The unexpected modernist: A conversation with Susan Holland of Historic Albany Foundation

Susan Holland (photo Don Rittner)

As director of Historic Albany Foundation for the past seven years, SUSAN HOLLAND is Albany’s most prominent and outspoken advocate for historic preservation.  She brings 20 years of experience to the post, and serves on numerous committees dedicated to preservation including for the New York State Council on the Arts’ Architecture, Design and Planning Grants Panel from 2007 to 2010. While history, architecture and design are the primary focus of Historic Albany Foundation’s advocacy work, the mission also encompasses other disciplines such as education, land use and planning, law and public policy, heritage tourism, arts and culture.  And it even pays attention to modernism now and then.  On Saturday October 6, the Foundation is co-sponsoring an event with ModernHome-NY dedicated to the life and work of the late Albany architect Henry Blatner (1911-1978).

MH-NY: Around the country there’s a growing effort to preserve architecture of the modern or mid-century era. Yet here in the Capital Region, it seems enough of a struggle just to keep ahead of the wrecking balls that are aimed at older and more traditional buildings. What’s your take on the balance of “modern” verses “historic” in our region?

Empire State Plaza, Albany

Empire State Plaza, Albany

SH: The building stock here in the Capital Region is mostly “historic,” at least in the core inner cities. In Albany, census figures show us that about 70% of the housing units were built before 1930.  People may gasp that the Director of Historic Albany is saying this yet Albany has two of the premier mid-century modern structures —the Empire State Plaza, designed by Wallace Harrison in the 1960’s and the University at Albany’s uptown campus, designed by Edward Durell Stone also in the 1960’s.  And there are some modern houses, designed in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but not very many.  When we want to plan tours of modern buildings it’s a challenge. Our next venture is coming up on Saturday October 6, as Historic Albany participates in,’s annual Tour Day, which is a national event. And thank you to ModernHome-NY for co-sponsoring that.

MH-NY: Historic Albany Foundation was born almost 40 years ago after the construction of the Empire State Plaza, the highway system and other urban renewal efforts that obliterated some landmarks, even some entire neighborhoods. Is there now a role for the Foundation in preserving architecture of that same modernist era?

SH: The Plaza project demolished about 1500 buildings, circa early 1800’s to the 1900’s, and displaced about 7,000 people. Those numbers are staggering, if you think about it. I don’t think we have to worry now about the Plaza coming down, nor do we have to worry about U-Albany.  We do have to worry about inappropriate additions to the campus, although I know that Stone’s son, Hicks Stone, who’s an architect in his own right, is advising on some projects there.

Preservation of modern houses, on the other hand, is a field that’s wide open. California and Florida seem to be ahead of that game. Material that builders used in 1950’s and 1960’s were durable but finding today’s contractors that know how to repair them, that’s a trick. Plus there’s this thinking that it should be “modernized” to 21st century standards, sort of bypassing preservation all together. By way of example, my house is a 1920’s bungalow and the last owner renovated with 1980’s materials. I hated the kitchen when I bought it 11 years ago, and still do. And I imagine when I sell it, granite countertops and dark cherry wood cabinets will be next, or whatever the popular fix is at the time. 

MH-NY: Do you have a priority list of endangered modern or mid-century structures in the region?

Yes! I am so glad you asked that question. For starters, the 1963 Trailways Station at the corner of Hudson Avenue and Broadway [pictured above] in the Downtown Historic District is very threatened. The New York State Convention Center Authority owns it now and wants to take it down, regardless if the convention center gets built or not. It does have an abundance of asbestos, as many mid-century buildings might, but that can be abated. It reminds me of the Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK Airport, in New York City, albeit on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately, right now, Downtown Albany has many vacant buildings so before it’s torn down, we should look at why people aren’t renting and owning. I know people and organizations are working on it. I think the issue is much bigger than what is perceived as an “unused building.” 

Historic Albany publishes its Endangered Historic Resources list every 5 years:  but there’s nothing modern on there yet. I suspect there will be in 2015.

MH-NY: Is the revival of interest in mid-century styles taking hold among homeowners in the Capital Region?

SH:  Only slowly. I can say that the younger generation, in their 20s and 30s, seem to be embracing “mid-century” objects now and that will lead to the interest in mid-century modern structures later. I also have noticed that Architectural Digest is showing a lot of those houses and so, the Capital Region will catch up to that, eventually. Also, as the older generation moves out of them, there will be a demand from younger folks. I can think of a few houses in Albany that will be in that situation in a few years. Also, if you look at the styling of say, IKEA, it’s all about mid-century modern.

Some inventory at Historic Albany’s Parts Warehouse (photo: Jamie Kendell Thompson)

MH-NY: What’s your favorite personal antique or heirloom from mid-century Americana?

SH:  There’s an aqua oven in our Parts Warehouse right now — or maybe we sold it — that’s stellar!  I also am now the proud owner of a blue-green ceramic lamp from the 1960’s that was salvaged from a building slated for demolition.  If only I had kept the items my mother had back then…





One thought on “The unexpected modernist: A conversation with Susan Holland of Historic Albany Foundation

  1. Since moving to Saratoga Springs from Chicago in ’08 I’ve been keenly missing my MCM world… today I was absolutely despondent – until I found the above article! I sincerely hope we will soon enjoy a growing, educated appreciation in the Capital district for what is indeed a classic American form of architecture.

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