Can Charlotte learn to love Modernist homes?
The house at 1154 Cedarwood Lane in Charlotte once sat on the eastern outskirts of the city, a wooded, secluded haven in the 1960s where artists would gather on Sunday afternoons. Today, it’s a potential historic landmark in a city that has never opened its heart to Mid-Century Modern architecture.
The original owners, potter Herb Cohen and visual artist and textile designer José Fumero, remember those days: Friends would show up early and stay late into the evening. Fumero would cook from his well-stocked pantry. Guests would sing, dance, read poetry, play instruments. And the members of Charlotte's small arts community would talk and dream about the future.
“We never knew who was coming,” said Fumero, now 88. It was a place where the doors were always open. It became a salon, of sorts, for artists.” That was just what he and Cohen, now 81, who then was exhibitions director and for a time acting director at the Mint Museum of Art, had hoped would happen.
Their box-shaped house and its Modernist architecture was an unusual one for that era in tradition-loving Charlotte. Designed in 1960 by Charlotte architect (and the duo’s friend) Murray Whisnant, it had a wall of windows overlooking a wide deck and tree-lined backyard, a flat roof and open rooms with angular lines and skylights. The 1,728-square-foot, three-bedroom house was designed to include a separate suite, with a kitchenette, living area, bedroom and bathroom for Fumero's parents, who lived for many years with Cohen and Fumero.
As renewed interest in Modernist design is surging in Charlotte and across the country, today’s owners of the Cedarwood Lane house are seeking to have it designated a historic landmark, to preserve not only its architectural significance as one of the few Mid-Century Modern-style houses in the city, but its cultural importance in the evolution of Charlotte's arts community.
“This house has soul,” said activist Angeles Ortega-Moore, who with her husband, arts consultant John Moore, bought it six years ago. “There is an energy of creativity in the house that is pretty strong. It's a jewel on the eastside.”
Over the past decade, the Charlotte City Council has designated two Mid-Century Modern homes in Charlotte as historic landmarks, one in Eastover and one in south Mecklenburg. That lets the owners defer 50 percent of annual property taxes and requires them to get approval for any physical alterations. But four years ago the council rejected the owners’ request for historic designation of a third Mid-Century Modern house in the Cloisters off Providence Road. In 2010, Davidson town officials approved designation of one house and action is pending on a second one. Several notable Modernist homes have been demolished with newer houses built on the lots.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Historic Landmarks Commission has informally agreed to complete a survey and research report on the Cedarwood Lane house, the first step in a process that will determine whether the commission will recommend landmark designation. The commission, which oversees 350 residential and commercial historic landmark properties in Mecklenburg County, is scheduled to vote on the study this month.
“Ten years ago, very few people were interested in Mid-Century Modern houses,” said Stewart Gray, a planner for the commission. “Many people thought they were ugly and they didn't think they were old, so they didn't see the need to save them. They were being radically remodeled or demolished. People (in earlier decades) had this same attitude about Victorian homes and Craftsmen-style houses.”
Modernist houses, which aim to provide a sense of bringing the outdoors inside, proliferated across the country after World War II but never won widespread popularity from homeowners, who preferred more traditional housing designs. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired styles built between the mid-1950s through the 1960s are generally described as Mid-Century Modern.
Only a few dozen Mid-Century Modern houses were built in Charlotte, where Whisnant became an award winning architect of modern architecture.
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To read a survey of post-World War II architecture in Mecklenburg County: click here.
Across North Carolina, there are about 1,200 Modernist houses, most of them Mid-Century Modern and most in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, which has the third largest concentration of Modernist homes in the country, according to the preservation group Triangle Modernist Houses. The five-year-old group offers an online resource for people to buy and restore Modernist houses as well as house tours and historical archives.
“Instead of trying to stand in front of bulldozers, we track the houses when they go on the market so the house stands a better chance of getting purchased and preserved,” said George Smart, the organization's founder and executive director.
Shannon Binns is part of the growing community of people who favor the straight lines and simplicity of Mid-Century Modern homes and their connection to nature. Binns, director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit advocacy group, bought a Modernist-style duplex four years ago in the Commonwealth Park neighborhood near Plaza-Midwood and is restoring it.
“It's important to preserve this type of architecture,” said Binns. “It's important to embrace the past to make our communities more interesting and diverse. It's like public art.”
Whisnant, who often went to the Cedarwood Lane artist gatherings, said he is encouraged by the increasing interest in an architectural style he has promoted for many years. “It's a little bit of enlightenment,” he said. “Architecture ought to be a creative activity.”
After beginning their research on the history of their home more than a year ago, Angeles and John Moore invited Cohen and Fumero to dinner. The longtime partners had left Charlotte in 1972 to open art studios in Blowing Rock but moved back to the city two years ago. They shared blueprints of the house, photos from its construction and afterward, and lots of stories. They also support historic landmark designation of their former home.
Nationally known artists occasionally joined the local crowd on Sundays, including sculptors Richard Lippold, known for his use of wire in geometric structures, and Fumio Yoshimura, who developed detailed wooden replicas of everyday objects, plants and machines.
“The second World War had opened the eyes of many people in Charlotte,” said Fumero. “They wanted innovation. They wanted creativity. Our gatherings were perfect for that period of time.”
And, he said, the modern aesthetic of 1154 Cedarwood Lane was just right, too.
Note: Slideshow photos of designated landmark Modernist houses in Mecklenburg County are courtesy of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.