We are in a time of massive awareness of the limits of the resources of our planet. Coincidentally, it’s also a time when post-WWII architecture is becoming old enough to be considered valuable from a historic sense. We believe the intersection of these historical perspectives presents a compelling opportunity for the future of architecture.
It’s been said that more buildings have been built since the end of WWII than in the whole of human history before. With all of this building stock (some good, some bad–as with any period) we have the opportunity to take a critical look at what we have, and consider how to preserve, restore, renovate, rehabilitate, scavenge for parts, or any combination of the former. Not all of these buildings are great–far from it. But the opportunity is there to make new architecture from existing buildings and materials.
A case in point is the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, located in Grand Island, Nebraska. Designed in the early 1960s by Edward Durrell Stone, a prolific starchitect who specialized in the monumental New Formalism movement, the Stuhr Museum is quintessential “object architecture.” A perfectly symmetrical square building centered on a round island in a circular man-made lake, the building shouts “look at me,” and has a striking personality. It’s from a time when that is what we expected from our architects. Look at Johnson’s Glass House, Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center and Gateway Arch, Kahn’s Salk Institute, Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, or Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The Stuhr stands tall among these other giants, and is now–as is its designer Edward Durell Stone–gaining a renewed recognition for its contribution to a time, a place, and a movement. Not every building from the past 70 years is a midcentury modern masterpiece, but many have something to offer.
I first became involved with the Stuhr rehabilitation project 10 years ago, when appreciation for midcentury architecture was just beginning. The directive for rehabilitation of the museum was both simple and complex: fit an updated and much more extensive program into a square building which already lacked space, without expanding the footprint. We could not build out, up or down. The building components were virtually original from the day it opened, unusual for a building 4 decades old. However, this was the very reason for the catastrophic problems facing the building–those original systems and materials were failing.
The scope of the work grew exponentially as we discovered the condition of…everything. The challenge became how to renovate the building to address modern code and program requirements, preserve as much original material and structure as possible, all while preserving and restoring the site to the architect’s original design intent.
Second Floor Gallery
Although the Stuhr Museum project can be generally described as a rehabilitation, the solutions we implemented to bring back this iconic building entailed aspects of preservation, restoration, renovation, adaptive reuse and even new construction. Not only were we successful in achieving the goals of the program, we were able to complete items originally designed by Stone that were lost to value-engineering during the original build–to take the building back in order to move forward. The Stuhr Museum was an instant landmark in Grand Island at the time of its opening in 1967; now it is relevant again as a member of Grand Island society and culture.
My career has been enriched by analyzing and dissecting the parts and then making this object whole again. I believe Stone would not be too upset with us if he could see it now.
The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer is a recipient of a Docomomo US 2017 Modernism in America Citation of Merit Award.
Huge thanks to the team members who helped pull this together, including our consultants Alvine Engineering, Voss Engineering, Olsson Associates, BAF Consulting and Sampson Construction. The BVH team included Dan Worth, AIA, Jim Smith, AIA, Ryan Watson, AIA, Steve Clymer, AIA, Kaitlin Frankforter, and Meganne Tedman. A big thank you goes to Joe Black, Pam Price and Kari Stofer, and all of the friends I made at the Stuhr Museum.