Threatened: Midcentury Modern House in Greensboro, N.C.
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Nov. 17, 2009
UPDATE: The motion to approve the rezoning failed 4 to 3; the Greensboro City Council will revisit the issue at a later meeting.
In the late 1950s, an architecture professor and his 23 students began building a house together in Greensboro, N.C. When Edward Loewenstein and students at the Woman's College Department of Housing and Design (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) completed the three-story house in 1958, McCall's magazine pronounced it "a real honey of a home."
Today, however, the so-called Commencement House is on the chopping block. Its owner, local developer John Stratton III, plans to tear down the three-story house for condominiums. At a meeting tonight, the city council will vote on re-zoning the house's 2.7-acre lot for multifamily use. Last month the local zoning commission voted 4-3 to allow the 24-unit condo project, but city council approval is required before Stratton's project can move forward. (Stratton Development did not return phone calls from Preservation.)
Vacant for about three years, the Commencement House is significant to the state, according to the state historic preservation office, UNC-G students, Preservation North Carolina, and Preservation Greensboro.
Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has been notified of the building's importance. "I urge the city to seek a creative solution that will allow the project developer achieve his or her goals while preventing what appears to be an avoidable loss of an important aspect of the city's architectural heritage," wrote Jeffrey Crow, deputy state historic preservation officer, in a Nov. 12 letter to Johnson.
"It's one of those under-appreciated, overlooked modern buildings," says Glenn Perkins, director of outreach education at Preservation North Carolina, who plans to attend tonight's meeting. "We hope the city council will require the developer to reach some sort of compromise to find a way to preserve part of the building."
It will take $235,000 to restore and upgrade the house, according to Vanessa Morehead, a graduate student in UNC-G's historic preservation program, who conducted a feasibility study of the building. Despite its deteriorating condition, "The house is worth saving," Morehead says. "Even though there has been some substantial damage, it's occurring in the addition that was inappropriately added."
A progressive architect at a time when that was not the norm in much of the American South, Loewenstein hired African American designers to work at his Greensboro firm. And he shared his interest in architecture and design with scores of students at the college. "Had Lowenstein not mentored these 23 women, then I may have been studying architecture somewhere else," Morehead says. "That was a novel concept in 1959."
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