- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

Modern architecture was supposed to be nostalgia-proof. The glass-and-steel boxes erected in the decades after World War II were monuments to a movement based on eradicating the past.

But now these onetime harbingers of the new are regarded as historic, arousing the same protective urges long reserved for Colonials and Victorians.

The latest crusade among preservationists is rescuing architecture less than 50 years old from the wrecker’s ball. Fueling their cause is the razing — planned or threatened — of iconic buildings from the 1950s and ‘60s amid development pressures and public indifference.

That has led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to add the “architecture of the recent past” to its annual lists of “America’s most endangered historic places.” Last year, the trust named 2 Columbus Circle in New York as one of the most threatened, igniting a firestorm of controversy.

Opened in 1964 as an art museum, the 10-story building was designed by Kennedy Center architect Edward Durrell Stone and now stands vacant. Plans to revamp the quirky modern icon into a new museum sparked impassioned national debate over the stewardship of postwar architecture.

Now the battle to save our modern heritage has reached Montgomery County.

Local preservationists are fighting to save the 1969 Comsat Laboratories building just off Interstate 270 in Clarksburg from being bulldozed to make way for mixed-use development. The owner of the property, LCOR Inc., a Bethesda developer, wants to clear the site to build about 1,500 housing units and 1 million square feet of offices around a light-rail line or a bus route.

To prevent the demolition of Comsat, the county’s historic preservation commission, armed with documentation prepared by two scholars at the University of Maryland, has proposed that the modern building be designated as part of the county’s master plan for historic preservation.

On Thursday, the Montgomery County Planning Board is scheduled to decide whether the 36-year-old building is worthy of such landmark protection. The board’s recommendations are then passed to the Montgomery County Council and county executive for review and approval.

At stake is one of the Washington area’s most inventive Space Age designs.

The sprawling suburban building of aluminum-paneled walls and airplane-style windows was created by Cesar Pelli, the award-winning architect responsible for the newest terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Mr. Pelli undertook the project in 1967 while working as design director of the Los Angeles-based firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall before starting his own practice in New Haven, Conn.

The building originally housed offices and laboratories for the Communications Satellite Corp., known as Comsat, which was established by Congress in 1962 to foster research into global communication technologies. In 1965, Comsat’s first satellite, Early Bird, was launched from Cape Canaveral to facilitate international telephone and television transmissions.

A recent visit to the futuristic headquarters, now leased by Lockheed Martin Corp. until 2007, reveals the ingenuity of Mr. Pelli’s architecture. Its once-gleaming aluminum facades have tarnished, but the building still exudes a confident high-tech spirit. On the side facing I-270, blocks of offices and labs, many of them now vacant, are pleasantly arranged around grassy courtyards and connected by glass-enclosed catwalks with views to both courtyards and traffic. Steel stair railings and balconies in the stair halls recall the nautical designs of ocean liners.

At the rear, warehouselike rooms, now used to store office furniture, were used as labs to test the satellites. Some of the early prototypes are displayed in the building and in a glassy, round exhibit pavilion near the entrance. A ride up the freight elevator reveals satellite dishes still anchored to the roof.

Later additions, including a skylit cafeteria built in the 1980s, neatly fit into Mr. Pelli’s flexible floor plan of wings extending from a central two-story corridor.

Like other notable suburban corporate headquarters of the 1960s, Comsat is positioned within a landscape as carefully designed as the architecture. It rests on a grassy knoll that’s surrounded by trees to frame the view from I-270. The intentional contrast between the machinelike architecture and the pastoral setting remains striking.

Preservationists would like to see the original core of the 1969 building retained, along with 33.47 acres of the site, to preserve the view from the highway. That would still leave room for new development on about 120 acres, according to a staff member of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

“This is an extremely rare example of a building designed by someone considered a modern master,” says Gwen Marcus Wright, historic preservation supervisor of the county’s planning department. “We don’t have anything quite like this in Montgomery County. If folks think of the I-270 corridor as our main street, Comsat is like the landmark building on our main street.”

Though architecturally remarkable, Mr. Pelli’s modern creation isn’t an easy building to love. There is nothing conventionally “historic” or quaint about its blocky lab wings and tough metal skin.

“It’s a white elephant,” says LCOR Vice President Mike Smith in explaining his reasons for tearing down the building. “It has antiquated office space, cavernous bays, big corridors for moving satellites down them. It was built for a very specific purpose. I can’t think of an institution today that would want it.”

As to renovating the building for a new tenant, Mr. Smith says, “It would be prohibitively expensive to modernize this building and achieve any rate of return on your investment.”

But other modern “white elephants” have been successfully recycled. In New Haven, Ikea has turned a 1969 tire company headquarters, designed by German-born Marcel Breuer, the architect of New York’s Whitney Museum, into a store. The first major office structure constructed in Los Angeles after World War II, the 1947 General Petroleum Building, has been converted into apartments.

Sadly, such creative renovations seem to be the exception. Far too often, modern architecture is wrongly dismissed as ugly and expendable, just as Victorian and art deco buildings once were. But it shouldn’t be devalued based on current popular taste.

Exemplary modern buildings such as Comsat are worth saving because they represent a vital period in our history. They tell the story of American optimism and innovation after World War II, just as Colonial architecture testifies to the birth of our nation. By “landmarking” postwar suburban buildings along with older urban structures, preservationists are awakening the public to a much richer representation of our heritage.

Comsat deserves landmark protection not only to preserve its masterful architecture, but also to commemorate its contributions to advancing communications throughout the world. Revitalizing this modern pioneer with a new use — or as a frontispiece to new development — could create a suburban landmark more potent than another subdivision of tract houses and office parks.

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