Contributed by Patrick Lee Lucas
Many in North Carolina are familiar with the architectural legacies of Edward Loewenstein, the architect credited with bringing Modernism to Greensboro in a design practice that began in 1946 and ended with his death in 1970. In reaching the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of some of his first Modernist dwellings, our attention again goes to the ideals these residences represented in their built form and the snapshot that they provide as we look back to the mid-century and the changing community of Greensboro. As World War II came to a close, Loewenstein joined many other designers in the United States who took advantage of new materials and technologies advanced by the war, and produced buildings that fit more squarely with the goal of Modernism to shake off the traditional world and its modes of habitation.
Part of a larger national design discourse, Loewenstein and the others said something different with their predominantly horizontal buildings and carefully sited structures full of light and rich material textures. Fastened together through free-flowing spatial relations that cemented indoor-outdoor visual and physical connections, Modernist dwellings were most at home in the suburbs. Greensboro’s post-war residential neighborhoods received not only Loewenstein’s well-designed edifices, they served as the location for countless Ranch-type, bi-level, and tri-level buildings that, despite traditional details, took advantage of their large non-urban lots as they spread out in the suburbs. Like other communities in the United States, Greensboro embraced suburban expansion with great fervor, transforming the community by the 1960s to one characterized by large tracts of low-slung houses supported by strip shopping centers rather than the more upright commercial downtown and the traditional neighborhoods around it populated by residents living in Bungalows, Four Squares, and the ever-present buildings in the Colonial Revival style.
Several factors of Loewenstein’s work distinguish Greensboro from the thousands of communities experiencing the same mid-century expansion into areas increasingly different from the urban core. First, Loewenstein wove his Modernist dwellings onto vacant lots in the Irving Park neighborhood, first established in the 1920s, but not fully developed due the Great Depression and World War II. Thus his structures sit alongside a much older generation of buildings in sharp contrast to their conventional presence on the landscape. Second, though Loewenstein’s firm produced both traditional and Modern suburban houses, the number of Modernist structures represents a greater proportion of the total residential commissions from the firm (something near one quarter of the residences he designed), suggesting that Modernism – at least for one segment of the population – represented a clear alternative for the public statement a house represents to its neighbors and the community at large. In this instance, a largely Jewish clientele broke ranks with the built environment traditions of Greensboro (and, more broadly, the South) in a statement of non-conformism. Third, Loewenstein’s design practice (with various partners) made outwardly visible his commitment to civil rights and community service for his adopted home. Loewenstein was the first to hire African-American designers and draftsmen in Greensboro (W. Edward Jenkins and Clinton Gravely, among others), he worked diligently on commissions donated to organizations like the YMCA, the YWCA, the Cerebral Palsy Association, and contributed to the design and construction of the Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital, along with fellow Greensboro architect, Charles Hartmann, Jr.
One other aspect of community service for Loewenstein included his commitment to education and the development of the Commencement Houses for the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. In 1957, Gregory Ivy, then Chairman of the Department of Art, hired Edward Loewenstein to work with students in both the Art and the Home Economics departments to design and construct a residential structure. Loewenstein’s syllabus for the course carefully articulates the necessity for students to learn the realities of actually conceptualizing and constructing a residence, rather than rely on traditional classroom lectures. Loewenstein brought to the effort Eugene Gulledge, president of Superior Construction, who, with his wife, served as the client for the students and then functioned as general contractor for the job. Gulledge challenged the students to design a house that could be sold in Greensboro, suggesting that it could contain “pioneering ideas of layout and design, but not be so radical as to make it unmarketable.”
The students created a three-story structure, taking advantage of the sloping 95’ x 200’ lot on North Elm Street. Dubbed the “Commencement House” by the class, the structure was completed over the course of an academic year and on 29 May 1958, Mrs. Luther Hodges, then First Lady of North Carolina, snipped the ribbon on this all-electric home. Nancy Downs, Woman’s Commentator for WUNC-TV and host of the show “Potpourri,” covered the opening in one of Greensboro’s first live remote broadcasts. She interviewed the 23 members of the class, students from all over North Carolina and beyond, and helped to publicize the accomplishments of these young women. Their efforts were recognized in the November 1958 edition of McCall’s Magazine. Shortly after the opening ceremonies, the house was sold to the Squires family of Greensboro. (Coincidentally, at the conclusion of the interview, Ms. Downs told Edward Loewenstein if there were the opportunity to design another Commencement House, she would be willing to be the client for the project. In 1965, after her marriage to Herbert Smith, Nancy Downs did just that…as you will read about below).
