Ac­ci­den­tal

Archivist

Atomic Ranch - - Period Picks - By Ge­orge Smart

NEARLY EV­ERY DAY, WE READ ABOUT THE DESTRUCTION OF AN­OTHER MOD­ERNIST HOUSE IN AMERICA. We moan for a few days then move on. The grief is brief—un­less it is a house in your home­town, per­haps one your fam­ily for­merly owned, or one you played in as a child or one you drove by and ad­mired for decades. Per­haps you have searched for a list of them on­line. It’s likely that you didn’t find much, as most mod­ernist houses by lo­cal and largely un­sung ar­chi­tects don’t get much at­ten­tion. Some, the most fa­mous, get press when they’re de­mol­ished. As for the rest, with­out know­ing where they are, how can any­one try to save the good ones? I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, a state capi­tol that, in 1961, had about 94,000 peo­ple—not very large. Raleigh’s North Carolina State Uni­ver­sity had an ar­chi­tec­ture dean, Henry Kam­phoefner, a mav­er­ick and avid mod­ernist, who led the school to na­tional promi­nence at a

Cu­rios­ity leads to a long-stand­ing en­deavor to chron­i­cle mod­ernist mas­ter­pieces.

time when mod­ernism was at its peak. Kam­phoefner en­cour­aged fac­ulty and un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents alike to take on pri­vate clients and to­day we have about 700 mod­ernist houses within 25 miles of the school.

For decades af­ter, the typ­i­cal Raleigh cit­i­zen, in­clud­ing me, was un­aware. Tucked away off main roads, these mod­ern gems went largely un­no­ticed, as flashier—but typ­i­cally unin­spired—houses, apart­ments and town­houses were built over the years. I had no idea about this his­tory un­til late one stormy night in 2007, when I de­cided to re­search mod­ernist ar­chi­tec­ture in Raleigh. I thought to my­self, “surely some­one has doc­u­mented all these in­ter­est­ing, liv­able works of art! The city, per­haps? The School of De­sign? Some au­thor?” There were records of oc­ca­sional house tours and Na­tional Regis­ter ap­pli­ca­tions, but there was no sin­gle, com­pre­hen­sive list.

I’m not an ar­chi­tect, an ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian, a li­brar­ian or in any pro­fes­sion re­motely re­lated to de­sign, but that night I thought, “what the hell, I’ll make a list.” As Jeremy Clark­son of Top Gear is fond of say­ing, “How hard could it be?” Turns out, not so hard! Within a few hours, I had a list of 20. My list in­cluded the home’s ad­dress, the owner’s name and—when­ever avail­able—a photo of the house and the ar­chi­tect’s name.

Show­ing that list to a few ar­chi­tects opened the flood­gates. By mid-2007, there were sev­eral hun­dred. Now the non­profit I started has doc­u­mented over 6,000 houses in North Carolina and around the United States by some of the best 20th cen­tury mas­ters like John Laut­ner, Wal­ter Gropius and Richard Neu­tra. Quite by ac­ci­dent, I’ve be­come an archivist, and I speak around the coun­try about my 11-year jour­ney, some­thing my wife calls “an ex­tended seizure.”

If you’re con­cerned that the mod­ernist houses you love are go­ing away, the first thing to do is get Googling. A few hours on­line and a chat with an estab­lished lo­cal ar­chi­tect will get you started. You’ll be amazed at what you can dis­cover and how many peo­ple want to help you.

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