About Corncribs and the Unpainted Aristocracy*
By Frank Harmon, FAIA
It is possible to discuss the current condition of architecture in North Carolina by referring to a geologic event that happened between 150 and 200 million years ago. A great geologic uplift, known as the Cape Fear Arch, pushed what is now North Carolina upwards several hundred feet. The arch also raised the sea floor, which had once been joined with South America, and the waves produced by this change created the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands that are farther offshore than in any other part of the Atlantic Seaboard. As a result, North Carolina has shallow rivers 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 Arch, which continues to rise, remove topsoil thus giving North Carolina poorer soils than in surrounding regions. The lack of rivers 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 scattered across a vast landscape.
Though we have become the tenth 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, resourceful, and proud. If we have less wealth, we have fewer pretenses. A long history of dwelling apart can also engender a people who are watchful of their neighbors, self-righteous, and at times dour. I believe that all these qualities can be found in the architecture 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 Arch 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 strip, 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 architecture of plain living made by hard-working people not opposed to wealth but not happy with opulence either. I believe there is a rare beauty here, portrayed in the paintings of Sarah Blakeslee, Francis Speight, Maud Gatewood, and Gregory Ivy and in the photographs of Bayard Wooten.
The diversity of plant and animal life in North Carolina is another legacy of the Cape Fear Arch. Six fully distinct ecological zones span the state, from the sub-tropics of the coast to the proto-Canadian climate of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. Today our architecture 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 close to 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 breeze. They were made by Native Americans, not Europeans, in the eastern part of our state. In 1585 English explorer and artist John White documented them in drawings that depict a native people at rest in nature. For over three hundred years this pattern of local adaptation would persist across the state.
In the mountains, for example, farmers built their houses on wind-sheltered slopes facing south, next to a spring or a creek. They planted pole beans 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 drain 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 from one valley to the next for the same reasons.
Strewn across the piedmont hills of North Carolina are flue-cured tobacco barns, built to dry what was, for over two hundred years, the state’s dominant cash crop. Sixteen to twenty-four feet square and usually the same height, they were sized to fit racks of tobacco leaves hung inside to dry in heat that could reach 180 degrees. Capped with a low-pitched gable roof, these humble 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 sheds to suit the microclimate 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 and where the good winds came from, where the bad weather came from and when it came. He designed his house just as carefully because the lives of his children depended on his knowledge. The philosopher Wendell Berry has written that in such attention to place lays the hope of the world. Ordinary people who had no idea they were architects designed and built these extraordinary barns and farmhouses across North Carolina. Their builders are anonymous, 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 circa 1910 to 1940, and for nearly one hundred years have been the first things hurricanes struck coming in from the Atlantic. Though made of wood framing, their builders made them sturdy enough to resist danger, yet light enough to welcome sun and breeze, elevating each cottage on wooden stilts to avoid floods and provide views of the ocean. Porches on their east and south sides guaranteed a dry porch in any weather, but there were no porches on the north side where bad weather hits the coast. Clad in juniper shingles that have weathered since they were built, the Nags Head cottages were referenced 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 ocean cottages suggest that there is a fundamental, direct way of building that, left to themselves, most non-architect, non-designer makers will discover. I can see this design ethic in corncribs and textile mills, in peanut barns and in the way early settlers dovetailed logs to make a cabin. These structures are to architecture what words are to poetry. I see this ethic in the way a farmer stores his corn because a corncrib is simpler and quieter than most things we build today but no less valid because of its simplicity. Looking at plainspoken architecture allows us to get to the substance of good building.
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 DOT 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 Polish architect who had arrived in North Carolina in 1948 to teach at the newly founded School of Design at North Carolina State College.
Extraordinarily 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 seems to lasso the sky.” It remains today the best-known North Carolina building outside the state.
At the same time that Dorton Arena was rising, the young architect George Matsumoto came to North Carolina from his native California to practice architecture and to teach at the School of Design. Matsumoto quickly established himself as one of the most gifted design talents of the post-war generation. Matsumoto’s early buildings were modest houses for small business owners and assistant professors. Working with landscape architect Gil Thurlow, Matsumoto sited his buildings to enhance the landscape, elegantly merging with the site. Often he used deciduous trees to shade the buildings in summer and to allow the sun to warm them in winter. Typically his houses were oriented to capture the prevailing summer breezes, and to shelter their occupants from winter wind.
Matsumoto’s understanding of the technique and craft of construction encompassed wood, steel, stone and brick. His Gregory Poole Equipment building in Raleigh (1956) was a logical and well-built construction that contrasted the delicacy of its steel and glass enclosure with the massive D8 caterpillars displayed inside. Modern though his buildings were, Matsumoto was welcomed because his designs had the directness of a corncrib: they were perceived to be useful and practical.
In 1962, Harwell Hamilton Harris moved to Raleigh to practice and teach at the School of Design. Harris, like Matsumoto, was a native Californian, renowned for his residential architecture. Arguably his finest North Carolina building was St. Giles Presbyterian Church, began in 1967. Harris convinced the church building committee to build a family of low-slung, wood shingled buildings around a pine grove. “Did you ever hear of anyone having a revelation indoors?” he asked. The buildings have wide porches and deep eaves that foster outdoor rambles and contemplation. St. Giles is unmistakably modern, and it brought a whiff of California to a piney hillside of Carolina, but it is also in keeping with an older, native tradition of building close to the land.
Although all three 20th century architects were non-native, it is possible to discern a common thread that bound them to their clients: a belief in a practical kind of architecture, without pretense or opulence, that was as plain-spoken as it was confident. In 1952 Harris wrote that, “A region’s most important resources are its free minds, its imagination, its stake in the future, its energy and, last of all, its climate, its topography and the particular kinds of sticks and stones it has to build with.” His words could describe the cigar-smoking farmers who approved Dorton Arena, the small landowners who lived in houses designed by George Matsumoto, the Deacons of St. Giles Presbyterian Church, and the generations of anonymous barn-builders and cottage dwellers who preceded them.
My reference to older buildings in North Carolina in no way means that we should go back to building such dwellings. Rather it illustrates how the accumulated wisdom of our past can enable us to build in the present. As the English Arts and Craft architect W. R. Lethaby said, “No art which is one man deep is worth much—it should be a thousand men deep. We cannot forget the knowledge of our historic origins, and we would not want to forget it, even if we could.”
In the future, our society will be judged by how we build today. Arguably the most important issue facing architecture today is sustainability. What is the best way to build in equilibrium with this particular place? A balanced architecture rises up from the land it is built on, its hills, streams, weather and its people, their connections, ideas and stake in the future. Today we have the opportunity to return North Carolina to its former balance with nature. And as we do that, we must remember that we are not a land apart: the rock we live on was once part of South America, the wind that blows across our fields originated in the tropics, and the rain that washes over us comes largely from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The forces that shape our buildings are much older than building.
Frank Harmon is the principal of Frank Harmon Architect in Raleigh, North Carolina.