Building on the success of the 1958 house, Loewenstein, Gulledge, and Ivy repeated the design opportunity for students at Woman’s College and the resulting house was built on Rockford Road in Irving Park West. This more modest one-story structure, contained hallmark features of Loewenstein’s work, just like the 1958 home, in a compact three-bedroom floor plan. A carport helped to tie the structure to the ground in its provision for a pierced concrete block wall fronted by lush landscape elements. The house, built for Mr. and Mrs. Hinsdale, he a Vice President of Jefferson-Pilot, the structure has been home to two families since its construction and remains remarkably intact, with original fixtures, lighting schemes, and some of the textiles surviving today. Like the 1958 house, this structure involved dividing the students into teams to address floor plans, wiring, plumbing, decoration, etc. As this house had a client, the students worked directly with the Hinsdales to sort out their needs and a budget. They specified all of the furnishings and finishes in the house and worked with Loewenstein to address the architectural envelope. The 1959 house was featured in the magazine Living for Young Homemakers. Collaborators on the 1959 house project echo those of 1958, a veritable who’s who of local suppliers, contractors, and furniture dealers. Like 1958, the 1959 house was certified as a Gold Medallion All Electric Home, with major sponsorship from Duke Power Company.
Facing a deadline for a magazine resulted in an expedited timeline for design and construction of the third Commencement House, on Gaston Road in Sedgefield. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Smith worked with students in Loewenstein’s course who, in one semester, designed and built the house, extensively profiled in Brides magazine in two successive issues of 1965. As was the case with the two previous houses, the students divided into teams to address aspects of the design. About the project, student Marlis Jordan noted “we’d had meaty courses in color and space and drawing and suddenly we faced realities – dirt and nails and electrical outlets and shingles.” Fellow student Clara Reese summed it all up, stating: “This wasn’t a class, this was an experience!”
The students themselves struggled with the notion of modernism as they made initial proposals. The designs of three finalists selected from the class (Sue Lemmond, Maija Ernestsons, and Polly Colville) were developed further and eventually the class (and the clients) chose Colville’s two-story plan with a 17-foot high wall in the entrance hall, and second story deck overlooking the golf course. The interiors featured pickled birch paneling, white walls, medium tone flooring, natural brick volumes, off-white rugs, and natural-color curtains as strategies for softening the starkly Modern lines of the building. Loewenstein continued to work with this class of students, as with the two previous houses, assisted by John Taylor, an employee at the Loewenstein-Atkinson firm. Gregory Ivy who, by this time, had left the Department of Art and was working in Greensboro as a private design consultant, also aided the project.
Whether through the Commencement Houses or in the more than forty residential commissions standing, mostly in Guilford County, Loewenstein’s work still has relevance today and tells of the forces that shaped Greensboro after World War II. His surviving mid-century Modern houses communicate how the community’s suburbs (largely Irving Park and Starmount Forest) provided an enclave for Modern design as an alternative to – but alongside – traditional homes. Not only do Loewenstein’s residences provide physical evidence of how the work of one architect transformed the design outlook of the community; they also suggest how designer, client – and student – worked within neighborhoods and design context to manifest mid-century Modern sensibilities for North Carolina.
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The lessons from the Commencement Houses under Loewenstein’s lead have come back to teach again! In collaboration with Elon University School of Law and the UNCG Department of Art and a number of university and community partners (including PGI), students in the Department of Interior Architecture will open an exhibit entitled: “Close to Home: Edward Loewenstein + Modernism in Greensboro” to explore the legacies of this time period and the work of Loewenstein on design today. The exhibit, in part, addresses the importance of the Commencement Houses as a tool for educating designers in the 1950s and 1960s and considers their special sense of place within the suburbs. Collaboratoring students in design studios taught by Chris Cassidy, Seth Ellis, Richard Gantt, and Amy Lixl-Purcell (UNCG Department of Art) join students in a design-build studio taught by Patrick Lee Lucas. In this offering, students from both departments manifest works inspired by, or reacting to, Modernism as expressed by Loewenstein. The exhibit also includes important opportunities for visitors to deepen their appreciation for his mid-century architectural resources and to capture some sense of their defining place in our community of the 1950s and 1960s. Finally, the exhibit allows history to repeat itself as students from the university undertake a real life construction that benefits their knowledge as artists and designers.
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close to home : edward loewenstein + modernism in greensboro
gatewood gallery : 6 november to 1 december 2007
elon university school of law : 6 november to 1 january 2008
opening at gatewood : 8 november 2007, 7pm
special events through the following weekend include a movie screening and a mod show + tell
For more information about the exhibit: http://www.modernism.uncg.edu