Awe-inspiring Ohio Modern architecture in our own backyard
Defining a relatively new city can be a challenge — its significant characteristics, invisible under the cloak of young buildings, tend to go unnoticed by those living, working and passing through. Returning home to the Dayton area after many years of living on the East Coast, a fresh set of eyes has led me to discover the beauty of this area, particularly the City of Kettering. Over the past several months, I have listened to residents stumble in their descriptions of Kettering’s character, with responses veering towards the residential nature of the city, the lack of a central corridor (a downtown), and the scattered “hubs,” including the Fraze, Kroger, Town & Country and the parks.
Kettering happened quickly and efficiently. Driven by Dayton’s dramatic population surge during and following World War II, when military and industrial manufacturing was booming, and returning veterans and migrating workers flocked to the city, Kettering flourished, and was officially incorporated as a city in 1955. The attributes of the mid-20th century fed into the fabric of Kettering: the creation of new interstates and roadways, the prevalent automobile industry and the home-owning nuclear family. The aesthetics and use of new materials, popular design elements, and creation of a suburban environment reflect the pattern of the built environment of the post-war era.
These characteristics have not gone unrecognized. In 2010, the Ohio Historic Preservation Office of the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) published a survey on Greater Dayton’s architecture from 1940 through 1970, otherwise known as Ohio Modern. The survey and associated report were completed by Nathalie Wright and Kathy Mast Kane, historic preservation consultants from Columbus, and Steven Avdakov and Debbie Griffen of Heritage Architectural Associates, a historic preservation architectural firm with offices in Wheeling, WV and Miami Beach, FL. The survey came about at the “50- year benchmark,” generally used as a standard by historic preservation organizations as defined by the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Preservation Act. To my delight, Kettering is heavily represented in examples of housing, churches, schools and commercial development.
Kettering’s architects and builders were ambitious in utilizing Modern design, taking advantage of “new” popular building materials such as concrete and aluminum, and experimenting with different methods of building layouts. Avdakov, the principal architect of Heritage Architectural Associates, noted the positive spirit of Kettering’s architecture. “The schools in Kettering were exceptional,” he said. “Their architectural forms — which included campus plans and pod buildings — reflected both the progressive innovations which were occurring in education and the overarching optimistic spirit of post-war prosperity.”
From the 1940s through the 1960s, this kind of construction flourished. The building in which I currently work in is one example: a 1965 elementary school converted into an arts center in the 1980s. The building retains its characteristics from the 1960s, with brightly colored porcelain enameled steel panels, aluminum-framed windows, a sprawling one-level plan and even original signage in the hallways. Like many buildings in Kettering — particularly the schools — my workplace was not razed to make way for new construction, and instead was renovated to meet our present-day needs.
Two other well-known Kettering buildings are examples of the architecture used to catch the eye of passing motorists.
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s we were the premier midwestern automobile city when the cars were designed to look fashionable and fast,” said Terry Welker, City Planner for the City of Kettering. “Kettering created the homes and architecture to match.”
The Fox Kettering Theatre, built in 1967, at 1441 E. Dorothy Lane and Turrell’s Phillips 66 Service Station, now known as Dye’s Automotive, at 2560 Woodman Dr. and built in 1959, embody the characteristics of the “Googie style.” Googie incorporated futuristic “space age” design based on abstract or geometric shapes (such as the triangular shapes of both buildings), exaggerated signage and a sense of weightlessness exemplified in the upward jutting rooflines and significant scale windows. It was a merger of design, architecture and Pop Art — all very effective in attracting the attention of the many folks driving in and out of the suburbs.
Welker describes Kettering architecture as embodying its time but with the embedded values of the Midwest, a “very cool in a ‘60s ‘jazznik architecture with sunglasses’ kind of way with a thin layer of ‘unpretentious Midwestern.’” Beginning in the 1950s, ranch and split-level homes became popular. Open floor plans had minimal partitioning, often eliminating the floor-to-ceiling wall between a dining room and living room. Recreation rooms accommodated the increase in leisure time, a garage or carport was common, and a minimal use of ornamentation was a typical trait of the Modern house.
On the other hand, the community-oriented buildings of the mid-century, including ecclesiastical and civic structures, demonstrated the exceptional details and traits of Ohio Modern. The Government Center at 3600 Shroyer Road, which houses the administrative offices for the City of Kettering, is a Brutalist-style Modern building (from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”) and was designed by local architect Eugene Betz. Raw, cast-in-place concrete was textured with diagonal repetitive lines and the building’s triangular floor plan and a dominant geometric roof give a sense of a landed spaceship, greatly differentiating from its neighboring residential, educational and commercial buildings.
These examples only skim the surface of Kettering’s architecture. Welker said, “Once you start looking, you’ll see it everywhere.”
And it’s true. The buildings and their details are plentiful; this is a gem of exceptionally preserved architecture and showcase of the mid-twentieth century’s modernity. Perhaps when describing Kettering to others, we will now include these two words: Ohio Modern.
Learn more about OHS’s study and Ohio Modern at www.ohiohistory.org.
Story published in the January 3, 2012 edition of the Dayton City Paper.