If you have been into a grand and decorous period piece of major architecture -- theater, church, state house, library -- chances are that EverGreene Architectural Arts has had their hands on some part of the building. They are the country’s largest and most prestigious architectural restoration firm, and they have hundreds of skilled artisans on staff: plaster specialists, mural restorers, experts in ceramics, material scientists and so on. While their portfolio is still largely historical buildings from august architectural eras, the newest wave of buildings to receive their scientific care are modernist buildings. Last time we spoke with Toland Grinnell, Director of Project Management, he and his team has just completed a meticulous restoration of Philip Johnson's Glass House. Here he fills us in on what 'modern' means for EverGreene and for the practice of restoration.
BW: We're starting to see more modernist architecture come up for restoration and preservation. When you say “modern” what does that encompass for EvergGrene?
TG: Modern for us starts after the 1940’s, so Eames Era architecture if that loosely describes it. Generally the way we view architecture is that classical forms really give way to modern forms stripped down to true grid-based modernism and where materialism is taking the place of ornamentalism. That transition takes place in the 40’s and is really codified particularly in America in the 1950’s. That’s where we’re seeing more and more restoration activity.
A number of the buildings from the 1950s and 1960s have been “restored” in the past and are now coming up again for renovation, restoration or preservation. In the 70s, 80s, and early 90’s restoration of these buildings was contracted to architecture and preservation firms that might fall into the “good, better, and best” categories, but it wasn’t really until the late 90’s that the science of building restoration became very meaningful and well established. Now we do a tremendous amount of material analysis.
These buildings that were “restored” earlier were likely restored without that analysis in place. Buildings age; buildings change; the people who own and occupy the building need to reconfigure, modernize, upgrade, etc. and a lot of notable pieces of architecture are under the knife. But now they’re getting the scientific part of the process built into them.
Crucially, now when you delve into some of these buildings, you find the remnants of a previous restoration, but there will be no documentation for it. Sometimes the work is intelligent, or it looks good -- sometimes it isn’t -- but there’s nothing in the architectural record about it, so you can’t understand it.
Today when we do the work, there’s a very big administrative documentation component, for the reason that if you change something or use a specific material, it can be referenced later. If in 10 or 15 years the building starts deteriorating or if there is some kind of incongruous action happening between different types of materials, that project team will be able to go back to the records and know for example “how this was powder coated” or “what is this wall constructed of” or “how was this masonry cleaned and sealed?”
I find that exciting because the science will continue further because you have that documentation in place now.
BW: It’s like an architectural ledger.
TG: Exactly. That’s a clean way to say it.
BW: What are some of the biggest, unexpected challenges you have when dealing with modernist buildings?
TG: The incorporation of hazardous materials into the finishes a big thing. Modern architecture came online at the same time as industrial food -- TV dinners and all sorts of “miracle” foods. In parallel, construction in that era was filled with “miracle” or “wonder” materials, like for example a wall that doesn’t burn. That was an incredible concept, but the consequences are that it’s filled with asbestos. It may not have burned - but it's carcinogenic! Extracting, replacing, covering or encapsulating hazardous materials in an appropriate way is a major challenge.
Another challenge is that in modernism, the materials themselves are part of the design language of the architecture, but those materials may be truly degraded over time.
If you’ve ever looked at a raw metal or a raw plywood Donald Judd sculpture, it must have been so sexy and sharp in 1975, but when you see it with the patina of age, the sex appeal of that raw industrial material changes because it acquires a patina which was never part of Judd’s language; it adds a veneer of age and history that he was actively trying to get rid of from his lexicon.
Modern architecture suffers from that same thing from some perspectives. You look at something and it’s not sharp anymore, or the metal is pitted and it’s not going to be “unpitted” without replacing it. And you don’t want to replace it! It’s part of the historic fabric of the building.
BW: Tell us more about these materials. What are the main ones found in modern buildings that need EverGreene’s preservation intelligence and techniques?
