In a December episode of “The Simpsons,” Marge and Homer got some cool new neighbors from Portland, their artisanal-doughnut trailer in tow, who’d discovered a decrepit rancher to restore to its midcentury modern architectural glory.
“What a find!” declared the husband. “Underneath all the ugly renovations, this house has Neutra bones!” And, for a while at least, even Springfield was cool.
Those inclined toward the modern architecture movement’s long lines and spare aesthetic have always comprised a narrow niche. But it may be growing wider.
An exhibit that opened this weekend at the Museum of Arts and Culture seeks to tap that interest, illuminating midcentury modern architecture in Spokane and conveying a depth and breadth of work that may surprise some residents.
Neutra bones? That’s a reference to Richard Neutra, a renowned modernist who designed two homes still standing in the Northwest. One of them, built in 1951, is tucked away on the South Hill, just off 29th Avenue.
But the MAC exhibit focuses mostly work by architects living and working in Spokane from 1948 to 1973. Its curators credit them with changing the face of architecture in Spokane.
“I think a lot of people in Spokane think of Kirtland Cutter when they think about architecture in Spokane,” said Gerald Winkler, president of Integrus Architecture, a 93-employee company that grew out of a modernist firm opened by a couple of guys in an unused Davenport Hotel elevator shaft in 1953.
Cutter made his reputation over a 50-year career ending with his death in 1939. His body of work is expansive, including the Davenport Hotel, the Spokane Club and Browne’s Addition mansions.
“But Spokane has a real rich body of work that surmounts significantly the amount of work that came from that era,” Winkler said.
Prodded by and reflected in home-design magazines such as Dwell, home-furnishing shops such as Spokane’s Wojo Works (“Modern Accoutrements”), and the stylistic interpretation of midcentury America on shows such as “Mad Men,” the era’s aesthetic seems to have a renewed appeal.
You can build an 815-piece Lego model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. You can set up your children with a midcentury modern dollhouse. They can outfit the dollhouse with tiny Eames-like chairs.
“People are hip to this time period,” said Aaron Bragg, of the creative-design firm helveticka. The firm served as guest curator and designer for the exhibit.
The exhibit displays architectural photos, blueprints and sketches alongside midcentury art, lighting and furniture, including rare pieces by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
A mural designed by Harold Balazs, whose work was frequently incorporated into modern designs, serves as a backdrop. A visiting artist lecture series will include Tom Kundig, a much-lauded architect in Seattle and the son of Moritz Kundig, a modernist architect who arrived in Spokane in 1955.
While examples exist of pre-modern design earlier than 1948 – otherwise “normal” homes with floor-to-ceiling windows or low-sloped roofs, for example – the year yielded two homes on the South Hill designed by the firm of McClure & Adkison “that are pure modern, in every sense of the word,” Bragg said.
It also happened to be around ’48 when a cadre of highly trained, highly talented young architects began to arrive in Spokane over a span of eight years – men in pursuit of postwar opportunity also drawn by the ski hills, by Grand Coulee Dam, by their hometown, by the fact that they’d face less competition than in bigger cities, by relatives who talked up the region.
Three of the six are labeled “form givers” in the MAC exhibit, including McClure, who arrived after training at Harvard University under Walter Gropius, among modern architecture’s early masters. Just 16 students were admitted at a time to that master’s program, Bragg said.
The “form givers” formed partnerships, opened offices with one another and with others, and got to work.
Their homes and commercial and public buildings dot the city and region. Many of the residences are easily overlooked by passers-by, often smaller than neighboring homes and designed to blend into their surroundings – “hidden purposefully,” said Marsha Rooney, a history curator at the MAC.
The house designed by Neutra, the renowned modernist working in California, is mostly obscured by landscaping. That home, at 1618 E. Pinecrest Road, was built in 1951 for Dr. Frederick Fischer.
Many larger buildings are instantly recognizable, including Ferris High School, the federal building, Spokane International Airport and the Cheney Cowles Museum.
Church projects came with higher standards and expectations from congregations seeking something different from standard steepled houses.
St. Charles Catholic Church, 4515 N. Alberta St., was at one time the “largest unbalanced hyperbolic-paraboloid in the world,” Bragg said. “It’s the strangest thing. It’s a 3-inch-thick concrete roof that is anchored to the ground at two points. It’s supported simply because of its shape.”
