George Smart for more than a decade devoted himself to archiving records of the midcentury movement. “We started documenting just a couple towns in North Carolina where I am based, in Raleigh-Durham and Chapel Hill,” he says. Soon NCModernist turned into USModernist, a website that now hosts a record of about 7,000 midcentury modern homes around the nation. Smart himself gives talks on modern architecture across the country and just led a tour from Berlin to Zurich looking at the built environment of Europe. He jumped, of course, at the chance to speak at the Center for Architecture Sarasota about the importance of preserving modern homes in a community where houses designed by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell dot the streets. 

Why were you attracted to this line of work?    Although my father was an architect, I didn’t share his love of design at all. I didn’t want to be a designer. But I am an organizer by nature, so when I started looking for modernist houses in my own area, I jotted a few things and that turned into a website, which turned into some tours, and the whole thing turned into a nonprofit organization. And now we’re known throughout the world for the depth of our archives on the subject.

How important do you view the Sarasota School of Architecture in the history of modernism?    It’s important to clarify that it’s not really so much a school. That makes it sound like a place people went to study this. It’s a Sarasota style of architecture, which is to build lovely vacation homes designed to be by the water, that needed minimum or no air conditioning at all, and would be comfortable year-round, and would stand up to the elements. Now these houses exist all over Florida, but they’ve become a style for Sarasota because there were so many of them. There were four or five architects in that region that were very prolific, the best known of course being Paul Rudolph. He went on to international fame. But Carl Abbott is still around. You had Bill Rupp. You had Ralph Twitchell, who was Rudolph’s partner, and of course now Guy Peterson continues that tradition of making amazing modernist houses in the Sarasota area. These houses in Sarasota and elsewhere are really works of art you can live in, but the history has been lost over time. Current owners—and often the Realtors working with the homes—don’t understand the value of the house they’re selling. We’ve seen many homes get tragically remodeled or even bulldozed. I wanted people to understand that the documentation is so important. It doesn’t have to be academic. It doesn’t have to be difficult. Neighborhoods can document houses just down the street, and that’s a great start. 

What is the greatest sin you see when these homes get renovated?  There’s something I call Priscilla Presley syndrome. She took a perfectly wonderful John Lautner house in Los Angeles and remodeled it into this monster villa, which has no modernism left. That’s a tragedy. If people want a villa, they should buy a villa because there are plenty of those around. And there’s nothing wrong with Spanish or Italianate villa, but to ruin a modern house in the process is a shame.

What can people do to help archive modern homes?     The internet makes all of this possible. If you are driving down your street and you see a modernist house, you can jot down the address, go online into your county records and find out the history of the house, when it was built. You can go onto various newspaper archives to see if there was coverage of the house over the years. Through that you may be able to find out who the architect was or who the builder was—who the original owners were that lived there. People who grew up in modernist houses love to talk about them, so some of my primary sources are often the families of the original clients. And if you see from our website, we are not giving in-depth documentation on a house. 

Why’s it important to get this information now?    It’s harder and harder to get over time. If a classic Paul Rudolph house gets renovated beyond recognition and then is sold to a new owner who doesn’t know it was a Paul Rudolph, it’s hard to follow the bread crumbs back down that trail. Fortunately, Rudolph was one who was fairly well documented. We knew what projects he did, we just didn’t know where they all were and what happened to them. There are only three or four Rudolph houses where we didn’t know what happened to them. Now that’s down to two. Maybe you could put out an APB on that. We started 11 years ago, and that definitely was the right time to start. Many of the architects we’ve documented have now died. This whole generation is in their late 80s or early 90s, so if we don’t get it now, it becomes harder to get later. We try not to bother the owners, but owners, when they want to sell, usually will reach out to us.  

Is there a growing appreciation of historic value of this architecture?     Well, modernism died out in the early ‘70s, and didn’t really start to come back until the late ‘90s. Since then, there’s been an explosion in interest in midcentury modern that shows no sign of slowing down. It’s not going to last forever, of course, but by keeping the public eye on midcentury modern houses that are in danger or on the market, we can fight the number one enemy of modernism, which is vacancy. When a house becomes vacant, it becomes endangered. So the time for people to get involved is not when bulldozers are at the door. If we wait until the house is going to be bulldozed, that’s too late. 11th-hour rescues don’t work. 


NCModernist Houses and USModernist are part of a North Carolina 501C3 educational nonprofit archive committed to documenting, preserving, and promoting residential Modernist architecture. Founded in 2007, it initially covered the Triangle area of North Carolina. By 2013, the name changed to NCMH to reflect statewide coverage. NCMH has won 12 local, state, and national awards for leadership in historic preservation, reviving interest in the state’s legacy of great architecture. In 2015, it expanded again to USModernist, covering the major 20th century Modernist architects and publications. The work raises awareness and connects people with their passion for preservation and their future dream homes, and preserves the legacy of exceptional works of design for future generations.