You guys may be surprised to know that that super cool aesthetic that we think of when we think of the 30's, 40's, and 50's... you know, that look that seems futuristic but from the past... it actually has a name...
In architecture, it's known as Modernism. Based on the super limited reading I've done on it, apparently it was a rejection of the prevailing schools of architectural thought at the time that embraced the past. The early pioneers of Modernism sought to break barriers and in boldly embracing the unconventional, celebrate would could be.
Read on to learn about how Modernism took root in North Carolina and ultimately shaped Charlotte College's earliest buildings.
The Boards of Trustees of many educational institutions came to believe that Modernist buildings better served the academic missions of colleges and universities than did structures bedecked with revivalist ornamentation. "Our colleges and universities are charged with a dual assignment – the dissemination of knowledge and the advancement of human thought," said Harold D. Hauf, Editor-in-Chief of Architectural Record in June 1950. Frank G. Lopez, Senior Associate Writer and editor of the Architectural Record, spoke directly to this point. "If the student should be inquisitive, then should not the buildings which surround him, at least during the formal period of education, stimulate inquisitiveness as well as appreciation?" Lopez claimed that the aesthetic form of a modern building was intended to challenge the imagination of students. "Unless a college building expresses in its architecture the advancement of thought and dissemination of knowledge which are the college‘s reasons for existence, that building has in some degree failed to achieve its purpose." Lopez went on to state that only fear of innovation and denial of curiosity would allow College Boards of Trustees to tolerate the recreation of a dead style, heavy in sameness and "architecturally inappropriate." According to Lopez, "However well it [a building] may perform mechanically and physically," it was inappropriate on a college campus if it failed to function philosophically or even spiritually.
The Board of Trustees of Charlotte College resolved to adopt a non-traditional look for the campus. Toward this end it employed the nationally recognized educational consulting firm of Engelhardt, Engelhardt, Leggett and Cornell (EELC) to advise the architect on how best to fashion the campus and its buildings to create a stimulating learning environment within the budget constraints mandated by the State of North Carolina. Noteworthy is the fact that EELC secured the services of Frank G. Lopez to be one of the six educational consultants for the Charlotte College project.
Not a few educational pundits in the post-World War Two era believed that providing students with the most innovative and stimulating architecture would engender a lifelong appreciation for learning, which hopefully would lead to professional success. The Boards of Trustees at schools such as Florida Southern, the University of St. Thomas, the University of Mary, Oral Roberts University, Vassar College, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, were captivated by the promise of Modernist campuses. Academic institutions increasingly selected architects for their ability to design non-traditional places and spaces.
Sarah Gibson Blanding (1898-1985), President of Vassar College from 1946 to 1964, was among the group of prescient academic executives who grasped the benefits of Modernist architecture in the years following World War Two. Not to be dismissed is the fact that her tenure coincided with that of Bonnie E. Cone, the President of Charlotte College. Blanding believed that a vital way of visibly expressing Vassar‘s commitment to education was to embrace the most contemporary architectural styles available. Thus, when the need arose for new campus buildings, Blanding reached out to Marcel Breuer, a prominent advocate of Modernism who designed many structures for colleges and universities. It is within this context that one can understand why Cone and the Charlotte College Board of Trustees selected A. G. Odell, Jr., Charlotte‘s major proponent of non-traditional architecture, to fashion the Charlotte College Campus.
Bonnie Cone wrote letters to several universities concerning building plans and governmental construction requirements. In her letters she requested pertinent facts and figures regarding building practices, estimations of student body growth, and other information such as architectural plans that were most suited to construct a university campus. In April 1959, Louise Hall, Head of the Humanities Division of the Library at the University of North Carolina, responded to one of Bonnie Cone‘s inquiries. Cone was specifically seeking data that would assist Charlotte College in drawing up a master plan for the campus. Hall urged Cone to contact the North Carolina State College Library in Raleigh, stating that it might have more "practical and technical sources to use with the project because of the architectural curriculum in the School of Design there."
