A One-Stop Shop for Modernist Homes

Fallingwater
A USModernist tour visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Fallingwater. Tours gave the USModernist brand an early boost. Courtesy of USModernist.

Sometimes you have to move fast. George Smart had won a reputation among local fans of modernism thanks to his USModernist, a website that documented modern homes in the area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in North Carolina.

That’s why one day in 2013 a realtor gave Smart a call.

He was selling a modernist house and said that in the basement there were 20 cases of architectural magazines. “Do you want them? We’re taking them to the trash in two days. Come and get them,” Smart recalls.

Today, Smart says, the USModernist website offers “just over 3 million pages” from 20th century architectural magazines.

The searchable archive is just one of many features of the website, which can occupy “a lifetime,” Smart says, if you want to absorb it all. There are podcasts with architects, architectural writers, and others; guides to architects’ careers, modern homes for sale, and lots of pictures of houses along with documentation.

  Art & Architecture
The March 1951 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine featured an article about the early Eichler homes designed by Anshen and Allen. You can find this article within seconds on the group's website, download the entire magazine, and search the text for 'Eichler.'
 

When were they built? What is the address? Do they still exist? What is special about them? “We have 8,000 modernist houses on USModernist.org and 2,400 on NCModernist.org, both mid-century and newer ones,” says Smart, who himself lives in a Durham modernist house designed by architect Vinny Petrarca.

“Our goal is to compile all the iconic houses in America, and we’re well on our way there,” Smart says. USModernist’s work depends both on paid staff and many loyal, hardworking volunteers, he says.

In addition to the website, since 2008 – the year after its founding – USModernist has run about 115 tours, both locally and far beyond, including to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Throughout, the focus is on houses, not modern office towers, schools, or other structures.

“Houses are very personal,” Smart says in explanation. “People dream about the house they want. There’s more interaction with the public to focus on houses. Houses can get easily lost and fall off the radar and become vacant. Then somebody’s likely to buy them and bulldoze them.”

Much about the growth of this enterprise, which is a nonprofit, came about more or less by chance. Smart was working as a management consultant, traveling the country, when he began the site.

George Smart
George Smart had no idea how big his mid-century modern preservation effort would grow when he started the website. Photo by Wyatt Kostygau, SRQ Magazine

“When I started I thought it was just my little hobby project,” he says. “I built the site to talk about local houses in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. But a lot of people wanted to visit them. People wanted to have a tour.” The first tour attracted close to 250 people.

For researchers, the online archive is special – especially at times, like now, when real libraries are closed. But how many people in the best of times live within a few minutes of a library stacked with Architectural Record or House Beautiful going back to decades?

Type into the search, say, 'Robert Anshen,' one of Joe Eichler’s architects. What do you get? “About 229 results (0.32 seconds).” Impressive indeed.

Smart wants even more magazines, though; his website even publishes a want list. He asks readers to contact him to donate, and notes, “We'll even pay for shipping.”

“We want every magazine from the 20th century that featured architecture, that really emphasized it,” he says. As for later magazines, “We’re not turning them away.”

  House and Homes
It's a blast going through old architectural magazines that can be accessed on the USModernist site.
 

But be aware: If you are looking for your beloved magazines to go to a good, forever home, this is not it. Smart and crew slit the spines so pages can feed into the scanner; doing otherwise would take forever.

“Nobody wants paper copies, but everybody wants to be able to access them online,” Smart says, noting that major universities and even the Smithsonian have donated publications.

Since 2015 the USModernist has been doing podcasts with architects, experts, and others, many of them recorded in Palm Springs in conjunction with Modernism Week. “We started the podcast to reach national and global audiences,” he says.

“We wanted to make the podcasts be not so serious. It's more about making MCM more accessible. We laugh, we tell jokes, we have fun with the guests. It’s a blast.”

Guests have included Dion and Raymond Neutra, Moshe Safdie, author Paul Goldberger, and the owner of the Ferris Bueller house. You remember the one? Where the Ferrari flies out the glass wall?

“We are getting 20,000 downloads a month,” Smart says.

The website is an ever-growing work in progress. There is relatively little on Northern California modernism at this point, but that will undoubtedly change. There are sections on A. Quincy Jones and Claude Oakland, other Eichler architects.

Does Smart have a favorite modernist?

“Bjarke Ingels, with a bullet,” he says, naming the visionary Dane whose many projects have included campuses for Google in Mountain View and Sunnyvale. “I think he is the Frank Lloyd Wright of his generation, and he is wildly successful on a global level.”

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