restricted access Establishing a Historic Context for Modern Landscape Architecture
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Establishing a Historic Context for Modern Landscape Architecture

During the past decade, the value of Modern landscape architecture increasingly has been recognized by both historic preservation professionals, designers, and a wider audience. Efforts to document historic designed landscapes have come after the loss of many significant works of Modernist landscape architecture (such as Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park in Denver) and from current threats (including the potential demolition of M. Paul Friedberg's Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis). Before other significant projects are lost, it is important to document, record, and designate Modern landscapes, as well as raise public awareness about their significance.

Modern landscapes—from entire states to single sites—are being documented today using a range of different media and approaches that include surveys, historic designations, and HALS documentation standards. While these same tools can be used to document significant work from any period in American landscape history, it is only in the past decade that they have been more broadly used to capture work from the Modern era.


Surveys play an important role in documenting important landscape design and planning at neighborhood, city, region, or state scale. Historic context statements and resource surveys record the location, distribution, and significance of historic resources and provide the valuable historic context necessary to evaluate important projects. Survey teams in the 1960s and 1970s canvassed neighborhoods to identify important works of architecture; only in the last decade has the focus of survey initiatives shifted from individual buildings to include significant landscapes. This shift signifies a new understanding that landscapes have equal value to architectural resources, indicating that the field of historic preservation is becoming more inclusive. It is a particularly important shift at this time, with many Modernist designs now reaching 50 years of age and qualified for designation, while simultaneously their preservation is threatened by poor maintenance and lack of awareness and the perception that they are obsolete.

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The Miller Garden in Columbus, Ind., was developed between 1953 and 1957 as a unified design through the close teamwork of landscape architect Daniel Kiley, architects Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche, interior designer Alexander Girard, and clients Irwin and Xenia Miller. In 2000, the Miller property became the first National Historic Landmark listed for a still-living landscape architect.

City and state governments, nonprofits, and community groups are working in earnest to document vulnerable or threatened Modernist resources. The West Coast leads this effort, with California as home base for many of the nation's most influential Modernist designers who led the nation's recovery from World War II. The California State Historic Preservation Office has awarded preservation planning grants to eight Certified Local Governments to conduct surveys of Modern buildings and landscapes in their communities. Other efforts include work by a group of dedicated city staff and consultants in Eugene, Ore., to prepare one of the first surveys of Modern-era resources in 2003; detailed surveys of Modernist residential architecture and landscape architecture in New Canaan, Conn.; an initiative by the San Francisco Planning Department to update historic district records to include important public spaces and landscape design contexts; and surveys in numerous cities including Columbus, Ind., St. Louis, Mo., and Washington, D.C., as well as statewide surveys in Hawaii and Maryland.


These survey efforts generate an awareness of the resources that exist within a community, but identification doesn't necessarily lead to preservation. In these situations, designation is the key. Local and state designations often come with significant protection for a particular site, while the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark programs, coordinated

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Heritage Park Plaza in Fort Worth, Tex., is one of the first Modernist landscapes listed in the National Register exclusively with significance in Landscape Architecture.

through state historic preservation offices, are the national standard. Significant landscapes are still rarely designated, with fewer than 2,600 properties (out of 88,200 on the National Register) listed for their significance in...