As America Loses Leading Architectural Historian, Coral Gables Faces Ongoing Threat

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A Tribute to Virginia McAlester   

by Brett Gillis, Vice President, Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables

Preservationists across the nation join the residents of Dallas, Texas in mourning the death of Virginia McAlester, longtime preservationist, activist, and author of A Field Guide to American Houses, which is widely regarded as the definitive text on domestic American architecture. McAlester was one of the first historians to recognize styles such as the Craftsman, the Italian Renaissance, the Minimal Traditional, and the Styled Ranch as valuable architectural resources.

It may be difficult to imagine that, just a few decades ago, architecture that was built after 1899 was generally not considered historically significant. In the 1960s and 70s, when “car was king,” entire neighborhoods were bulldozed for freeways and parking lots. Los Angeles, Dallas, Coral Gables, and so many other historic cities around the nation faced unprecedented development pressure. There was not much interest in preserving buildings that were built in the 1920s that were barely 50 years old at the time.  

But McAlester’s legacy reaches far beyond penning the “American architectural bible.” Having studied at Harvard Graduate School of Design, she, like many preservationists, had some background in history and architecture, but she did not start out with the idea of saving historic Dallas and elevating American architecture. At least not initially.

What started out as spending time with her mother on one of her passions–working on restoring old houses along Swiss Avenue and Munger Place in Dallas–turned into so much more. These hands-on experiences fostered a deep understanding of the beauty and importance of historic architecture, and McAlester went on to establish a fund to restore dilapidated homes. She helped to save and restore at least 28 historic homes in Dallas over the course of her lifetime. At one point, McAlester and her daughter parked their car in front of a wrecking ball to save a historic home on demolition day. Once home to Dallas’ glitterati, these were neighborhoods in decline by the 1960s when many of the city’s wealthier residents were moving to the suburbs. There was little interest in preserving these areas of the city when McAlester started out, but these neighborhoods are beautiful, prime locations once again today. Sadly, Dallas was not alone. 

Historic cities across the nation faced similar trends in the 1960s. In Coral Gables, the historic area of the city (areas generally north of Bird Road), also faced a period of decline. This was in an era when textbooks largely ignored the architecture of the 20th century and long before most Historic Preservation Ordinances were enacted, and it would be decades before studies such as Enhancing Paradise proved that historic preservation raises property values and stabilizes neighborhoods when compared to neighboring areas that are not historically designated. But McAlester had the drive and tenacity to see it through. Aside from restoring historic homes, she was also a founding member of Preservation Dallas. Over the years, McAlester and Preservation Dallas succeeded in having the areas that McAlester fought for so ardently in her early days officially designated as historic districts.
McAlester died on April 9 due to complications from myelofibrosis. Her passing comes at this most trying time when it will be difficult to gather to pay our respects and celebrate her legacy. And as America loses its leading architectural historian, back home, Coral Gables faces an ongoing threat. Over-development is rampant, and our historic built environment and nonrenewable historic resources are once again at risk. 

What do the Alhambra Water Tower, The Biltmore, and the Douglas Entrance have in common? They were all slated for demolition at one time or another in our recent past. Is this even fathomable today? With love for their historic neighborhoods and the joy of living in historic Coral Gables, it was the residents of Coral Gables that rose to defend these irreplaceable historic resources. Sadly, the fight to save Coral Gables from the wrecking ball is not over.

Forces are trying to degrade the integrity of our historic neighborhoods–this time not by bulldozing entire streets of historic homes, but, bit by bit, by demolishing excellent examples of Coral Gables architecture in a piecemeal fashion. How many historic structures must be demolished before Coral Gables is no longer a historic city? How many monstrosities must be built before Coral Gables is a city of concrete walls instead of fantasies cast in stucco and stone?

In 2016, the whimsical Minimal Traditional abode at 501 Aragon Avenue was designated a historic landmark against the proposition of demolishing it for a lot split. As this piece goes to press, the Art Deco Ranch located at 1208 Asturia Avenue is at risk of being demolished to build a newfangled manse. Designed in 1936 by master architect Russell Pancoast, who introduced Art Deco to Greater Miami with his design of the landmark Bass Museum, 1208 Asturia Avenue is significant not only for being designed by one of Florida’s most prominent architects, but for its pedigree as a nationally publicized, avant-garde design that had no precedent at the time.

501 Aragon

Ranch homes were predominantly built after World War II, not in the long Depression days of the 1930s when very little construction was occurring in Coral Gables, and the vast majority of ranches built after the War were generally of the unadorned, “cookie-cutter” variety that are not historically significant as individual landmarks. On the contrary, 1208 Asturia Avenue was treated with rich Art Deco elements and received national press for introducing a new architectural mode to Coral Gables. The Ranch style is a descendent of the sprawling country homes built by Spanish settlers in early California and, as such, is ideally suited for and blends most harmoniously with Spanish-styled neighborhoods in regions such as California and Florida. As such, even as an experimental, one-of-a-kind, custom design, 1208 Asturia Avenue was obviously a success as evidenced by the thousands of Ranch homes that were built in the subsequent decades. 

1208 Asturia

Russell Pancoast was considered the “Dean of Miami’s Architects” by his colleagues from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for his innovations and contributions to the world of architecture and design. His artist-architect wife Kay Pancoast memorialized Coral Gables history in a vivid mural that is still on display today at the Coral Gables Library. In it, she includes a Ranch residence and effectively depicts the architectural evolution that has occurred in Coral Gables. 

The City of Coral Gables is not the City Frozen in Time–we have a richly textured history, and the pioneer architects and planners of this city warned us decades ago not to forget our past. They also warned us to be wary of the faux Mediterranean architecture being built that is “new” but anticlimactic.
The history of Coral Gables is not strictly defined by or limited to the Old Spanish and Mediterranean architecture of the 1920s–Coral Gables has a layered historic built environment that traces the city’s ups and downs, changes, and progress. Virginia McAlester fought for the recognition of significant architecture across the ages. She proved that American architecture does not end at 1929–architects have continued to inspire and stimulate us since then with their creativity.

McAlester joins the the long list of noble women across the nation that have played instrumental roles in the preservation movement, starting with the mother-daughter team of Louisa Bird Cunningham and Ann Pamela Cunningham who fought to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon after both the U.S. Congress and Virginia General Assembly refused to purchase it at the time. In Greater Miami, local preservationists Barbara Capitman, Sheryl Gold, Sallye Jude, Dolly MacIntyre, and Arva Parks have led the march to save the early architectural fabric of Dade County, but the movement is looking for its “next gen” of passionate women and men. One generation’s successes in preservation and conservation are only as strong as the next generation’s convictions. Will the architecturally significant structures built in the Mid-Century period that will turn 100 years old in many of our lifetimes be lost to the wrecking ball or will they live on for future generations?

Historic architecture is an expression of man’s presence on Earth and a form of public art that serves as a visible “history book” for future generations, if it is preserved. As we spend more time staying closer to home in these strange times, hopefully we will come together and honor Mrs. McAlester’s legacy by taking a few extra moments to pause and appreciate the historic and irreplaceable human-built architecture that enriches our lives and our neighborhoods in so many ways. After all, historic architecture and careful planning are what make Coral Gables’ built environment so different, so special.

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