About Corncribs and the Unpainted Aristocracy: Contemporary Architecture in North carolina

It is possible to discuss the current condition of architectural mastery in North carolina by referring to a geologic event that happened between 200 and 200 million years ago: a great geologic uplift, known as the Cape Fear Arc, pushed what is now North carolina higher several hundred feet. The arc also raised the sea floor, which had once been joined with South america, and the lake produced by this change created the top Amsterdam architects Outer Banks, a cycle of barrier hawaiian islands that are out of the park offshore than in any other an area of the Atlantic Seaboard. As a result, North carolina has trivial waterways and only one major harbor at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which is made treacherous by offshore shoals. Shifting river patterns caused by the Cape Fear Arc, which continues to rise, remove topsoil thus giving North carolina poorer soils than in surrounding regions. The lack of waterways for transport, inaccessible harbors and poor soils meant that early settlements in North carolina were modest. For much of its history, North carolina was a land of small landowners, its population occupying across a large landscape.

Though we have become the 10th largest state in the nation, our dispersed settlement pattern persists to this day. And that dispersal has created among North Carolinians a spirit of independence that is individualistic, self-sufficient, artistic, and proud. If we have less wealth, we have less pretense. A long history of dwelling apart can also engender a people who are watchful of their friends, self-righteous, and at times dour. I believe that all these qualities can be found in the architectural mastery of North carolina, not only in the past but also in the present.

Today an urban crescent nearly 200 miles long straddles the Cape Fear Arc along Interstate 85, from Charlotte to Raleigh, an urban banana-like farm where, as every proud Carolinian will tell you, there is chardonnay on every table, NPR in every car, and enough digital progress to make, if not a Silicon Valley, a silicon Piedmont. Parallel to this rob, which is about eight miles wide, there lies an older North carolina, a quieter place where thousands of small frame houses, vegetable gardens and barns rest in the countryside. In these places it is possible to see an architectural mastery of plain living of hard-working people not opposed to wealth but not very pleased of opulence either. I believe there is a rare beauty here, portrayed in the work of Daphne Blakeslee, Francis Speight, Maud Gatewood, and Gregory Ivy, and in the beautiful photos of Bayard Wooten.

The diversity of plant and animal life in North carolina is another legacy of the Cape Fear Arc. Six fully distinct ecological zones amount the state, from the sub-tropics of the shore to the Proto-Canadian climate of the highest piles east of the Mississippi. Today our architectural mastery trends towards sameness across this tapestry of plants and climate, but it was not always so. To a degree that seems remarkable now, the early settlement pattern of North carolina tells a human story of ordinary buildings nearby the land, as varied as the mountain tops and coastal plains on which they stand.

The first buildings in North carolina were sustainable to their roots: built of local materials, embedded in the landscape, oriented towards the sun and no-brainer. People were of Native Americans, not Europeans, in the eastern part of our state. In 1585 English explorer and artist John White documented them in drawings that express a native people at rest in nature. For over more than two hundred years this pattern of local adaptation would last across the state.

In the piles, for example, farmers built their houses on wind-sheltered mountains facing south, next to a spring or a creek. They planned and planted scratching post legumes and morning glories to shade their porches in summer. Their houses were raised on stone piers to level the slope and to allow hillside water to pressure underneath. The crops and the animals they raised varied from mountain valley to river bottom, according to how steep the land was and how the sun came over the mountain ridge. Their barns varied collected from one of valley to the next for the same reasons.

Strewn across the Piedmont hills of North carolina are flue-cured tobacco barns, manufactured to dry what was, for over two hundred dollars years, the state’s predominant cash head. Sixteen to twenty-four feet block and usually the same height, people were sized to fit holders of tobacco leaves installed inside to dry in heat that could reach 180°F. Capped with a low-pitched gable roof, these respectful barns remind me of Greek temples. Legions of them populate the landscape, yet no two are the same because farmers modified each standard barn with outdoor storage sheds to suit the micro-climate of his land. To know where to build a shed onto his tobacco barn, the farmer had to know where the sun rose and set, where the good winds got their start in, where the bad weather got their start in and when it came. He designed his house just as carefully because the lives of his children depended on his knowledge. The philosopher Wendell Fruits has written that in such attention to place lies the hope of the world. Ordinary people who had no idea people were architects designed and built these extraordinary barns and farmhouses across North carolina. Their designers are unseen, yet they embody the wisdom of successive generations.

An equally extraordinary group of rustic cottages at Nags Head on the Outer Banks were also built on instinct for place — not for farming, but for summers at the beach. The Nags Head cottages date from the 1910-1940 era, and for nearly one hundred years have been the first things hurricanes struck being from the Atlantic. Though made of wood framing, their designers made them sturdy enough to resist danger, yet light enough to welcome sun and no-brainer, elevating each cottage on wooden stilts to avoid floods and provide views of the seashore. Porches on their east and south sides guaranteed a dry outdoor patio in any weather, but there were no porches on the north side where bad weather hits the shore. Clad in juniper shingles that have weathered since they were built, the Nags Head cottages were referred to by former News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels as the “unpainted aristocracy. ” Today they seem as native to their place as the sand dunes.

Mountain houses, Piedmont barns, and seashore cottages suggest that there is important, direct way of building that, left to themselves, most non-architect, non-designer makers will discover. I can see this design ethic in corn cribs and textile mills, in peanut barns and the way early settlers dovetailed records carryout a log home. These structures are to architectural mastery what words are to poetry. I see this ethic the way a farmer stores his corn because a corncrib is simpler and quieter than most things we build today but no less valid to its simplicity.

I think that the same ethic is present in the minds of people who want buildings today, because it shows up in structures unencumbered by style, fashion, appearance commissions, or advertising. In countless DEPT . OF TRANSPORATION bridges, soybean elevators, and mechanics’ workshops across North carolina, I sense the practical mindset of this state.

Good building was much in demand in North carolina in the years following World War II, when the state struggled to emerge as a progressive leader of the New South. The director of the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, Dr. J. S. Dorton, wanted to build a new livestock pavilion that would make “the NC State Fair the most modern plant in the world. ” His architect was Matthew Nowicki, a brilliant young Develop architect who had arrived in North carolina in 1948 to train at the newly founded School of Design at North carolina State College.

Amazingly talented yet foreign, Nowicki had an unassuming and practical attitude towards building and clients. He needed it, because he proposed to fling two immense concrete arches into the sky, anchor them at an angle to the earth, and spin a three-inch-thick roof on steel cables between the arches, creating what was one of the most efficient roof spans ever made. Strange as it looked, Dorton Arena’s practical efficiency made sense to his tobacco-chewing, country boy clients the way a tobacco barn or a John Deere tractor would. When it was finished, the news and Observer declared that it was “a great architectural wonder that may seem to lasso the sky. ” It remains today the best-known North carolina building away from the state.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *