Arts & Culture

Missed opportunities: Raleigh’s architectural legacy threatened

Eduardo Catalano designed this striking house in the 1950s in West Raleigh. It was demolished in 2001.
Eduardo Catalano designed this striking house in the 1950s in West Raleigh. It was demolished in 2001. newsobserver.com

Raleigh is blessed with a sophisticated legacy of modern residential and commercial architecture. After almost seven decades of influence by N.C. State’s College of Design, the city is home to a rich heritage of contemporary buildings in a rapidly growing urban setting.

So what’s up with the ongoing demolition of buildings from the 1950s and ’60s, the turning of blind eyes to highly talented local architects and the penchant for over-scaled, out-of-proportion McMansions – not to mention those oh-so-ordinary office and apartment buildings popping up like mushrooms all over?

To understand what’s happened to modern design here during the past few decades, let’s look at five examples of missed opportunities for excellence in Raleigh architecture:

1. The Catalano House

Back in the ’50 and ’60s, if you were an architect in Paris, London or Beirut and someone mentioned Raleigh, N.C., to you, two buildings would come immediately to mind: Dorton Arena and the Catalano House.

Today, Dorton still stands, a monument to innovative modern design. But the Catalano House? Gone.

Built in 1954, this first-of-its-kind, “hyperbolic-paraboloid” residence by architect Eduardo Catalano was a geometric jewel. Catalano had come to Raleigh from Buenos Aires to teach at N.C. State. Encouraged by Dean Henry Kamphoefner to build as well as educate, he designed this home for himself. It was surrounded by glass, and turned into a breezy pavilion when all its doors opened up.

“It was our version of Fallingwater,” says George Smart, executive director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, referring to Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous residential design. The house earned admiration from Wright himself in a letter to House and Home magazine, where he praised it for being “so imaginatively and skillfully treated ...”

Alas, it barely survived the 20th century. Catalano stepped up to M.I.T. in 1956; the house endured a series of owners until it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Demolished in 2001, its site is now occupied by two McMansions.

2. The Paschal House

Fast-forward to 2013, when demolition picked up an ugly head of steam.

The Paschal House, designed and built on a 3-acre lot by James Fitzgibbon – one of N.C. State’s best and brightest – had sat unoccupied since 2007. Long and low, its design was about as forward-thinking as possible for a home designed in 1950. Fitzgibbon oriented it toward the sun with deep outside overhangs for passive solar climate control. It had no air conditioning, relying instead on expansive windows to manipulate breezes. Heated floors and a central fireplace warmed the house in winter.

“It is the cutting-edge house in Raleigh at the time,” says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. When built, Wright said it “does the cause (of modern architecture) good.”

The 3,300-square-foot home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Unfortunately, the land it occupied was zoned for five building lots. In 2008, its owners put it on the market, pricing it between $2.5 and $5.7 million (ranging from the house on one lot to the full acreage), then at $3.3 million in 2011 (for the full acreage). They didn’t get it.

The house was sold, then bulldozed on March 1, 2013.

3. Harwell Hamilton Harris

Harris arrived at N.C. State in 1962, after a successful practice in Dallas and a legendary stint as dean at the University of Texas School of Architecture.

He designed a number of buildings in Raleigh, including St. Giles Presbyterian Church and his own studio/residence on Cox Avenue. That building – probably the best small structure in town – is a masterful study in opacity and transparency. Its front facade is composed of windowless stucco, while its rear elevation is a double-height series of windows opening up to Pullen Park.

“The front is like an urban street and the back is like California,” says architect Frank Harmon. Harris’ California influence – he once worked for uber-modernist Richard Neutra there – is now firmly entwined in Raleigh’s architectural DNA. Harmon studied with him at N.C. State and passed lessons learned on to his own students, who employ them today.

The studio/residence still stands, but the missed opportunity is glaring: Harris, one of Wright’s most gifted rivals back in the day, was never afforded the opportunity to design a single public building – not a library, a museum or a civic structure – in his three decades here. That’s a loss for us all – and for future generations, too.

4. The Lightner Building

In 2007, Michael Stevenson of KlingStubbins and Louis Cherry of Cherry Huffman Architects collaborated on the design of a 16-story tower downtown at the corner of Hargett and McDowell Streets.

They’d responded to an advertisement from the city for a building to consolidate police, fire and emergency services there.

And they won that $12.5 million commission. By fall of 2009, Stevenson, Cherry and their associates had worked through issues with security and engineering consultants, then developed design and construction documents. “We started this design process thinking about what we could do to engage the government complex, make Hargett Street better and make connections to take people into Nash Square,” says Stevenson.

It was not to be. After a late 2009 council election, new questions about costs – and curiously, terrorist attacks – arose from council members, including two architects who’d originally favored the design. A four-four council vote stalled the $141 million project. It was never built.

So what was lost? “It was an opportunity to use that investment to make the city better, to make Nash Square better, to improve the civic image, and brand the visual character of Raleigh,” says Cherry.

There’s also the matter of millions in fees paid by the city – with nothing to show at all.

5. 3515 Glenwood Ave.

On Friday morning, March 4, at 3515 Glenwood Ave. in suburban Raleigh, 11 workers clad in hardhats and bright yellow vests stood on the raised portico of a 1965 office building, witnesses to a 21st-century tragedy:

A 12th worker, remotely controlling a dual-treaded, 6-foot-long Husqvarna DXR 310 robot, was screwing onto its telescopic arm a new instrument of brute destruction: a 4-foot-wide, lobster-like steel pincer. After crawling uphill, the little monster stopped briefly to mangle a steel handrail on the portico, then paused to reconsider. Abruptly shifting its stance, it greedily grabbed a brick edge of portico floor – and chomped down viciously.

Dust flew. Mortar crumbled. Brick and concrete chunks dribbled to the ground. Thus commenced the demolition of one of architect Milton Small’s finest office buildings. Small, who’d studied under the genius of modernist Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, brought his special brand of stripped-down architecture to Raleigh in the late 1940s. This particular building bore a striking resemblance to van der Rohe’s famed Crown Hall on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Soon, this 34,000-square-foot, clean-as-a-whistle modernist gem will be replaced by 72,000 square feet of bland and ordinary dreck.

The drivers

What are the driving forces behind these five missed opportunities? In the case of Harwell Harris and the Lightner Building, a lack of political will to do the right thing is surely evident. When it comes to recognizing talent and creating a pleasing urban environment, governing bodies must be design advocates and partners, not adversaries who turn their backs on great architecture on a political whim.

In terms of demolishing Raleigh’s legacy of modern architecture, it’s a tough call when the land beneath a building is valued more than the structure and its aesthetic. But there are two possible ways to stave off demolition of these gems:

One is local landmark designation from the Raleigh Historical Development Commission, which has designated 162 landmarks since the 1960s. Property owners, though, must be willing to initiate and push for that designation themselves. The other option is for an owner to place a preservation easement on the building through Preservation North Carolina – assuring that it will not be demolished or that parts of it will not be altered, now or in the future. Both of these options require a special kind of owner – one who cares about good design and loves the property enough to preserve it.

Neither option will guarantee maximum dollar value for the property (though with easements, tax deductions are available) but either could begin a reversal of this gradual destruction of Raleigh’s distinct architectural heritage, building by beautiful building.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design 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.

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