While the 1970s may not seem like that long ago, the decade officially reaches the 50-year benchmark as of 2020. This means that sites from the 1970s era are beginning to become eligible for listing in the State and National Registers of Historic Places, as one of the criteria for designation is being 50 years old. Sites of the more recent past are particularly vulnerable to demolition or alteration because of the common perception that something must be much older to be considered historic, or that certain types of architecture are at odds with current taste and, therefore, not worth preserving. In addition, sites from the more recent past, like the 1970s, are vulnerable because people are often unfamiliar with them – how can communities preserve historical places if they don’t know why these places are valuable? Similar rationale and shortsightedness led to much of New Jersey’s mid-20th century heritage to be lost already. We must choose a different path now to avoid the mistakes of the past.
It is incumbent upon the preservation community to raise the profile of our 1970s built heritage. In recognition of this need, organizations around the country including Docomomo US, New York City’s Historic Districts Council, the LA Conservancy, and now, Preservation New Jersey, have launched efforts to raise awareness of these community assets. Accordingly, Preservation New Jersey 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in NJ is drawing attention to significant examples of late modern and postmodern architecture in New Jersey from the 1970s that deserve to be preserved.
One standout is the legacy of internationally renowned architect Michael Graves. Graves, originally from Indiana, began his career as a professor at Princeton University in the 1960s. While at Princeton, he also established an architectural practice. The residences and interiors he completed in the 1970s helped to launch his long and fruitful career.
An additional legacy worth preserving include the works of architect Malcom Wells, whose designs reflect the rise in environmental concerns of the time. He started out in a traditional career, but later became an advocate of environmentally-sensitive architecture. Today, Wells is regarded as “the father of gentle architecture” with designs that would “leave the land no worse than you found it.” His seminal “underground office” in Cherry Hill (1971), which still stands today, reflects his ideals. Many of the ideas he promoted early on, such as green roofs, are now common practice.
For some sites, sadly, it is already too late. A home in Saddle River (pictured below) designed by Eleanore Pettersen, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice and one of New Jersey’s first licensed female architects, was torn down in 2007 after deteriorating for many years. Not only was it designed by a prominent architect, but it was also the house where Richard Nixon lived after he left the White House. Another of Petterson’s homes in Upper Saddle River still stands, and was recently on the market. Preservation organizations across New Jersey must make haste to begin protecting these sites and others of the same area; otherwise, more places that pay homage to an important time in the history of New Jersey and the United States will see the same end as the Saddle River home.
Beyond architecture, the 1970s was a tumultuous time in New Jersey — from Earth Day, to legalized gambling, to Bruce Springsteen, to the Mount Laurel decision. Out of this era came cultural changes that we still feel in our society today. Now is the time to begin formally identifying, documenting, and planning for the future of significant places of the 1970s. The last exhaustive statewide surveys of historical sites conducted in New Jersey were conducted in the 1970s and ‘80s. Refreshing these surveys would be a great place to begin a more strategic plan to preserve places of value in the state. Surveys of this extent would likely require additional staff and funding for the NJ Historic Preservation Office. Likely the preservation community is unable to save all historic buildings or sites, but action taken now will lead to preservation of many community assets. It is time to take steps to protect as many places as possible. Fifty years from now, we will be glad we did.
Michele Racioppi, Program & Communication Manager