It is possible to discuss the current condition of architecture in North Carolina by referring to a geologic event that happened between 150 and 200 million years ago: a great geologic uplift, known as the Cape Fear Arch, pushed what is now North Carolina upwards several hundred feet. The arch also raised the sea floor, which had once been joined with South America, and the waves produced by this change created the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands that are farther offshore than in any other part of the Atlantic Seaboard. As a result, North Carolina has shallow rivers and only one major harbor at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which is made treacherous by offshore shoals. Shifting river patterns caused by the Cape Fear Arch, which continues to rise, remove topsoil thus giving North Carolina poorer soils than in surrounding regions The Trever Condo. The lack of rivers for transport, inaccessible harbors and poor soils meant that early settlements in North Carolina were modest. For much of its history, North Carolina was a land of small landowners, its population scattered across a vast landscape.
Though we have become the 10th largest state in the nation, our dispersed settlement pattern persists to this day. And that dispersal has created among North Carolinians a spirit of independence that is individualistic, self-sufficient, resourceful, and proud. If we have less wealth, we have less pretense. A long history of dwelling apart can also engender a people who are watchful of their neighbors, self-righteous, and at times dour. I believe that all these qualities can be found in the architecture of North Carolina, not only in the past but also in the present.
Today an urban crescent nearly 200 miles long straddles the Cape Fear Arch along Interstate 85, from Charlotte to Raleigh, an urban banana-like farm where, as every proud Carolinian will tell you, there is chardonnay on every table, NPR in every car, and enough digital progress to make, if not a Silicon Valley, a silicon Piedmont. Parallel to this strip, which is about eight miles wide, there lies an older North Carolina, a quieter place where thousands of small frame houses, vegetable gardens and barns rest in the countryside. In these places it is possible to see an architecture of plain living made by hard-working people not opposed to wealth but not happy with opulence either. I believe there is a rare beauty here, portrayed in the paintings of Sarah Blakeslee, Francis Speight, Maud Gatewood, and Gregory Ivy, and in the photographs of Bayard Wooten.
The diversity of plant and animal life in North Carolina is another legacy of the Cape Fear Arch. Six fully distinct ecological zones span the state, from the sub-tropics of the coast to the Proto-Canadian climate of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. Today our architecture trends towards sameness across this tapestry of plants and climate, but it was not always so. To a degree that seems remarkable now, the early settlement pattern of North Carolina tells a human story of ordinary buildings close to the land, as varied as the mountain tops and coastal plains on which they stand.
The first buildings in North Carolina were sustainable to their roots: built of local materials, embedded in the landscape, oriented towards the sun and breeze. They were made by Native Americans, not Europeans, in the eastern part of our state. In 1585 English explorer and artist John White documented them in drawings that depict a native people at rest in nature. For over three hundred years this pattern of local adaptation would persist across the state.
In the mountains, for example, farmers built their houses on wind-sheltered slopes facing south, next to a spring or a creek. They planted pole beans and morning glories to shade their porches in summer. Their houses were raised on stone piers to level the slope and to allow hillside water to drain underneath. The crops and the animals they raised varied from mountain valley to river bottom, according to how steep the land was and how the sun came over the mountain ridge. Their barns varied from one valley to the next for the same reasons.
Strewn across the Piedmont hills of North Carolina are flue-cured tobacco barns, built to dry what was, for over two hundred years, the state’s dominant cash crop. Sixteen to twenty-four feet square and usually the same height, they were sized to fit racks of tobacco leaves hung inside to dry in heat that could reach 180°F. Capped with a low-pitched gable roof, these humble barns remind me of Greek temples. Legions of them populate the landscape, yet no two are the same because farmers modified each standard barn with sheds to suit the micro-climate of his land. To know where to build a shed onto his tobacco barn, the farmer had to know where the sun rose and set, where the good winds came from, where the bad weather came from and when it came. He designed his house just as carefully because the lives of his children depended on his knowledge. The philosopher Wendell Berry has written that in such attention to place lies the hope of the world. Ordinary people who had no idea they were architects designed and built these extraordinary barns and farmhouses across North Carolina. Their builders are anonymous, yet they embody the wisdom of successive generations.
An equally extraordinary group of rustic cottages at Nags Head on the Outer Banks were also built on instinct for place — not for farming, but for summers at the beach. The Nags Head cottages date from the 1910-1940 era, and for nearly one hundred years have been the first things hurricanes struck coming in from the Atlantic. Though made of wood framing, their builders made them sturdy enough to resist danger, yet light enough to welcome sun and breeze, elevating each cottage on wooden stilts to avoid floods and provide views of the ocean. Porches on their east and south sides guaranteed a dry porch in any weather, but there were no porches on the north side where bad weather hits the coast. Clad in juniper shingles that have weathered since they were built, the Nags Head cottages were referred to by former News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels as the “unpainted aristocracy.” Today they seem as native to their place as the sand dunes.
Mountain houses, Piedmont barns, and ocean cottages suggest that there is a fundamental, direct way of building that, left to themselves, most non-architect, non-designer makers will discover. I can see this design ethic in corn cribs and textile mills, in peanut barns and in the way early settlers dovetailed logs to make a cabin. These structures are to architecture what words are to poetry. I see this ethic in the way a farmer stores his corn because a corncrib is simpler and quieter than most things we build today but no less valid because of its simplicity.
I think that the same ethic is present in the minds of people who want buildings today, because it shows up in structures unencumbered by style, fashion, appearance commissions, or advertising. In countless DOT bridges, soybean elevators, and mechanics’ workshops across North Carolina, I sense the practical mindset of this state.