George Smart on Why Documentation Is Such a Powerful Preservation Tool
George Smart is an unlikely preservationist, almost an accidental one. The founder and executive director of USModernist, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and documentation of modern houses, Smart worked for 30 years as a management consultant. “I was doing strategic planning and organization training,” he says. “My wife refers to this whole other project as a 16-year seizure.” Recently I spoke with Smart about his two websites, the podcast, the house tours his organization conducts, and why documentation is such a power preservation tool.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
GS: George Smart
Your two websites, NCModernist and USModernist, have an interesting origin story.
I grew up as a son of an architect, but I was completely uninterested in architecture.
Probably because you saw how hard it was.
Yes, but it just never resonated with me. Then one dark and stormy night in January 2007, I was Googling modernist houses in the area, because I was thinking about building one. I’d always liked them, but I was never deeply into them.
People often have a fetish about these houses.
Right. So I got online and saw these great houses that I’d never seen before, which struck me as weird, because I grew up in Raleigh. It wasn’t that big a town when I was growing up. So, I thought, why don’t I know these houses? About three hours later, I realized, in a crush of repressed architectural memory, that my dad had taken me to these houses when I was a kid. Suddenly all of this stuff started coming back in my head. I thought, this is interesting, I’ll make a list of the houses and drive around and see if I can find them.
How big was the list?
It was like 10 houses. My dad, who had passed away by then, had a bunch of architect friends in their ’70s and ’80s who I called, and they said, “There’s hundreds of these houses. If you come over and drive me around, I’ll show you where they are.” So I became the king of driving around 80-year-old architects in my Mini Cooper, roaming the streets of Raleigh, taking photos out the window. That list grew to about a hundred.
There was a story attached to virtually every house, no doubt.
Absolutely. I started learning the names of essentially every architect in town who did a modern house. There weren’t that many relative to the huge population of Wake County. We have about 5,000 modernist houses here in North Carolina, but that’s roughly one fourth of 1% of the housing stock. At this point, I had this big list and somebody said, “You should put that on the web.” I thought it would be a site, just for me. Then everybody found it, and once they found it, they wanted tours. So in August 2008, I did my first tour. Two-hundred-fifty people showed up, and that was now about 150 tours ago. Since then, we’ve done innumerable tours in North Carolina. We’ve taken people to New York, Chicago, L.A., Palm Springs, Fallingwater, Columbus, Indiana, plus all over Europe and the UAE.
Your database now is much bigger than just North Carolina.
We went from a local site to a statewide site, NCModernist, and now the USModernist site has thousands of houses by every major architect of the 20th century and some of the 21st century.
What’s your goal with that?
In looking at that initial set of 10 houses, a number of them have been destroyed. It was just tragic that these livable works of art were gone. I started reading the news accounts about the houses, and typically what happens is that the preservationists don’t get active until the bulldozers are practically at the door.
That’s the story of a lot of preservation, not just modernist houses. They get involved late.
So I thought: How about a different strategy? By documenting these houses, we can catch them at the real point of difference, which is when they go vacant. Because that’s when you have all kinds of choices about what to do. By documenting them, we have lost just one major house in 10 years in North Carolina.
That you’ve been tracking.
I think we have every major modernist house accounted for here. And by having them on the web, people can research it by address, former owner, when it was mentioned in the news, maybe their grandfather or grandmother that lived there. Most people that live in the suburbs or in smaller cities, grew up near some weird house down the street. That was really intriguing and almost always a modernist house. But they rarely knew anything about it. Now, owners, realtors, the media, everybody can go in, find out about the history of the house, the architect who designed it, and that gives it more of a cachet, and that greatly increases the chances of its surviving.
Isn’t one of your strategies to try and find interested buyers? There’s a market for these houses. People just have to know where they are.
Most listing services in the country are not particularly revealing about the architecture involved. You might find it randomly searching through, but on our site, you can get right to an area. In North Carolina, we have a GIS now that maps all the houses that we track. You can go down to the level of a city, block, neighborhood, and see all the modernist houses that are there by all the architects. We track somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 houses nationally. That’s every Wright, every Neutra, every Soriano, every Meier, every Ellwood. And now because we have a wealth of information, we’re able to capture all the unsung heroes of modernism. Those architects, men and women, who were not as famous as Neutra, but still did maybe three or four remarkable houses in their entire career.
