Since the architect Paul Rudolph’s death, in 1997, his reputation has undergone one of the most dramatic rehabilitations imaginable, and his brutalist, sometimes off-putting buildings—once criticized as the worst of high modernism’s excesses—are now recognized as some of the most expressive American architecture of the twentieth century. They are also some of the most threatened. In 2002, in an effort to honor Rudolph’s legacy and advocate for preserving his work, friends of the architect, including Ernst Wagner, established the Paul Rudolph Foundation. But since then, seven of his buildings have been demolished, and earlier this month, in the face of mounting criticism that the foundation has not helped halt the destruction, Wagner, in poor health, announced he would resign as president. “I felt like Don Quixote,” he says, sitting in his apartment in the Rudolph-designed townhouse on East 58th Street. “But what the hell can you do? You need someone like Jackie O. to raise a huge hurrah.”
This past year has been particularly heart-wrenching for Rudolph fans: While his most famous building, the A&A building at Yale University, was rededicated this month as Paul Rudolph Hall after a $126 million restoration, both the elegantly cantilevered Micheels House in Westport, Connecticut, and his Cerrito House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, were torn down. And next year could be even worse, as at least ten more Rudolph buildings are under threat, including the Concourse Building in Singapore, the Blue Cross Blue Shield skyscraper in Boston, and his Orange County Government Center in Goshen. In Sarasota, Florida, the campaign to save Rudolph’s Riverview High School has stalled, and the Cohen House in nearby Siesta Key is now likely headed into foreclosure.
Architectural preservationists across the country recognize that saving the aging canon of mid-century modernism can be expensive, especially in the case of Rudolph, a modernist with a proclivity for experimentation. But in California, groups like the John Lautner Foundation have found success at matching modernist houses with architecturally sophisticated new owners, listing houses for sale on their Website and inviting a prominent Realtor to their advisory board. Wagner, who has been the primary source of funding for the Rudolph Foundation, does not employ a full-time director, relying instead on a constant turnover of volunteers, and the foundation’s board has not met for two years. (The architectural historian Michael Sorkin was surprised to find himself listed as a board member, and the advisory committee includes the architectural critic Peter Blake, who died two years ago.)
To Donald Luckenbill, one of the original directors, the foundation has devolved into nothing more than “a little club that Ernst had in the building.” Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, says that it is “well intentioned but not powerful enough nor sufficiently endowed to have any clout.”
Until a new director is chosen in January, Kelvin Dickinson and two other volunteer architects are at the helm. But their efforts are mainly academic—expanding Rudolph’s fan base on the Web and preparing an exhibition of his demolished buildings, scheduled to show at Cooper Union in 2010. “We need to hire someone full time,” Dickinson says. “If something like the Micheels House comes along again, we’re way unprepared for it.”