TG: First and foremost, concrete and glass are the big jump outs -- glass conservation is a whole separate thing which I could talk about for 20 years! Then architectural metals. And then honed stone… Not glossed finished stone, but where the stone is flat but has a matte finish. After that you have plywood -- not as in veneering, but the plywood that was turned into a real building system in the late 30’s.
Since plywood wasn’t codified into industry standards in the late 1950’s, there were only regional standards. Down South a typical house would be framed or a 4 story building would be framed using a typical type of dimensional lumber and in the Northeast it would all be a half or a whole inch different because the material had been sourced locally and had different conventions.
Those are big ones: concrete, glass, metal, honed stone surfaces and plywood. I think the most unifying feature that makes them modern is that the material is meant to be the ornament, and the material is meant to be as “non-bourgeois” as possible, i.e. to be viewed as in its “raw” and its “natural” state.
If you looked at a stone a marble staircase from the 1930’s, the edges, the nosing on the stairs would be rounded in a specific way. It might even have an undercut with a small bede under it or something to make it catch light differently. It might be highly polished so that the stone becomes more lustrous and more translucent. But if that same exact staircase were designed in 1950 or 1960, it would be as sharp as possible, and the stone would be as matte as possible, because the stone is not trying to be dressed up - it's trying to stand alone.
BW: What else has EvergGreene had to do to adapt to modernist restorations?
TG: For one, we acquired Conservation Solutions last year, one of America’s leading architecture and art conservation and preservation companies. CSI does a tremendous amount of work on masonry buildings and exterior surfaces: concrete forms, plaster forms and specialized acoustic materials.
But more broadly, since modern architecture is material-based as opposed to being lyrical or ornamental, it means that the things we have to pay attention to are subtler. What is the material supposed to look like, because it may only have the simplest form?
When you look at something like concrete or stone there can be a mass of variations in finish and appearance. And being sensitive to all those variations is really where the game-- “the artistic game” -- gets played.
Visualize two rooms. One of them is an Eero Saarinen room, and the other designed by the Herter Brothers: a 1966 room and an 1886 room. They could not be more different. The Herter Brothers is so much easier to look at even though you’re going to be bombarded lines and colors, sensations and textures. In some ways it’s easier to understand what everything should look like. You look at the Eero Saarinen room, and it may be gorgeous and sexy, but the devil is in the details. And trying to make that room look correct is going to be about lots of shades of grey.
BW: Does that mean you’ve had to find new artisan talent that knows this stuff?
TG: It requires key people to make sure that we're paying attention to the right things, pointing people to the same “North Star.” We do keep hundreds of craftspeople as full time employees. They do it because they love to use their hands and because they are sensitive. They might have all the skills, but now they have to think differently. Pointing people towards the right North Star is always a challenge.
Part of our company’s purpose statement includes a line about educating and passing along knowledge from one generation to the next. There is a custodian-like vision within EvergGreene. We’re in it for the money, right? Let’s not make a mistake, we’re contractors. But there is a layer of investment at an emotional level in the country’s history of built environment. I think people here feel like they owe it to the architecture, like we owe the building the best job. The current owner might be transient, but the building is permanent!
I think people here feel like they owe it to the architecture, like we owe the building the best job. The current owner might be transient, but the building is permanent!
BW: Not to get catty here but are there particular architects from that era whose buildings are particularly tricky? Or were not as careful as they should have been?
TG: Gosh, they are all tricky!
I am convinced that architects during this era would discover a texture or a finish and say, “That’s great, let’s use that!” and they would put it on every ceiling or wall or whatever, but then the texture was never repeated again. They bought all hundred cans, put it all on the walls, and that was it! It can be very challenging to reproduce the subtleties of the original architecture. I’m thinking about the ceilings at the UN - super hard! There’s some crazy popcorn finish, and trying to make the popcorn the right size... It’s not impossible it’s just outrageously complicated.
BW: Are there modernist buildings you want to get your hands on?
TG: Ah, my dream projects. With IM Pei passing away, he’s going to go to the top of my list now. I just read the most amazing obit, a must-read. He was able to merge Modernism with Classicism and he did it with bold, sharp form but still keeping the subtle sentimentality of proportions of Classical. I think it would just be magical to work on an IM Pei building now.