A constructivist appreciation

On May 1st, Lawrence Modern gathered for its first event in nearly three years at the former Zimmerman Steel building in east Lawrence. A veritable Sunday buffet of architecture cogniscenti were guest speakers, including the Lawrence Preservation Alliance’s Dennis Brown, architect Stan Hernly, our own Tom Harper and Dennis Domer, as well as the principals from Mar Lan Construction, who seized an opportunity to buy the property a few years ago, promptly fell in love with it, and went through a lengthy and painstaking process of refurbishing this vital piece of Lawrence industrial history. What started out as a hardware store with a steel fabrication shop on Mass. St. after WWII continues to serve the Lawrence construction community, and thanks to Hernly is now on the historic registers as a significant example of midcentury modernism.

The interesting thing about the Zimmerman Steel building is that it appeals equally to the left and right brain: to the Mar Lan construction team, the building is an attractive and functional workspace; in the eyes of experts like Hernley and Domer, an unadorned manufacturing facility with a folded plate (aka, “zig zag”) roof. Hernly said the aesthetic is defined by utilitarian parts and pieces of steel and metal, akin to Russian constructivist architecture. Domer said when he looks at the Zimmerman Steel building he thinks of automobile dealerships from the 50s and 60s, and when he looks at the zig zag roof he sees a 1958 Dodge with big tail fins. “The beauty is the design of the building, but the structural pieces are what make it beautiful,” Domer said. Praising Mar Lan’s renovation effort, he summed up the proceedings: “You really understood what you had, and now you’ve preserved it for another generation. The next generation is going to adore this place, if not already, like we do.”

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