Another One Bites the Dust: I.M.Pei’s Early Work Emerges From Its Own Rubble

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Courtesy the Atlanta Preservation Center.
Courtesy the Atlanta Preservation Center.

At the end of February this year, I.M.Pei’s first building, The Gulf Oil Building, became merely a pile of rubble shining in the light of the full moon. Now an emptied lot, one could only peek behind the fabric, stretched taughtly across a chain link fence, to catch a glimpse of its remains.

Christian Siriano on view at SCAD FASH in Atlanta through October 9

Historic buildings do not always look like Greco-Roman temples, Tuscan country homes or the high-ceilinged brick spaces leftover from industry. Perhaps it’s time the tradition-loving South begins to acknowledge Modernism as part of our Architectural History. This recent destruction of Atlanta’s own I.M.Pei building on Ponce De Leon Avenue and Juniper Street perhaps marks a pivotal moment in Atlanta’s shifting attitude about preservation. The Gulf Oil Building (built in 1949, according to Pei) may have disappeared, but developers intend to resuscitate the building as a matter of marketing their new multi-million dollar live-work project.

Let’s be clear. It may not be for the love of art or architecture, but it seems to make good business sense for Sereo Group and Faison Enterprises Inc., to highlight that the first building I.M.Pei ever built—with his longtime partner Harry Cobb—once stood on their property. Interestingly, they will go through the trouble of bringing the original façade back to life both as a landmark and a distinguishing factor for their large-scale development.

Not produced with the sensitivities of designer architects, the renderings are like so many mainstream beige-and-brick projects of this ilk, with one exception: Squeezed up against the 285-unit apartment mid-rise is the façade of Pei’s building with a pool on top. . .It’s a rather honest mash-up.

As an architectural citizen-observer, I watched this humble and yet significant building lay in wake for years, next to the big empty space where another great Modern beauty died at 615 Peachtree Street in 2006. I expected the inevitable. So finding the old Pei building in a pile of rubble at the end of February only confirmed my expectations. Therefore, I am surprised and pleased to report that some trace of its existence will live on, regardless of how bizarre its journey.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

I quickly spoke with Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam of the firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, and bldgs architects Brian Bell and David Yocum, asking them to weigh in on these issues.

Karen Tauches: Are you all fans of I.M.Pei’s work and do you think the Gulf Oil Building was aesthetically and historically significant enough to preserve in the traditional sense?

Merrill Elam: Yes, significantly—the curtain wall was emerging at the time that this building was built, and this curtain wall was quite delicate and refined. Also, it was I.M. Pei’s and Harry Cobb’s first building together.

Brian Bell: The Gulf Oil Building is quite modest, tepid and delicate. This is not a tough one. He’s better known for big, solid, concrete buildings—so this makes the [Gulf Oil Building] interesting.

David Yocum: It was a building very characteristic of its time. So in that way it is actually not that significant. However, it’s an exceptional example of the style. Buildings like this reflect a suburban, not urban attitude. You can see this in the pseudo-monumental stairs and landscaping. (I wonder if Pei would shed a tear. . .was this building valuable to him in his career?)

KT: So, if a Beau Arts building had been destroyed, do you think we’d be having this conversation?

ME: Everything is erasable in Atlanta, it seems.

Photography: K. Tauches and Stephen Fenton
Photography: K. Tauches and Stephen Fenton

B&Y: Would we be having this conversation if we were talking about the early work of Frank Lloyd Wright?

KT: Modern Buildings—as well as Contemporary buildings—are such a hard sell in the South. What is the psychology behind Atlanta’s fear of Modern Architecture? Do you think we’re making progress integrating new and old styles in the South? What are your hopes?

ME: What we’ve learned from the Georgia Trust is that modernist buildings are coming into their territory. Also Docomomo is beginning to preserve modernist buildings. There is hope.

Mack Scogin: We live in a contemporary world that has an appreciation for the new and the old. If there’s hope, it’s associated with the future, not the past. Obsession with nostalgia only slows the inevitable.

KT: According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Business Chronicle, and the Midtown Patch the Sereo Group and Faison Enterprises Inc. intend to preserve a third of the demolished Pei building!  “We had a crew out at the site for three plus weeks removing the marble panels as required by the city,” said Kris Fetter, Faison’s manager for the project. “The panels are in storage and the facade will be reconstructed off site.” What do you think of this? Do you trust these big developers to replicate Pei respectfully? This sort of preservation idea has a lot of potential.

MS: If you hired the greatest painter alive today to replicate the Mona Lisa, what would you have? It’s not a matter of trust; it’s a matter of knowing.

B&Y: Trust may not be the issue. The hope is that the new hybrid building will act like urbanism somehow. Will it integrate and react with the city or ignore it? Pushing back, even in a brass or clever way is a form of respecting the past.

KT: Pei is still living and several of his children are practicing architects. When the real estate is worth $6.5 million, is it unreasonable to think they might hire a smaller architecture firm or individual to handle the details of preserving and displaying this Pei artifact?

Photography: K. Tauches and Stephen Fenton
Photography: K. Tauches and Stephen Fenton

MS: Yes. Hire Pei and his sons. It is unreasonable to recommend someone else.

KT: Do you think this will be like putting the old columns out in front of the equitable building as public plop art? Is such a treatment of a historical building acceptable?

MS: We all have trinkets.

ME: Sounds like it would be more than that. Something is better than nothing.

B&Y: Perhaps we should call it a re-enactment, a re-preservation of the building…

KT: What might other options look like?

ME: Rigorous and exacting reconstruction if they do it at all. Anything less will trivialize the original.

MS: Ask Mr. Pei.

This interview is reproduced in pages 139-140 of the Modern Atlanta (MA) 2013 publication.


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