Odell was not alone in championing Modernist design in North Carolina. Modern architecture found its way into the Tar Heel State largely through the School of Design (SOD) at N.C. State College, now N. C. State University. The School of Design had a profound impact on architecture in North Carolina by rejecting traditional styles, (including the popular Colonial Revival). The SOD sought to establish and propagate an innovative, contemporary style for North Carolina and the South.
Henry Leveke Kamphoefner (1907-1990) was the founding Dean of the SOD in 1948. Kamphoefner had a passion for Modernism and lost no time in placing his design philosophy at the core of the "State College" curriculum. His influence on the institution is evident in the 1948-49 SOD catalog, which highlighted the SOD program as one "that is devoted to the development of an organic and indigenous architecture; its accompanying landscape architecture and the related arts, to meet the needs and conditions of the southern region." Under Kamphoefner‘s guidance, dozens of architectural students were steeped in the principles of Modernism. It is reasonable to assume that Odell benefited from the cultural milieu that Kamphoefner fashioned in the Tar Heel State. Kamphoefner admired Odell‘s work, as he expressed in a letter to the pastor of Concordia Evangelical Lutheran Church, Odell‘s client, ―I congratulate you and your committee again on bringing to one of the smaller North Carolina communities an outstanding example of first-rate contemporary architecture."
Kamphoefner worked tirelessly to recruit distinguished Modernists, because he believed "the faculty was the key to the school." He hired just over thirty new teachers, all of whom were top-ranked leaders in the architectural profession. Among the recruits were George Matsumoto, an associate of noted American architect Eero Saarinen, United Nations headquarters design team member Matthew Nowicki, a Modernist from the United Kingdom, and Eduardo Catalano of Buenos Aires. Kamphoefner revamped the entire curriculum to incorporate Modernist design theory and instituted a distinguished visitors program, which hosted some of the most prominent Modernist architects of the day, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. All worked directly with SOD students. Kamphoefner was indefatigable in his efforts to elevate the School of Design from relative obscurity to a level of national prominence.
Odell, a native of Concord, N.C., graduated from the School of Architecture at Cornell University in 1935. Cornell was among the Ivy League schools that were incorporating the teachings of Modernism into their courses of study. As early as 1928, the College of Architecture at Cornell structured its academic programs around the concepts of Modernism and was one of the first Colleges to have an educational curriculum shaped primarily by Modernist principles.
Associate Professor George Young, Jr. served as Dean of the College of Architecture at Cornell University from 1928 until 1937 and was, like Kamphoefner several years later, an ardent supporter of Modernist architecture. During his early years as an associate professor, Young designed several campus buildings and in 1934 established the City and Regional Planning program in collaboration with the Cornell‘s College of Engineering. In 1921, Young authored the book Descriptive Geometry and in 1927 Mechanics of Materials. Both works championed the Modernist movement in architecture. Young encouraged independence and innovation and built a staff with diverse approaches to design.33 While there is no record that Odell had a class with Young, Odell would certainly have been impacted by the design principles advanced in the curriculum Young devised at the College of Architecture at Cornell University from the late 1920s until the mid-1930s.
After his graduation from Cornell and before his arrival in Charlotte, Odell spent one year (1935-36) at L‘Ecole des Beaux Arts, a leading art school in Paris that divided the fields of study into two curriculums: the "Academy of Painting and Sculpture" and the "Academy of Architecture." Both programs emphasized classical arts and architecture from Ancient Greek and Roman culture. One can only speculate about the reasons for his year in Paris.
Upon his return from Europe, Odell took an apprenticeship with Harrison & Foulihoux (formerly Hood & Fouilhoux), the architectural firm that had designed the Rockefeller Center in New York. In 1938, he went to work for Raymond Loewy, the French-born industrial designer who fashioned sleek, new looks for an array of products, from Studebaker automobiles, the General Motors Greyhound Scenicruiser and even Sears Roebuck refrigerators. Loewy was described as a man with "a continental natty style," a fashion of dress which Odell must have admired, because he adopted that form of business attire during his years in Charlotte. It is reasonable to assume that Loewy had a profound and comprehensive impact upon Odell, especially in encouraging him to eschew traditional ornamentation.
