In Summer 1996 I made a trip to Yanceyville early one Sunday morning, not with the intent of passing through as my family had done a thousand times before (to visit family in Virginia), but to stay the day and observe. This was the day I first peered upon Yanceyville’s vast architectural wealth. I walked all around town, examining the houses I had read about in books. There were elegant Greek Revival and Federal style homes surrounded by more yeoman homes that were as elegant in style if not in abundance. All the houses showed a restraint; a classical beauty the owners and builders had wanted to project in a small town once rich with wealth from the bright leaf tobacco farms surrounding Yanceyville in Caswell County.
That morning I walked down Main Street, looking for the house known as Dongola I had read about. A block or two before Dongola I came upon a house, no, an apartment building that just blew my mind! I remember sitting down on the sidewalk in front of the building for 20 minutes, just taking it in…an International Style building in Yanceyville North Carolina!
International Style Architecture is an architectural style, most popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s, that was an extension of the Modernist Art Movement. Proponents of modernism were rejecting the traditional forms of craft and society, usually rooted in religion and custom, and were looking for a modern way to express themselves in the new Industrial age. In new building forms, the major architects such as Gropius and Van Der Rohe adopted the idea of the “honest expression of structure,” doing so with simplified buildings devoid of ornament. The look was that of a sterile, simple look of a machine (by using concrete, glass and steel instead of more traditional wood).
International Style homes and buildings were mostly built in Europe and Israel. There were large pockets of the style built in the major cities in the United States, especially in New England.
Few of the style houses were ever built in North Carolina. Usually, a somewhat upper middle class family, say a physician, who was a bit more well-read and well-traveled than their friends and neighbors, would get the idea to commission an architect to design an International Style house. This was the case of the Dillard-Gamble house, built in Duke Park in Durham North Carolina in 1935, or the the 1939 Guy Bondurant House in Mount Airy North Carolina. Another fine North Carolina example is the1941 Studies Building, designed by A. Lawrence Kocher for Black Mountain College in Black Mountain North Carolina.
What I was beholding in Yanceyville that early Sunday morning was what is referred to as the Turner-White Apartments on Main Street. A white, stuccoed apartment building, devoid of ornament. The International Style.
This apartment building did not start its life in 1930 as an architect designed apartment building in the International Style. Amazingly, the Turner-White apartments started their life as a two-story brick Greek Revival Style house, built in 1840 on this site. The house was then overbuilt in 1930, with two curved entrances, additions, and the glass block. Imagine a house on this property such as another Greek Revival house in Caswell County, the Bartlett Yancey house. Now, look at the third picture in this post. Remove in your mind the curved addition on the left side, and the small curved entrance on the front. You have left a two story rectangle, 3 windows wide on the second story, and two windows and a door wide on the first. There is a chimney in the middle of the side wall. This is the 1840 Greek Revival original house. Very similar in form to the Bartlett Yancey house.
The 1930 builder removed the hipped roof, the wood trim around the windows and where the roofline meets the wall. A porch or front entrance of some sort was probably demolished. Then, the builder started the additions, square and simple. The windows are plain, flush with the wall, and made of metal, not wood. The glass block, new at the time, can be found in many North Carolina commercial buildings built in the 1930’s, as well as the few Art Deco structures in the state. They work well here too.
I am not sure if the under-structure was wood or brick, but the entire building was stuccoed and then painted a light shade. Stucco is not as pervasive in the Piedmont of North Carolina, not like it would be in California or the rest of the American Southwest. But, stucco has always been a popular building treatment in Yanceyville, and the surrounding counties. Parts of many of the most upscale houses built in Yanceyville are stuccoed, the exterior walls, or maybe just the brick chimneys . Tobacco barns and single pen log houses inhabited 100 years ago and today are stuccoed in surrounding Caswell County, a bit of form (a “richer” look applied to a lower form of house) and function (insulation).
Another holdover from the original Greek Revival house; the boxwood lined walk up to the house, now apartment entrance. The boxwoods, though trimmed on top, are thick and unruly, making the walk between the rows fit only for one person at a time. Other boxwoods are positioned in the yard. This boxwood “pattern” fits many other 19th century structures on Main Street, but does not fit an entrance to an International Style building. Luckily, the owner in 1930, and subsequent owners were smart enough to leave the boxwoods be.
To this day I am blown over by this apartment building. By its beauty, yes, but more how just how out of place it is! If champions of Modernism and International Style architecture needed a visual of tradition to rail against in 1930, downtown Yanceyville would have been perfect. But, the Turner-White apartments are here anyway. I do not know the exact story of how that came to be; the story of the owner, the designer, the builder in 1930, but I will stay on the case. I wonder if that is just what the builder had in mind? To stand out in the loudest possible way architecturally (in 1930 perception) from the conformity of the surrounding homes.