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An Intersection of Architectural Masters

In early 1959, the world-renowned architect Edward Durell Stone formally abandoned the International Style of modern architecture with the unveiling of the new U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. Commenting on the new face of the America overseas, Frank Lloyd Wright declared: “It’s the only embassy that does credit to the United States.” Although very well received both then and now, it also put him on a path that would distance him from his peers in the community.

The inspiration for the North Carolina’s new Legislative Building came directly from the new embassy. At the time, the style was labeled as “Decorative Romanticism” and was a lightning rod for attention, both then and now.

The design of North Carolina’s new state house by Stone, in association with the local firm, Holloway & Reeves, was met with scorn. The founding Dean of the College of Design, Henry Kamphoefner, was quoted in the N&O likening the new Legislative Building to the “Raleigh branch of the Four Seasons Restaurant”.

He later blamed the reporter for taking his comments of context and blowing them out of proportion.*

Ralph Reeves (above, right), in association with Stone on the project, replied that Kamphoefner’s comments were “not in accordance with any kind of ethical conduct”. Fighting words over the new project were being exchanged in the papers between local heavyweights.

The State Senate in 1963. Image credit: Architectural Forum Magazine

Although the new building was met with some criticism, it also drew praise:

For North Carolina this structure marks a sharp departure from a long succession of uninspired public buildings. For architect Stone, of course, the building is not a departure but, rather, a restatement of present goals: permanence, refinement of materials, spatial drama, and, in plan, the elimination of corridors by the use of great interior courts.

– Architectural Forum, Dec 1963

The irony in all of this controversy is that it’s widely regarded as the last example of good state government architecture in Raleigh. The buildings that surround it on the state government mall are bland and boring at best.

Straddling a line somewhere between historical cues, lavish design, and modern design principles, it didn’t fit any known quantity at the time. Stone didn’t use the familiar Greco-Roman Ionic columns, arched entryways, or prominent pediments that people had come to expect from established state architecture.

It also wasn’t the minimalist modernist aesthetic, best illustrated locally in the Milton Small office building or the current Ralegh Orthopaedic Clinic. Instead, he fused elements of both -– a low profile, wide and sweeping roof lines, tall windows, with historical cues such as ornamentation and gardens.

One of Stone’s trademarks was the use of a wide variety of other allied arts– including painters, sculptors, and landscape architects. The landscape architect for this project was Raleigh Hall of Fame-r Richard Bell, working in conjunction Ed Stone Jr, the son of the Design Architect.

Incorporating beautiful greenery and other elements of landscaping proved to be an interesting challenge. From a lack of adequate drainage for the indoor plants, to state government bureaucracy, and some legislators vocally criticizing the project, it was quite a learning experience for a man that only had his own practice for a few years.

Some state legislators tried to persuade Bell to put tobacco plants on the rooftop gardens. Many of them were from tobacco-producing counties and after all, “North Carolina is a tobacco state!”. He politely rebuffed the suggestions and instead left behind beautiful patches of green that adorn the surroundings as well as the roof.

The patterns on the marbled columns, façade, and coffered ceilings are quite remarkable and unique for this area. According to Stone’s youngest son, Hicks, “this kind of ornamentation is distinctly Wrightian in origin”. You can see it in other examples of Wright’s work, such as the Ennis House in Los Angeles. The elder Stone and Wright were good friends until the latter’s death in 1959.

The Legislative Building’s ties to established local and international personalities doesn’t end with Stone, Kamphoefner, Wright, Bell, and Reeves, however. In 1963, Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller penned a poem entitled ‘Dymaxion Rating’ which sang the praises of Stone and the building he designed here in Raleigh.

In it, the final verse reads:

Dignity
For common man
In Raleigh’s white-green grace
Edward Durell Stone
In world architects’ first place

Today, the interior of the building appears almost the same as it did when it opened in 1963. There is plentiful use of red carpet, the water gardens are still in use, and the giant doors throughout retain the original unique knobs. Heck, even the furniture still has the look and feel of mid-century modernism.

Several of the images used in this article date back to 2004-2005, a time in which I was discovering the area of my newly adopted city. In terms of architecture, the Legislative Building has always remained close to my heart.

The infinite perspective given by the columns together with the square-spirals can give one a sense of a different place, right here in town.

It is unique, commanding, regal, and extraordinary in terms of architectural details. The Legislative Building is a treasure to all residents of North Carolina. With any luck, it will be regarded by future generations of Raleigh residents with the same level of affection shown to its older sister, the historic Capitol Building a block away.

Most asked questions by school children when visiting the Legislative Building: “Why is the red carpet blocked off?” and “Can the governor walk on it?”

Answer: Thousands of people walk on the carpet on a continuous basis. The maintenance and upkeep are too much for the illustrious carpet. And no, not even the governor can walk on the carpet.

Special thanks: University of Arkansas Special Collections for permission to republish Buckminster Fuller’s poem, Hicks Stone for Architectural Forum scans and historical information, and to Triangle Modernist Houses for use of Holloway and Reeves image.

* For more information on the (sometimes public) disputes between Kamphoefner and Stone/Reeves, see David Brooke’s thesis on Kamphoefner [PDF], page 112 (124 of the PDF)


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