Rediscovering a Modesto Mid-Century Modern Design Treasure
by Lee Davis, Founder, Modesto Design School
On a picturesque point overlooking Oakland’s beautiful Lake Merritt, an effort is underway between the city and citizen volunteers to preserve an iconic 40-foot play sculpture from 1954 that has appeared on album covers and in countless family photos of blissful climbing children. Its creator, Robert Winston, was a renowned jewelry designer and teacher at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts.
Few of these valuable modernist play structures still exist. But the Oakland “Monster,” as Winston named it, is nearly identical to one recently rediscovered in Modesto’s now closed Beard Brook Park, nestled along Dry Creek. Modesto’s 25-foot play sculpture has been attributed to Winston, following an in-depth study by Modesto Art Museum’s founder and architecture curator, Bob Barzan. It’s one of our city’s great mid-century design treasures but sits neglected amidst a growing tent village of citizens experiencing homelessness.
As most designers (and fans of “Mad Men”) well know, what is often referred to as “retro” is a significant design movement called “mid-century modernism.” Mid-20th century designers across the country (and especially in California) were heavily influenced by the modern aesthetic formulated in 1930s Europe and brought across the Atlantic by many famous designers fleeing the Nazis.
Modesto itself was a hotbed of mid-century design. What is now known as “Modesto Modern” or “Central Valley Modernism” received national attention in architecture books, journals and magazines – among them a 1944 exhibition cover of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Modesto Art Museum has already documented (and created a walking tour of) over 85 modernist buildings and landscapes across the city by notable local and national designers.
Architecture lovers flock to cities like Palm Springs, a bona fide mid-century modern capital, stay in “retro” hotels and take architecture tours to admire the many gems of notable architects. How might we embrace and value Modesto’s own heritage of mid-century modernism and establish ourselves as a unique destination for design-minded tourists? It wouldn’t be a stretch. The design assets are all here. All we need is the right vision, creative leadership and community will to preserve and promote them.
According to an October 1962 Modesto Bee article, the funding for Winston’s play sculpture was raised by dozens of Modesto citizens, 69 businesses, and 41 community organizations. I’m convinced there are many here today who agree that we need to preserve this mid-century icon and realize the huge potential of its cultural, historical and economic value.