When Odell came to Charlotte as a trained architect in 1939 and established his firm, Odell & Associates, most of Charlotte‘s buildings were conservative and traditional. "There was nothing here," Odell remembered, "that illustrated the honesty of stone as stone, steel as steel, glass as glass. Everybody was still wallowing in the Colonial heritage." Odell sought to transform Charlotte‘s architectural landscape by eliminating the city‘s predilection to erect structures that harkened to the past.
A. G. Odell, Jr. returned to Charlotte after serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) during World War Two and resumed his practice. He wasted no time in leaving his mark on the city and soon established himself as an innovative and well-respected architect. Clients who desired the "latest and best" increasingly went to Odell. During the 1950s, Odell & Associates was one of the largest and most influential architectural firms in North Carolina. In a book marketing his business, Odell described the overall character of the firm. "Our achievements in aesthetics are obtained through the creation of efficient and economical buildings as developed by the teamwork of the talented and skilled professionals of our staff," he wrote. Odell insisted that he and his associates always considered the client‘s needs. ". . . Regardless of how many design awards we may win . . . our primary consideration," he stated, "always must be to create a design within the predetermined budget and to do this so expertly that each project we agree to undertake – whether larger or small – fulfills its operational requirements completely, has artistic merit, and above all, is a sound investment for our client."
Odell became known as a man who thought very highly of his work and of himself. Humility was not one of his principal traits. He wore custom dress suits and drove around Charlotte in his British green racing convertible. Odell was a well-groomed man with a determined spirit and competitive drive. He had little interest in other people‘s feelings, except those of his clients, of course. Odell was somewhat of a sycophant. The son of a prominent textile manufacturer, he socialized frequently with Charlotte‘s civic and business leaders. Odell‘s family had long been involved in the Carolina textile industry. His great-grandfather, John Milton Odell, a cotton manufacturer and founder of the J. M. Odell Company, bought a cotton spinning mill in Bynum, N.C., in 1886. The Bynum mill that J. M. Odell purchased sold much of its yarn to Odell weaving plants, spread across Concord, N.C. "In a society where class connection still counted for much, young Odell had automatic entry to the offices of the area's mill owners and businessmen," writes local historian Thomas Hanchett.
Although not kindhearted, Odell had a genuine charisma that made him, and by extension his designs, alluring to prospective clients.
By 1957, Odell was strident in his support of Modernism. Odell, for example, passionately defended a proposed Modernist chapel on the campus of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado against critics who thought it was ugly. When Odell learned that the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to withhold funds to construct the Modernist style chapel, Odell virulently chastised the politicians. "Congress should do less meddling in esthetics, about which they apparently know nothing at all," said Odell. "Congress is like the average ignoramus, who says he doesn't know anything about art, but he does know what he likes."
Odell is remembered as a hard taskmaster but one who spoke honestly and with unbending candor, if not always with proper propriety. According to Jack Claiborne, a reporter and later associate editor of the Charlotte Observer, "Odell could pack a sentence full of profanity like no one I‘d ever seen before... and I grew up playing sports, where vulgarity was the very litany of the language." By the time he was selected as the architect for the Charlotte College Campus in 1958, Odell had demonstrably established himself as the most outspoken supporter of Modernism in Charlotte.
Many of Odell‘s early projects were schools and civic buildings. Odell‘s incorporation of geometric and Modernist design elements was evident in these structures: the Second Ward High School Gymnasium (1948), Double Oaks Elementary School (1950), the Charlotte Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium Complex (1955), and the Garinger High School campus buildings and plan (1960). The Charlotte Coliseum project solidified Odell‘s position as a leading modernist architect in North Carolina and the Southeast. At the time of its completion in 1956, the Coliseum‘s 334-foot diameter steel "dome" was one of the largest in the world. This single feature garnered the most attention. Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and even Look magazine highlighted the structure. The Charlotte Coliseum was the first building by a Charlotte architect to be featured in a foreign architectural publication. The August 1956 issue of Architecturra, an Italian journal, included a two-page article on the construction of the building‘s imposing dome.
Until next week!
"The Original Concept and Design of Charlotte College: 1957-1965," by Mary Carolyn Dominick (2013); published by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. Further works cited therein.
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