Morris Hylton III: Modern buildings show Gainesville’s spirit of innovation

By Morris Hylton III / Special to The Sun

Posted at 2:00 AM

From the screen-clad Federal Courthouse and Post Office to the contemporary modern buildings being erected at Innovation Square, Gainesville has a tradition of design creativity that spans from the postwar era to today.

Mid-century modern buildings are a physical manifestation of the community’s spirit of innovation. This architectural legacy, in combination with the distinct natural environment, is what makes Gainesville, Gainesville. It really is where nature and culture meet.

This week, enthusiasts will celebrate Gainesville’s mid-century modern architecture as part of the sixth annual Gainesville Modern Weekend. The event kicks off on March 21 with the opening reception for the exhibition “Gainesville’s Modern Landmarks: Celebrating Our Mid-Century Architectural Past (1945-1975)” at the Matheson History Museum.

Running through the end of the year, the exhibition explores the modernist buildings and suburban neighborhoods that characterize much of the city’s built environment. Free and open to the public, the reception also includes a presentation on the book “Concrete Screen Block: The Power of Pattern” by co-authors Ron and Barbara Marshall.

The exhibition opening is followed the next day by a VIP party called Drinks and Dwellings at a private residence on March 22 and the signature Mid-Century Modern Home Tour on March 23. This year’s tour showcases seven of Gainesville’s best examples of mid-century modern design. Proceeds of the weekend support the activities of Alachua County Habitat for Humanity and Gainesville Modern.

A local, volunteer organization, Gainesville Modern works to preserve the city’s modern architectural past and promote its future through education, advocacy and awareness. These irreplaceable resources are at risk. How can the city continue to develop and grow without compromising its character?

As stated by Anthony Tung in his 2001 book, “Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis,” ”… the adaptation of historic cities to social, economic, political, and technological change has always involved the basic question of whether or not to preserve old buildings as part of the city of the future.”

There are many reasons to retain and adaptively use older buildings including promoting sustainability (the greenest building is the one standing), maintaining continuity with the past and bolstering the local economy.

Updated in 2010, a University of Florida study titled “the Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation in Florida” determined that $13.5 billion was spent on the rehabilitation of existing historic properties between 2005 and 2008, creating jobs while helping communities retain the sense of place that attracts new residents and visitors.

Despite their younger age, modern buildings are increasingly being recognized as historically, architecturally and culturally significant. Cities from Sarasota to Denver, Colorado, are capitalizing on their mid-century modern architecture. Their inspiration was Palm Springs, California.

Palm Springs, like Gainesville after the Second World War, became an incubator for modernist architecture. Against the striking desert backdrop, innovative houses were commissioned by movie stars and others as weekend escapes from Hollywood, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Modernist master architects like Albert Frey and Stewart Williams designed civic and commercial buildings such as fire stations and banks.

After years of appreciation by only a small group of aficionados, in 2006, the Palm Springs Modern Committee debuted Modernism Week — now an 11-day festival of events, tours, lectures and other activities highlighting the area’s mid-century modern architecture and design and incorporating art, fashion and culture. Since its founding, the festival has helped ignite a renaissance in Palm Springs as residents and businesses began to value their older, modern buildings as assets instead of liabilities in need of replacement.

Taking place last month, the 2019 Modernism Week attracted more than 150,000 attendees, up from some 300 the first year. This year’s event generated an economic impact of $57 million.

Though Gainesville Modern Weekend attracts a more modest attendance, the number of participants have increased each year and includes visitors from outside the area who are willing to travel to experience the city’s unique brand of modernism. And the potential is there to expand and create our own distinct version of Modernism Week. (What about Modern Design Innovation Week?)

Our mid-century modern past is an important aspect of our community’s identity and should be an integral part in shaping its future. Join us in celebrating all things modern in Gainesville! For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Morris Hylton III is president of Gainesville Modern.