Reexamining the 50-Year Rule

01/22/2019 3:00 PM | ACRAsphere Blog Team

This post is authored by Elaine Robinson, Senior Architectural Historian with Commonwealth Heritage Group in Dexter, Michigan.

When I entered the world of Cultural Resource Management as an architectural historian, the fifty-year guideline (I refuse to call it a rule) was at about 1945. The guideline is part of the standards used to determine which cultural resources are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Also considered are the four Criteria for Evaluation (association with events, persons, architecture, or likely to yield important information about the past) and the seven aspects of integrity (location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association). Looking back, I realize how convenient that was for historians. For the most part, the industry was still using the end of World War II as the cut-off for survey and documentation. Style guides and architectural books all covered the entire gamut of defined styles (the issue of vernacular forms is an entirely different issue…best saved for another time) that we were required to review. These resource books include names of every tiny feature, from acanthus to water table.

However, as time passes, and the date of construction for resources to be surveyed extends into the late 1960s, the reliable style guides are less likely to cover relevant styles, or even provide names for features that have to be described by the historian. Some of the style guides do offer vague discussions of architectural styles after 1945, but these are often lumped into a single category of “contemporary” or include resources that may not fit into individual State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)’s standards for a time period. And, even if style guides do include information you could use, getting the SHPO to recognize some of the terms can be more challenging than can be addressed in a single post. Consider the “wounded dove” roof form as mentioned in the 2013 A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester.

Some training sessions on the styles of buildings of the mid-twentieth century do exist, such as the National Preservation Institute seminar “The Recent Past: Strategies for Evaluation.” Unfortunately, this seminar is not offered often and can be cost prohibitive. This can lead to making up terms for architectural features, like my personal one of “fixed hopper” to reference windows in mid-century buildings that are placed at an angle that echoes an open hopper window. Or having to use full paragraphs to describe an individually important feature.

"Fixed Hopper" windows extend across the front of the 1950 Crystal Motors, 5901 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, New York (photo by Samuel H. Gottscho).

It seems like it is time for another style guide. One that covers architectural features that dominated the twentieth century, from curtain walls to prow roof lines and beyond. As historians who are documenting twentieth-century buildings, please tell us about your experiences, the names you have used for architectural details, or resource materials that would benefit others!


  • 01/22/2019 5:48 PM | Meta Bunse
    This is a great topic and I'm looking forward to hearing about other experiences. One example of a term we're using is "Minimal Ranch." We co
    apply this to small, compact, but otherwise Ranch Style houses. These buildings are not a "transitional" style as they did not lead to anything. Instead, they are small homes designed to fit narrow lots, they do not fit the stylistic category of Minimal Traditional," and they were generally built during the same time period as the classic Ranch.
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  • 01/23/2019 11:27 AM | George Kramer
    Some years ago, probably in mid-1990s, Jeanne Lambin, who then worked for the Trust, managed a session at a NTHP National Conference on this very issue, dealing with the problem with teh "Contemporary" box for all the range of things that happened after WWII. I was honored to be one of the co-presenters.

    We showed slides of what today would mostly be called MCM buildings from around the nation and asked a room full of HP folk to "attribute" a style to them and then discussed (and voted, as I recall) for the best answers. There were all sorts of responses, some serious, some silly. My particular favorite, for a modest-ish government building in, as I recall, North Carolina, was "Low-Bid Modern." We had staff from the NRHP there, and lots of SHPOs, but I think the problem was beyond anyone's willingness or ability to solve.

    I am not a huge stickler when it comes to style nomenclature. I think the diversity of architecture, culture, and communication after WWII may conspire to require something akin to a dendritic scale of adjectives that are decipherable and consistent, but not particularly meaningful for anything other than database entry.
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    • 01/23/2019 3:29 PM | Elaine Robinson
      Oh my gosh - I attended that session at the Trust conference! It was, as I recall, a great session, but the project was never seemed to go anywhere from there. It seems the way that most SHPOs are going now is to just get their check box checked for inventories- but that is problematic between states. Perhaps this is our moment to retake up the task of coming up with uniform descriptions for our MCM (and later) resources.
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      • 01/23/2019 5:19 PM | George Kramer
        I think you are right, on all scores. It was a fun session (we had to move to a larger room, I think), there was a lot of interest and then nothing, and finally, maybe this is the moment to try again!
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  • 01/23/2019 4:46 PM | Ernest Everett Blevins
    In the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017 the threshold for monuments in 40 years not 50. But then you think about it some it makes sense, there are some Civil Rights monuments that with a 50-year rule would be vulnerable to removal. The proposed West Virginia Monuments and Memorial Act of 2019 (soon to be introduced) includes this "Alabama Clause" of 40 years in the draft.
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  • 01/24/2019 2:26 PM | Jana Shafagoj
    Would it be feasible to use the terms used by the architects/builders at the time of construction? As we move into the era of building codes and permits as well as mass commercialization, it seems we could more easily find the terms used for the building components within construction documents and/or material ads. As for style names, that may be more difficult. Seems like developers / realtors apply the term “colonial” to every new house with a porch!
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  • 01/24/2019 9:04 PM | Janet Sheridan
    Nice to see a topic here on architectural resources. I think details are one thing, and style is another, and we do need updated reference books. But why would you separate out vernacular forms for another discussion, when most resources that we survey are vernacular? Consider this book: Thomas Hubka, Houses Without Names (2013), which proposes a new way of classifying houses of all periods that recognizes "underlying patterns of organization that could provide a basis for meaningful interpretation." It's a great analysis of the problem of naming or assigning style to houses. Hubka does not deal with the matters of feature terminology, but promotes a naming system that rests upon floor plan classification for all housing.
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