Why Are So Many Paul Rudolph Buildings Being Torn Down?

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Bonnie Alter

While out running in Sanibel Island, Florida, passing monster house after monster house, I came upon a small, lovely gem of modern architecture by the side of the road. It took about three seconds (google "small, modern, sanibel) to determine that it was the Walker Guest House by Paul Rudolph, a regular on TreeHugger. One of his first commissions, the 24' square house has lift-up panels connected to 77 pound round counterweights, giving it the nickname the "cannonball house." More to follow after I tour it on Friday, but it clearly shows all those things I love about Paul Rudolph and his Florida buildings- he understood the importance of natural ventilation, shading, working with the climate instead of throwing things at it.

Yet more than any other famous architect of the era, his buildings are either under threat or they are gone already. Why is this happening?

Another Paul Rudolph Bites the Dust: Sarasota's Riverview High School

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The most traumatic loss was Rudolph's Riverview High School in Sarasota. A "melding of Modern modularity and technology with sensitive siting, daylighting, natural ventilation, and aggressive shading against the relentless sunshine."

But after Columbine that turned every modern school into a prison, after demolition by neglect by school trustees who let maintenance lapse, and because of the inability of North Americans to consider life without air conditioning, It met its end in July, 2009.

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Preservation or Parking? Two Takes on Riverview High

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"Riverview High School is a fantastic prototype of what today we call green architecture," said the architect Charles Gwathmey, who is overseeing a renovation of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale. "He was so far ahead of his time, experimenting with sun screens and cross-ventilation. If it's torn down, I feel badly for architecture."

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Another iconic Rudolph school, John Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, NY is slated for demolition as well. More in Preservation Nation.

Paul Rudolph House Saved, Sort Of

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Sometimes Rudolph houses are just too small or different from people's tastes today; this 3900 sf house "wasn't an easy house to maintain. The flat roof leaked. It was almost impossible to find replacement parts for the quirky sink fixtures. There was no separate dining room." Life is tough without a separate dining room.

So this one was going to be moved by two New York designers.

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Paul Rudolph House Not Saved After All

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Unfortunately it was not to be.

According to the New York Times, The purchasers visited the property: Still planning to proceed, Mr. Sachs said, he and Mr. Lindores went to see the house on Monday and found it irreparably damaged. He said the kitchen cabinetry had been torn out, along with the distinctive bathroom tiles and fixtures. He also said copper flashing had been removed from the house's perimeter.

"For us this seemed insane -- how could this have happened?" Mr. Sachs said in a telephone interview. "It's not in original condition anymore."

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Off to the Dump: House by Paul Rudolph

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Sometimes big ones get knocked down just so someone can build the house they want, never mind the history or the embodied energy. Said Nepal Asatthawasi of the Paul Rudolph Foundation: ""as more and more architecturally significant modern homes reach critical points of neglect and eventual demolition, the consequences of devaluing the artifacts of our recent history will be felt by future generations."

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Documenting Destruction: Paul Rudoph Houses


It has got to the point that one can build a career documenting the destruction of Rudolph's houses. Photographer Chris Mottalini has documented the destruction of one and the deconstruction of another.

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Paul Rudolph on Chapel Street with Yale University Art & Architecture building in background, ca. 1963.

Not all of Rudolph's buildings will be lost; some have gone through significant restorations. But his houses are at risk everywhere. This is a crime, when we all know that the greenest building is the one already standing. Fix it, don't demolish it.