Don’t make the mistake of assuming that Catherine W. Bishir’s North Carolina Architecture (University of North Carolina Press, $59.95) is a mere coffee-table book. True, it has all the outward signs: hernia-heavy, replete with splendid photographs—and expensive.
But despite these stigmata, inwardly it’s the most thoughtful and penetrating book on architecture that I’ve read in a long time. It powerfully confronts the most besetting sin of architectural criticism, Facadism: the callow, shallow tic that tries to palm off elegantly-phrased descriptions of the exteriors of buildings as the real thing.
Take the “minor” local genre of textile-mill architecture like the Durham Hosiery Mill (1902): “The towered Romanesque factory form satisfied demands of strength, fire resistance, natural lighting and symbolic stature. Massive, tapering brink walls and massive structural timbers supported wooden floors that carried heavy loads and vibrating machinery. The think plank floors and stout timbers were also part of the ‘slow burn’ construction promoted by the New England Mutual fire insurance companies… The tower allowed the stair (through which a fire could spread) to be closed off form the main structure, and it typically supported a water tank for a sprinkler system. Such measures were crucial in a factory that processed highly combustible cotton and where workers and machinery operated in lint-filled air.”
Now, that’s the kind of architectural explication an amateur like me loves to roll over in his mind as savory tutor Bishir lovingly explains the five eras of the state’s architecture: the colonial (1680-1776), the federal (1780-1830), antebellum (1830-61), late 19th (1865-1900) and early 20th (through 1941).
May I bitch a bit at this point? To cover all that time and all that space without affording the reader a map of North Carolina is a gratuitous misery. Why not use the end papers for an ancient (front) and modern (back)? How else can an outlander like me ever track down Milton, N.C. (just across the line from Danville, Va.) to find more of the carpentry of Thomas Day, a free black who carved some of the most exquisitely original banister details I’ve seen in all American history?
The sauce on this meaty work comes from such quirky details, such as Korner’s Folly in Kernersville: “The house was the personal creation of Jule Gilmer Korner, whose father, a German clockmaker, had settled in the rural Moravian tract. The artistically talented Jule studied art in Philadelphia, returned home to work as a sign and portrait painter, and embarked on a career that brought artistic inventiveness into harness with booming industrialization. It was Korner, under the pseudonym Reuben Rink, who in 1883 created for Julian Carr the international advertising campaign that made Bull Durham tobacco a household word and left the hand-painted bull trademark emblazoned on buildings and billboards—some as large as 80 by 100 feet—throughout the nation.”
Korner compensated for all those bulls by turning the interior of his 22-room, seven-level studio-office-reception area (eventually his home as well) into a cornucopia of kitschy-koo décor. It’s so bad it’s marvelous.
I remember my own first awareness that N.C. architecture was far from negligible. I’d been visiting the great radical poet John Beecher and was too wired form the schmooze to fall asleep in my “Heart of Asheville” motel room. So in the spirit of Philip Larkin’s “Church-going,” I snuck into midnight mass at the Church of St. Lawrence (1907).
Holy Mackerel! I couldn’t believe the tilework. I was so euphoric I sought out the pastor—a grumpy exile from Brooklyn named Sweeney—who curtly explained that Rafael Guastavino and his craftsmen had come over to do Richard Morris Hunt’s nearby Biltmore and had tarried to bless other buildings with their skills. (One architectural “gem” I caught on that trip was Eugene Gant’s boarding house—as good a reason as I can imagine for Thomas Wolfe’s not wanting to go home again.)
Well, Bishir’s book gives me hundreds of architectural reason to visit N.C. with a fine tooth comb—beginning with, say, the marvelous local Deco genius of Douglas D. Ellington in Asheville. But it’s not just the grand stuff that’s great: I’ll never forget exploring the byways around Boone, N.C. The open, airy functionalism of the tobacco storage barns nearly knocked me out as totally as the soft regional dialect of the farmers explaining their craftiness. Use Bishir as Baedeker on your next trip to the Tarheel State.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 11, 1991
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