans vanished from the face of the earth. The building survived.

So there was an element of poetic justice in the near-destruction of the architect's own documents. But it's surely unfair to think only of a creator's mistakes. Some of Yamasaki's buildings have become icons, like Princeton's Robertson Hall, where the program in arts and cultural policy studies with which I'm affiliated has its offices.

Minoru Yamasaki's papers may or may not have new information on many stories: Asian American history, corporate and academic patronage of design, urban planning, terrorism, professional ethics.

The important thing, and a lesson to other organizations and states, is that they can now be studied in the context of a freshly appreciated movement, Michigan Modernism. Congratulations to all concerned.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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