Exploring Modern Architecture in New Jersey: A Student’s Perspective
a guest post written by Alyson Goldman
Alyson is a junior majoring in Art History at Rutgers University. She is researching Modern architecture in NJ. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One day last semester I innocently opened up my email. I found a message from a professor asking me if I would be interested in helping her friend, also a professor, research Modern architecture in New Jersey. Modern architecture in New Jersey?
Since gleefully accepting to help continue this project, I have started to see beauty in Modern architecture and a new kind beauty in New Jersey, two subjects many people dismiss as industrial and ugly. Discovering and exploring New Jersey’s wealth of Modern architecture has given me a new appreciation for an architectural style that continues to struggle to assert itself as “worthy of preservation.”
My task was to add to a previously compiled list of Modern architecture in New Jersey. How to find this architecture and start this project became a considerable problem, as for starters, I wasn’t even sure how to define a Modern building. What if something looked Modern but wasn’t? Or vice versa? Worried about making mistakes and wasting time, I emailed my advisor in a panic to find out what definition of “modern” I should be working with. She directed me to the DOCOMOMO website.
DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State is the local chapter of an organization with both national and international counterparts. DOCOMOMO, which stands for “documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern movement,” is the premiere advocate for the Modern built environment worldwide.
So how does DOCOMOMO define Modern? A Modern building must have been built from the 1920’s to 1970’s. It must not have any historicizing elements, meaning that it can’t make overt references to previous architectural styles, such as Gothic or Greek Revival. This means the buildings are forward-looking, creating their own new architectural style. These futuristic buildings tend to emphasize functional, technical, and spatial properties with much less focus on decoration than previous styles. Lastly, the Modern building is modern on purpose, following these rules knowingly.
Armed with a definition, I decided to start exploring New Jersey by county. I chose Bergen County as a starting point, because I’m from there and thought it would be interesting to find buildings I’d likely passed before without thinking about them. My first day of research I found an amazingly helpful book by T. Robins Brown and Schuyler Warmflash called The Architecture of Bergen County, New Jersey: The Colonial Period to the Twentieth Century. In this book, a chapter on Modern architecture gave me my first ideas for my own Bergen County list. I soon came up with a 31-building list.
I started by verifying addresses, since photographing and researching were also part of my tasks. Again, T. Robins Brown came to my rescue. I met with her in Hackensack at the Bergen County Parks and Recreation Department, where I was able to read architecture surveys for each town in Bergen County. Luckily, these surveys contained the street addresses of the buildings, as well as a lot of other helpful information.
After this preliminary research (which I plan to continue), I was eager to photograph. After learning about a work of art in an art history class (I’m an Art History major), nothing is better than going to a museum and understanding what you’re looking at. The same holds true for buildings: understanding and photographing a building after learning a little about it, and after journeying to each spot (often getting lost in the twisting back roads of Bergen County!), was even more exciting than I expected it to be. In total, I have photographed 16 buildings so far.
One of my favorite buildings to visit was the Muscarelle Center at Farleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck Campus. Finding the building over winter break on campus was interesting. The admissions office was suspicious and gave terrible directions. The
students visiting the campus probably thought I was a really excited freshman, or a little bizarre, but it was worth it. The building was designed by architect J. Robert Hillier around 1970. This architect won design awards for some of his other buildings on the FDU campus.
Another of my favorites is a Modern house on Larch Avenue in Teaneck. This was built in 1938-1940 by an unknown architect. It really stands out from the other houses on the road, which are all very similar in style. The whiteness and utilitarian design showcases geometric windows as ornaments and is accented by multiple balconies.
I look forward to sharing more research and pictures as I continue this project! If there’s Modern architecture in New Jersey that you know of, please contact me (see email above)- your input will be extremely helpful!