Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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PA Modern: Discovering Pennsylvania’s Midcentury Architectural Legacy

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by Beth Hager

JuriedExhibit_logo_colorEloquence in word and in visual expression – this is the exciting outcome of the new juried exhibit opening at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg on Sunday, October 25:  “PA Modern:  A Photography Exhibit of Midcentury Architecture.”  Featuring 98 photographs by 44 photographers, the exhibit displays a wonderful array of some of the most iconic Modernist structures found throughout Pennsylvania.

Almost four years ago, several staff members at PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation approached me about organizing a juried photo exhibit on Midcentury Modern architecture at The State Museum.  Around the same time, former National Trust for Historic Preservation executive Jim Vaughan came to PHMC as the new executive director.  It was not long before Mr. Vaughan had made the upcoming 50th anniversary of The State Museum and Archives Complex and its preservation and recognition a top priority.  The idea of a gallery exhibit celebrating Pennsylvania’s Modernist heritage then took root and seemed a wonderful way to engage keen-eyed artists and photographers in our commemoration, challenging them to document a style that is often hidden in plain sight.

Peter Woodall Penn Fruit/Holiday Thriftway 2013 Holiday Thriftway, Philadelphia Built: 1954 Architect: George Neff

Peter Woodall
Penn Fruit/Holiday Thriftway 2013
Holiday Thriftway, Philadelphia
Built: 1954
Architect: George Neff

We reached out to camera clubs across the state, utilized social media, and promoted through Photo Review, the well-known Philadelphia-based photography newsletter, to spread the word early this year.  But would people participate?  This was a tall order for many who may not have been familiar with or enamored of the midcentury style.  During the entry period I heard from some local photographers who said, “Well, there’s just not anything around here.”  Huh?  Drive down Front Street along the Susquehanna in Harrisburg, I would reply.  Happily, others became enamored of the style in the process, and we heard from several who reported that they would never drive through a town again without noticing a midcentury building.

My interest in architecture has always involved mid-1800s to early-1900s.  When I saw the information regarding the Modern Architecture Juried Photo Exhibit, I was intrigued.  I decided almost immediately that I would search for subjects local to my hometown, and was quite surprised at the many options.  This project was a true learning experience, and opened my eyes to an often overlooked era of architecture.

Artist statement by Krysten Simmons, Dillsburg

Jeff Wiles Red Rabbit Drive In 2015 Duncannon Built: c. 1960

Jeff Wiles
Red Rabbit Drive In 2015
Duncannon
Built: c. 1960

We were fortunate to have an exhibit to display as a precursor to “PA Modern” that the Bureau for Historic Preservation co-produced with William Whitaker at the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania.  “UnCommon Modern” featured the works of Philadelphia area photojournalist Betsy Manning, who documented Midcentury Modern structures and created a very compelling collection.  When the show opened a year ago at The State Museum we organized it into an essential primer of Midcentury Modern, identifying features of the style to creatively encourage photographers to go out and find architectural gems in their own communities for our upcoming juried exhibit.

The result? We were delighted with the quantity and the stunning quality of the entries as well as the wide variety of buildings depicted when the deadline came at the end of June this past summer.  A stellar team of jurors made the selections for the show:  photographer and Midcentury specialist Betsy Manning was joined by Dennis Hockman, Editor of Preservation Magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and David Oresick, Executive Director, Pittsburgh’s Silver Eye Center for Photography.

Steve Bootay Vintage View 2015 The State Museum and Archives Complex Built: 1964 Architects: Lawrie & Green

Steve Bootay
Vintage View 2015
The State Museum and Archives Complex
Built: 1964
Architects: Lawrie & Green

In all, 52 Modernist buildings are featured in the show, which includes homes, schools, commercial structures, and religious buildings built between 1930 and 1980. Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Kahn are included in the roster of architects represented.

Two awards will be revealed at the October 25 opening:  “Best of Show” and – enticing photographers to focus on our own midcentury treasure – “Best of The State Museum and Archives Complex.”  Please join us to celebrate 50 years of our building and Pennsylvania’s Modernist marvels – the show closes February 28, 2016.

Beth Hager is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at PHMC.  She produced the “PA Modern” exhibit project with curators Amy Hammond and Carol Buck at The State Museum with assistance from the Bureau of Historic Preservation.

Paul Bench Miesian Corner 2015 Richard King Mellon Hall of Science, Pittsburgh Built: 1968 Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Paul Bench
Miesian Corner 2015
Richard King Mellon Hall of Science, Pittsburgh
Built: 1968
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Modern architecture in Pennsylvania represents, for me, a time of boundless optimism. These images display a sophistication of design, engineering, and architecture that was without precedence, or without equal since. To photograph modern architecture in Pittsburgh, the forge of the nation’s steel and glass, is to witness the apotheosis of organic iron ore, sand, and coal into a transcendental built world.

Artist statement by Paul Bench, Ligonier

Laura Kicey Wallingford I 2014 Wallingford Built: 1958 Architect: Irwin Stein

Laura Kicey
Wallingford I 2014
Wallingford
Built: 1958
Architect: Irwin Stein

 

Ben Leech Coca-Cola Bottling Plant 2015 Lancaster

Ben Leech
Coca-Cola Bottling Plant 2015
Lancaster

 

Andrew Hoff NHS Office 2015 Harrisburg

Andrew Hoff
NHS Office 2015
Harrisburg

Jacqueline Young Reflections of Peace 2015 Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park Built: 1959 Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

Jacqueline Young
Reflections of Peace 2015
Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park
Built: 1959
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright

 

Bryson Leidich Museum 3 2015 The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg Built: 1964 Architects: Lawrie & Green

Bryson Leidich
Museum 3 2015
The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg
Built: 1964
Architects: Lawrie & Green

Author: Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office occassionally asks our partners to share their news, successes, challenges, and perspectives on historic preservation matters in Pennsylvania.

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