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what is it?

“Recent past” is a term that has been used for the past thirty years to describe architectural resources less than fifty years old. It is sometimes used more broadly to define resources that originated post-World War II, in the modern era. This era is characterized as a time of tremendous technological, architectural, and engineering innovation and social change. Resulting architectural resources were unique and often remarkably different from their predecessors. In addition to new architectural styles, during this era suburban sprawl and urban renewal projects markedly changed our built environment and surrounding landscape.

In general, resources less than fifty years old are less appreciated by the public, often face significant threats, and are not considered historic, making their preservation more challenging than older resources. As Julie H. Ernstein, Anthea M. Hartig, and Luis G. Hoyos said in their piece on the recent past for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Forum Journal, “too much of the recent past lies captured in recent memory…this closeness makes decisions to preserve modern post-war places complicated if not downright perplexing.” As a part of recent memory, both good and bad, it is much harder to make a case to the public for the preservation of resources from the recent past. It is more accepted to advocate for the preservation of resources from the distant past, which people do not feel as personal a connection with. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, said, “I think we are not particularly inclined to value things created in our own time—we remember the world without them, and we don’t easily believe that these buildings can possibly possess the depth and resonance of ‘true’ history… As much as we may like to think of these buildings as new, they really do represent history by now, whether we like it or not.” Resources from the recent past will not have the chance to become “true history” unless actions are taken now to assure their preservation.

One major designation for American resources of architectural and historical significance is the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Resources more than fifty years old meet the first criteria of eligibility for the National Register but resources less than fifty years old are rarely listed on the National Register because they must be proved to be exceptionally significant. The Register is maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior and in addition to documenting significant historic places, the Register also qualifies resources for certain preservation benefits and incentives. Because recent past resources do not qualify under the “fifty-year rule,” they are often mistakenly considered ineligible for the National Register altogether or unworthy of historic preservation efforts.

Whether they are seen as significant or not, resources from the recent past are all around us. Some architectural styles associated with the recent past include A-Frame, Brutalism, Billboard Architecture/ Logo Building/ Signature Architecture, Builders Economic House/ Economical Small House and Minimal Traditional, Exaggerated Modern/ Googie, Expressionism, Formalism/ Neo-Formalism/ New Formalism, International Style, Prefabricated, Ranch House, Split-level, Sputnik Modern/ Space-Age, Visual Front/ Open Front, Closed Front, and Recessed Open Front. Resources from the recent past vary in condition and utility, but regardless of their style or form, their value to the architectural record should be considered before modification or demolition because of the role that they have played in our architectural landscape and history.

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