From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Those who appreciate the beauty, simplicity and material honesty of Midcentury Modern architecture know, as with every style, there are good and bad examples, but only a few works are truly exemplary. Fortunately for PHMC, The State Museum and Archives Complex in Harrisburg is an exemplary work of Midcentury Modern design. In fact, in August, the complex was listed in the National Register of Historic Places based primarily on its architectural significance.

When designing the complex in the late 1950s, the architects at the firm of Lawrie & Green intended it to be a reflection of its time. In the optimism of postwar America, they were building for the future and sought a contemporary design. They also understood that the artifacts of Pennsylvania’s past would show best in a setting that was clean, simple and elegant. Functionally, Midcentury Modern was an excellent choice.

The complex, which officially opened in 1965, comprises three distinct elements: the 6-story cylindrical museum building, the 20-story limestone-sheathed archives tower, and the raised plaza beside which these monumental buildings are sited. Many interior fixtures and details are clearly inspired by other notable works of art and architecture, from Piet Mondrian’s paintings to Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea in Finland. There are even Space Age features, such as the Sputnik-style light fixture in Memorial Hall.

Midcentury Modern architects followed two primary tenets: form follows function and honesty of materials. From the 1950s into the 1970s several major museums looked to a drum shape to provide a circular flow through the galleries, including New York’s landmark Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, and Gettysburg’s now-demolished Cyclorama Building. The lack of windows – except on the ground and fifth floors of The State Museum and the ground floor of the State Archives building – was intentional because light is the enemy of both archival materials and museum artifacts. The use of limestone, glass, aluminum and walnut paneling reflects the honesty of materials and was intended to convey a sense of solidity and permanence. This is important for buildings meant to house the Commonwealth’s historic treasures.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our buildings in 2015, we will also highlight the excellence and exuberance of Midcentury Modern design throughout the state. Two exhibitions of photographs of Midcentury Modern architecture will be mounted at The State Museum and related articles will appear in this publication.

Given the popularity of the television program Mad Men and the growing appreciation for all things midcentury, architecture included, it’s time we celebrate these structures. They are a product of another, perhaps more optimistic era. Surely we could use a little more optimism in our everyday lives.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC