Looking sharp: Preservation group catalogs the area’s midcentury modern architecture

The former Levy’s department store on the Downtown Mall is just one example of the city’s midcentury modern design. PC: Courtesy Preservation Piedmont The former Levy’s department store on the Downtown Mall is just one example of the city’s midcentury modern design. PC: Courtesy Preservation Piedmont

Have you ever spotted the peacocks on the Downtown Mall? Once you know where to look, you can’t miss them. They’re staring down from tiles near the second-floor windows above Snooky’s Pawn Shop, their teal tail feathers splayed in semicircles.

The storefront once belonged to Levy’s department store, which is why the façade is clad in showy pink marble and boasts the flashy peacock tiles. It’s a departure from many of its neighbors downtown, and also an example of Charlottesville’s distinctive collection of midcentury modern design.

Many other midcentury modern gems are similarly hidden in plain sight. Richard Guy Wilson, a longtime UVA architecture professor and board member of Preservation Piedmont, is leading the preservation group’s new effort to identify and protect some of these structures.

“I’m not saying we have to save every damn one, I’m just trying to get people to look a bit at what the environment is out there,” Wilson says.

The midcentury modern period lasted from the end of World War II to the late ’60s. Many buildings constructed during that time have recently celebrated their 50th birthdays, meaning they’ve hit the age threshold required for listing on state and national registers of historic places. Hallmarks of midcentury modern style include sleek lines and contrast between geometric and organic shapes. Illinois’ crisp Farnsworth House is one famous example, as is the original Dulles Airport terminal, with its bowed roof and angled glass.

Wilson and Preservation Piedmont are in the process of compiling a list of notable midcentury modern buildings the Charlottes­ville area. Some of the structures on their list are immediately notable for their distinctive architectural style, such as the Zion Union Baptist Church on Preston Avenue. The building is a head-turner, with its acute A-frame roof, three-sided glass front, and built-in metal cross differentiating it from any other church in town. It looks like a spaceship touched down across from Washington Park.

Zion Union Baptist Church PC: Courtesy Preservation Piedmont

Architecture aside, many of the town’s midcentury buildings are worthy of preservation for social and cultural reasons. Jackson Burley School, which features on Preservation Piedmont’s list, was added to the National Register of Historic Places earlier this month. Burley was the city’s Black high school from its construction in 1951 to desegregation in 1967. The school served Black students at a time when some of Charlottesville’s white public schools shut their doors rather than integrate.

But Wilson says Burley’s design is notable too, especially the front. “The facade of that is what people like me call stripped classicism, or abstract classicism,” he says.

A close look at the building reveals that the vertical concrete pillars protruding on each side of the front entrance quote the columned fronts of more traditional buildings. “You can see that there’s a classic element there in the design, they just cleaned it up,” Wilson says. “You don’t have all the fuss that you get with buildings that were built a century earlier.”

Other buildings that might not stand out to the layman are, upon further inspection, significant for their midcentury modern characteristics, claims Wilson. The current home of Fifth Season Gardening on Preston Avenue was originally a Buick dealership. “One of the things that makes it interesting is that front of the building there, the way it’s out into the street, and has that sort of a curve on it. And then underneath it’s totally open, so you have this way you see into the building,” says the retired professor. “From an architectural point of view, [it’s] a little more interesting than the way car dealerships are today, out on 29 North.”

Does an unusual front make a building worthy of preservation? That’s a more complicated question.

Wilson has lived in Charlottesville since the ’70s, and has seen a town transform into a city during that time. He says preservationists must walk a “fine line” between maintaining the town’s history and allowing for the new development required to accommodate a growing population. He also says he’s “a little appalled” at the “tall, anonymous structures” going up on West Main Street.

“It just sort of really began to hit me that all this rebuilding that’s going on—shouldn’t we pay attention to some of the other stuff that’s around, and not tear it down?”

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