Saturday, June 18, 2005

Modern Chapel Hill: vintage example

Chapel Hill Museum, 523 E. Franklin Street

The Chapel Hill Museum is housed in space owned by the Town of Chapel Hill. This building was the town Library from the time it was built in 1966 until 1994, when a new, larger library was opened. During recent deliberations on the town's budget, a citizen committee recommended selling this "underperforming asset." The Council resists the notion of selling any of its real estate, although we have embraced one citizen's idea of performing a study of the town's current and future space needs.

I'm glad that the budget committee focused our attention on this building, because it caused me to think about it from another angle--preservation. This building is a wonderful example of mid-century modern architecture in a town that, thanks to a building boom prompted by the GI Bill, has quite a nice collection of the architecture of this important period. At Wednesday night's meeting I presented a petition requesting the Council to consider granting a historic preservation easement on this property to Preservation North Carolina.

My petition, which Mayor Foy co-sponsored, included an excerpt from a manuscript on Chapel Hill architecture by M. Ruth Little--a work in progress funded by the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill and the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

Architect Don Stewart designed the library on a prominent location at the northwest corner of East Franklin Street and Boundary Street. The old frame Hendon House was demolished to make way for the library. Naturally, some citizens opposed the introduction of modern architecture into the heart of the Chapel Hill Historic District, but the building has become a beloved landmark. The building’s natural insinuation into its sloping site and use of native materials continue the organic modernist tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright, exhibited in such buildings as the Fallingwater residence in Pennsylvania. The rectangular building features a fieldstone lower level supporting a wood shingled main level with angled walls capped by a metal Mansard roof with a wide roof overhang. The entrance and windows are deeply recessed into the walls. Stone walkways, planters, and retaining walls inegrate the building into the site.

Stewart's work in Chapel Hill includes other public buildings (including the Totten Center at the Botanical Garden) and several private residences.

Don Stewart’s early work, such as the 1953 Kai Jurgenson House, 410 Whitehead Circle, fused the organic modernism of the Bay area style with the regional modernism of Gropius and his students at Harvard University. Around 1960 Stewart’s design took a strong Asian turn. The house he designed for Robert Mace, a physicist, and his wife Ruth at 222 Hillcrest Circle, a small subdivision off East Franklin Street, has an open floor plan on one level, with small changes in level according to zone. A tall porch extends across the south, rear elevation to shield the living areas from the sun. The wide roof overhang and privacy screen beside the front entrance have a Japanese character. Stewart says of his trademark wide overhanging roof, “I always tried to put a hat on a house.”

According to my colleague Cam Hill, who admires Stewart's houses particularly because he has worked on some of them, Stewart in old age lost his eyesight.

Myrick Howard, executive director of Preservation NC, has told me he's delighted at the prospect of holding an easment to this building, calling it "a landmark of its vintage." Catherine Frank, director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, spoke on Wednesday night in favor of the idea. I believe it would be the first public building in Chapel Hill to have such an easement.

A preservation easement would ensure that the building is not torn down no matter who owns it.

The easement would also protect the large trees on the property.

East entrance to lower level, home of Chapel Hill Historical Society.

MORE on mid-century modern in Chapel Hill.

UPDATE April 2007: The easement agreement between the Town of Chapel Hill and Preservation North Carolina has been signed, sealed and delivered to the Orange County Deeds office.

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