How do you make that assessment?
It’s not that much of a judgment call most of the time. A house is either modernist or it’s not. A house that’s done by an architect in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is going to look similar to one done by Richard Neutra in L.A. They have a lot of commonalities. What’s wonderful about this is, once we can establish a history of one of these unsung architects, then other people go: “I think he did the house for my mom in Asheville.” Then, before you know it, you’ve found the entire portfolio of the architect’s residential projects.
You must get a lot of 3:00 a.m. emails from people that are going through the archives and finding their childhood homes.
People who find the site and do a deep dive into it, love this stuff. They’re researching where they grew up, an architect that they’ve loved or a community, and once they hit our magazine archive and they really go crazy.
I’m fascinated by that, as a former magazine editor. Talk about the design magazine archive.
The magazine library is about 4.1 million pages, roughly 8,000 issues of every major architecture magazine in the U.S., plus all of the AIA publications that we can get a hold of, at the national, regional, and state level.
That’s an amazing resource for historians, students.
Most of the notes that I get are from mere mortals, non-architects, who are into this stuff. Maybe they own a modern house and have Googled our site and discovered that it was in a magazine in 1949 and are thrilled. We’re adding at least a thousand pages a day.
When somebody shows up in a truck with 30 years of an obscure journal, that isn’t hard to catalog?
No, because what we do is we cut the spines off so that we can sheet feed them, and that goes very fast. You can do a whole magazine in a minute and a half sometimes.
That used to be a laborious job.
Right. Libraries won’t hit the third rail of taking the magazine apart. They felt that was heretical. But once we crossed that boundary, we were able to do it and get it to scale. These magazines, themselves, are not rare. It’s not like we’re destroying a rare item. They’re in libraries, everywhere, so one less copy is not going to hurt.
You’re establishing digital posterity, which might be more important than the actual object.
And for the first time we’re making these texts searchable.
Who is your archive for?
We have so many different constituencies. But the one that I love the most is the person that lives in a modern home, or who maybe lived in one as a child, moved out of that house when they were 8, and wants to find out more about it. That happens a lot. They don’t know if the house is still there or if someone’s torn it down. Putting together people’s personal histories through where they lived is so meaningful.
The tours are a huge part of your efforts.
From the outset, there was such pressure to put them on, and once we became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2009, that very quickly became our revenue model for the organization. The tours fund all of our research, archiving, staff, documentation, preservation efforts, podcast, everything.
How many do you do?
Before the pandemic we would do about maybe six to seven a year. This year we’ll probably do four. During the pandemic we did these little things called trickle tours. In a normal house tour, we might have 250 people through in a day. In a trickle tour, we take people through four at a time. We did that during most of the pandemic and did about 20 of those.
What are the logistics of that? Is there some wrangling involved to get some of these houses open to your tours?
People are very generous and gracious with providing their houses. In turn, we make it easy on the owners to do so. For instance, we do a tour called ModaPalooza here twice a year. We have 150 people on three buses, and we take them to eight new houses in the area over the course of a day. By scheduling these things tightly together, a homeowner only has to be around for about two hours. And it makes it nice on the neighbors because just three buses show up as opposed to 75 cars.
What about a city like Los Angeles that has a whole collection of notable houses?
For our out-of-town trips, we take between 25 and 35 people. Now we’ve started a series of new events called Moon Over Modernism. It’s a party on Saturday night and tour on Sunday. So we did a party at the Sheats Goldstein house from The Big Lebowski. Then the next day we did a tour at a much smaller house, the famous Stahl House up in the hills.
The one that cantilevers over the hill. Who owns that house now?
The Stahl family still owns it.
Is there a time cutoff for the tours and documentation? Are they all older houses?
We regard modernism as a style, not a time period. So you can have midcentury modern and contemporary modern, and while there are some differences, there are a lot more commonalities. We define modernism as basically four things: a flat or low-pitched roof; an unusual geometry; an above- average number and size of windows, openings, courtyards, and connections to nature; and an open floor plan. Which doesn’t sound so unique these days because every house is an open floor plan. But back in the day, it was like the Bitcoin of architecture.
Featured image: Stahl House, West Hollywood, CA., designed by Pierre Konig, via Wikipedia Commons.