In Richland, blocks from the Columbia River, there is Richland Lutheran Church, known as the “upside-down cupcake church.” It was designed by the Spokane firm of Funk, Murray and Johnson and finished in the mid-1960s. It’s something right out of “The Jetsons,” Bragg said.
One big project helped pave the way.
In 1956, Kenneth Brooks and Bruce Walker formed a partnership to design the Washington Water Power building, on East Mission Avenue, bringing together 14 locations to one campus. (The building now serves as Avista Corp.’s headquarters.) They got a lot of help on the project, Bragg said: “Just about every single architect in town has his initials on one of those drawings somewhere.”
The resulting building is a fine example of midcentury modernism, but the project also served as glue that kept the architects in Spokane, said CK Anderson, helveticka’s creative director.
It also helped launch careers that would last decades.
“It really gave credibility to what they were doing, and they learned how to leverage that,” Anderson said.
While residential business was slower, commercial and public work began to take off after the Washington Water Power building.
“That period of time was really unparalleled in the sheer volume of architecture that was produced,” Bragg said. “Just the sheer creative output from these guys – it was all over the place. We had large firms competing with each other and the firms out of town to get these great commissions on the Gonzaga campus, downtown Spokane, residences, Eastern Washington University, Whitworth, WSU, University of Washington. These guys were just cranking great stuff out.”
Their buildings won national awards. Their articles were featured in esteemed architecture journals; their homes were featured in consumer magazines.
“The output was as good as anywhere in America,” Anderson said.
While “modern” also can mean contemporary, in this case it refers to a development in architecture that flourished in the mid-1900s. Like modern music and art, modern architecture rejected guiding principles that came before it, Bragg said.
“This was following a period of almost excessive ornamentation,” he said. “It’s almost a class response, if you consider its foundations in Europe, post-World War I, and think of the trauma that continent went through.”
Eschewing embellishment, it went in search of purity, clarity and simplicity of form, emphasizing horizontal and vertical lines. Rather than hiding wooden posts and beams behind lath and plaster, it left them exposed, along with stone, metal, glass and brick. It aimed to blur the line between inside and outside, striving for structures that complement their sites rather than dominating them and turning courtyards into living spaces. Tall windows ushered in sunlight.
“In a way, it’s sort of Zen-like, with no unnecessary movements, no unnecessary notes if it were music – only what’s necessary to accomplish the program, whatever that happens to be,” Bragg said. “There’s a very simple beauty in that.”
Edna Brooks lived in the home her husband designed for their family from 1956 until about a year and a half ago, when she sold it and moved into a retirement community. Kenneth Brooks died in 1996. The Brooks House, at 723 W. Sumner Ave., is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It really was a fun house to live in – very functional, easy to live in,” Edna Brooks said. “But so much of the design of the house is really subtle. You don’t realize how perfect it is until things are pointed out to you.”
The layout of the brick floor in the dining room matched the brick in the courtyard, which matched the brick in the living room, which matched the cork floors throughout the rest of the house, she said. A storage cupboard in the kitchen extended through the home’s front outer wall, to make good use of space while providing a vertical line on the home’s exterior. A drawer in the bedroom went through the wall in the adjoining bathroom, openable from both sides, “so you’re never caught without your dainties,” Brooks said.
Striving for small footprints and low costs, modern architects incorporated innovations such as radiant floor heating, and, for cooling, designed structures to take advantage of prevailing winds.
“Modern architecture was a way of looking at these grand palaces for a select group of people – those who were well-born – and rejecting that out of hand and creating an architecture for the common man,” Bragg said.
As it’s turned out, though, modern homes are often relatively expensive, between the cost of naturally beautiful materials – good lumber has grown pricier since the ’50s – and the level of craftsmanship required to achieve all those clean lines.
“Low cost” is the tenet it’s failed to achieve, Anderson said.
A “Northwest modernism” has evolved that builds on the region’s practical needs (by pulling more daylight indoors, for example) and close relationship with nature (by emphasizing views), said Winkler, of Integrus.
But the firm remains committed to the principles of modernism, some of which remain basic, he said: simple forms, simple shapes, no dependency on ornamentation, “a strong desire for blending the interiors with exteriors.”
One recent example: a remodel of a music building at Spokane Falls Community College that’s received design honors.
“Our history is so strong,” Winkler said. “The roots that Bruce and John (McGough, his business partner) and some of the other folks in the Spokane area planted really are a major influence on our success.”