5 midcentury moderns in Raleigh with a hopeful future

By J. Michael Welton


Here we have a quintet of little architectural gems designed during the birth of the cool – when Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were reinventing music, when icy gin martinis ruled at the bar and when glass, aluminum and stainless steel were de rigueur materials for modern living.

These five midcentury moderns were created by gifted postwar architects intent on ushering in a new language for Raleigh’s built environment. Today, they stand as hip, modern symbols of the 1950s and ’60s, when this city boldly projected itself as a forward-looking hotbed of progressive ideas onto the international design stage.

All five were designed by architects from N.C. State’s School of Design, most recruited by Dean Henry Kamphoefner from around the globe. Four were envisioned as homes and offices for the architects themselves. Each is protected today from demolition and alteration, either by local landmark status or protective easements in perpetuity – or both.

Those designations differ in their effectiveness. “Landmarked is the Raleigh historic designation – that’s really good but not the ultimate thing to do,” says Catherine Bishir, curator in architectural special collections at N. C. State. “The ultimate is to put an easement on it. If it’s landmarked, it can be torn down after a year.”

Both protections seem absolute necessities now, in light of the recent destruction of Milton Small’s 1966 office building on Glenwood and James Fitzgibbon’s 1950 Paschal House. Most of these five are relatively small structures built on large lots assessed in value as much as four times the buildings themselves. The challenge for caring owners now is to assure that these and others like them won’t ever be sacrificed at the twin altars of demolition and development.

Raleigh’s honor roll of currently protected midcentury moderns includes:

The Kamphoefner House, 3060 Granville Drive: Designed in 1950 by Kamphoefner and George Matsumoto, this home earns distinction as a place where both Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe once slept. Influenced by Wright’s affordable Usonian homes designed for middle-class families, its original rear elevation overlooks Carolina Country Club’s golf course through a wall of windows. In 2002, architect Robert Burns, a Kamphoefner protégé who succeeded him as dean at the School of Design, added more square footage.

Out front, it offers a facade of brick, clapboard and glass, with Burns’ addition seemingly floating in midair. But its real significance lies elsewhere: “It’s a very concrete symbol of everything represented in Kamphoefner’s vision for that historical era,” says architect Michael Stevenson. It enjoys both local landmark status, recommended by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission and approved by Raleigh’s City Council, and a protective easement from Preservation North Carolina. It’s currently on the market at $729,000.

The Fadum House, 3056 Granville Drive: A compact little home designed by Fitzgibbon in 1949, it’s almost ship-like with its built-ins and its place for everything and everything in its place. “It’s one of those houses where every condition, everywhere you turn, has been so carefully thought about,” says architect Louis Cherry.

In 2007, Fitzgibbon’s colleague Brian Shawcroft renovated the house and added one of the most sensitive complementary structures this city will ever see. “He was able to take so many cues from that house – it was such a great generator of ideas and forms that he took into the addition,” Cherry says. “Of all of Brian’s work, that is the finest example. It’s very seamless to the original and a beautiful addition – it seems like an homage to Fitzgibbon.” It’s landmarked, with a protective easement.

The Matsumoto House, 821 Runnymede Road: Designed and built in 1954, this 1,752 square-foot home takes its cues from van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. But where Farnsworth is a sparkling sonnet in glass and steel, Matsumoto’s house explores the opacity of wood, block and paneling.

“George showed how to use wood and plywood for the same modern experience – it was earthshaking that way,” says architect Frank Harmon. Featured on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens in 1956, the home repositioned Raleigh nationally as a cool and modern place to live. “There’s not an inch of space wasted –it feels like it’s twice as big as it is,” Harmon says. The home is landmarked, without an easement.

The Owen Smith House, 122 Perquimans Drive: In 1950, achitect Owen Smith built his own home with a full basement dedicated to his practice. Upstairs was to be a showcase for his work – and the materials of the day. “It has got some of the finest interior detailing of a midcentury modern house that I have seen,” says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. “Clearly, he was building a house to impress his customers and to walk them through different kinds of woods and tiles in a very elegant building.”

Smith graduated from N.C. State in 1938, 10 years before Kamphoefner arrived, and by the time he died in 2012, he was the longest-practicing architect in the state. His home is landmarked today, but unprotected by an easement.

The G. Milton Small & Associates Office Building, 105 Brooks Ave.: For the past 4 1/2 years, David Burney, founding partner at a branding company named New Kind, has been living a life that’s the envy of all midcentury modern aficionados. In a near-ritual every morning, he pulls into a ground floor parking lot below Milton Small’s best work – the architect’s own office – and embarks upon a carefully scripted entry sequence. He’ll walk past a water feature, ascend a flight of exterior stairs and drop to his knees at the front door. “We call it the temple – the lock is way down on the ground and you have to kneel before you can go in,” he says. “You have to do the same thing if you’re the last to leave.”

Inside, he and his team collaborate at treetop level in a glass-clad building that’s now celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s landmarked but lacks a protective easement.

These five Raleigh midcentury moderns are a drop in the bucket of the Triangle’s inventory. George Smart, executive director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, estimates that more than 800 residences alone populate this area. But of the 152 buildings earning landmark status through the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, only 15 are midcentury moderns. And of more than 750 structures granted easements by Preservation North Carolina, only 10 date from the mid-20th century.

Too young to be considered antiques, those without easements exist at a vulnerable point in their lifespan.

“Fifty years from now, I hope they’ll move from being important to being sacred,” says Preservation North Carolina’s Howard. “People have a tendency not to like what they grew up with, but to like what their grandparents grew up with – so these will be older, rarer and more distinctive.”

Until then, their best hope for survival lies with a more enlightened approach from tax assessors.

According to the Wake County website, assessors value the Matsumoto house at $112,960, while the land it’s built on comes in at $418,500. “That shows something about the assessors; they’re viewing the building as a teardown,” Howard says.

For a three-dimensional, Mondrian-like, jewel-box work of art, designed and built during the birth of the cool, that could add up to a wasteful and very uncool ending.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at mike@architectsandartisans.com.

(News & Observer, 5/27/2016)