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Survey and Research Report


James and Elizabeth Purcell House (1956)

1. Name and Location of Property:
     James and Elizabeth Purcell House
206 Hillside Dr.
         Davidson, NC 28036

2. Name and Address of the Current Owner:
James N. Bartl and Dawn A. Blobaum
        PO Box 1306
        Davidson, NC 28036

3.  Representative photographs of the property:
This report contains representative photographs of the property. 

4.  Maps depicting the location of the property:
 This report contains a map depicting the location of the property.
        The UTM coordinates for the property are: 17 513840E/3928839N

5.  Current deed book reference to the property:
     The current deed reference is book 11988, page 189.


6.  A brief historical sketch of the property:
This report contains a brief historical sketch of the property.

7.  A brief architectural description of the property:
This report contains a brief architectural description of the property.

8.  Documentation of why and in what ways the property meets criteria for designation set forth in N. C. G. S. 160A-400.5:  
         a. Special significance in terms of its historical, prehistorical, architectural, or cultural importance:
The Commission judges that the  James and Elizabeth Purcell does have special historical significance within the context of Davidson, N.C.  The Commission bases its judgment on the following considerations:

                  1.  There are few modernist structures in Davidson, with the Purcell House having the distinction as being the only example of a flat roof, contemporary design. When viewed comparatively to the traditional residential architecture of the town, the Purcell House, designed by Harold Cooler, stands out with even greater cultural significance.

                  2.  The Purcell House is also intimately connected with Davidson College. James Purcell was an English professor and later the Dean of the college's English Department.
         b. Integrity of design, setting, workmanship, materials, feeling, and/or association: The Commisson judges that the architectural description included in this report demonstrates that the James and Elizabeth Purcell House does meet this criterion.

9.  Ad Valorem tax appraisal:
        Total- $218700

10.  Date of preparation of this report: 16 December 2005

11.  Prepared by: Jason S. Nichols

Historic Overview Statement

  Purcell House

Summary of Significance

The James and Elizabeth Purcell House has special historic significance for four fundamental reasons.  First, it is locally important as an outstanding example of a Modernist style home in Davidson, N.C.  Second, the James and Elizabeth Purcell House was designed by well known Charlotte area architects, Marshall McDowell and Harold Cooler. Third, the house demonstrates the ability of Modernist designers to respect the topography and overall setting within which the structure was to be placed.  Finally, the home has a historical connection to Davidson College as it was built for a long-time member of the school's faculty. 


The history of  Davidson , N.C. is intertwined with Davidson College. In 1835, a planter, William Davidson III, donated 469 acres of farmland to the Concord Presbytery for the establishment of a Presbyterian college for young men. Davidson College, named after Revolutionary War General William Lee Davidson, opened its doors in 1837 with a curriculum steeped in mathematics, philosophy, Christian theology, and classical studies. Two buildings of particular grandeur were constructed in the 1840s- Eumenean Hall in 1848 and Philanthropic Hall in 1849. The Greek Revival style structures stood as the focal point of the campus and housed the student debate societies.[1]

 Eumenean Hall  Philanthropic Hall

The town, from its inception, has grown in proportion to the needs and expansion of the college. Faculty residences and former student boarding houses are prevalent in the historic built environment of the town. While the college campus is largely classical in design, the community’s residential architecture is composed primarily of folk Victorian and Colonial Revival style dwellings. Folk Victorian architecture was made possible with the arrival of rail, which gave residents access to cheap building supplies, such as machined nails and milled lumber. Davidson, like many other areas of the country, reflects the popularity of Colonial Revivalism during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Originally serving as faculty housing, many well-maintained examples of this traditional style can be found along Davidson’s tree-lined streets.[2]

Typical Davidson Architecture: Folk Victorian and Colonial Revival

Shearer- Alexander House 
504 Lorimer Rd. 
517 Lorimer Rd. 


It is the traditional architecture of the community that contrasts so greatly with the Purcell House. The dwelling is located within walking distance of the town's commercial core and the college and is positioned at a highly visible location near one of Davidson’s prominent Colonial Revival neighborhoods along Lorimer Road. The Purcell House, along with three neighboring homes, was built on what was once a farm pasture. Davidson College purchased the land in the 1950s for faculty members. The college, however, was not responsible for the construction of the houses. The faculty and their families, together, chose mostly modern designs of their future homes.[3]

Neighboring Modern homes on Hillside Dr. 
                        103 Hillside Dr.                                            102 Hillside Dr.

Modern architecture reflected the nation’s optimism during the 1940s and 1950s. World War Two was over; the economy was healthy; and there was hope that technology would cure society’s problems.[4] The new “dream” home was promoted by architects as a means to change the way society functioned. New technology and materials allowed designers to experiment with space in a manner not possible by earlier architects.[5] Large expanses of glass provided seamless continuity between interior and exterior environments. Reinforced concrete gave way to long, unsupported spans, allowing flexibility in room design and application. Surveys conducted during this period revealed that homeowners desired modern conveniences and comfort over traditional notions of beauty. Topping the list of desired home features were: rows of built in cupboards and closets, multi-purpose rooms, easy access to a basement, and a sun deck. Architects heralded themselves as fashioners of the "ultimate home," and thus, family planners.[6] As architectural historian Clifford Clark expressed, “The new style, in other words, would emerge in an innovative and non-ideological way from the design process.”[7]

Modernism was popular in commercial and institutional buildings, but the majority of residential customers still favored more conservative styles. Suburbs developed rapidly in response to the post-war housing demand, and architecturally designed houses all too often gave way to cheaper contractor built ranch homes.[8] Contemporary Modernism were favored by some homeowners, however, especially those who aspired for a sophisticated lifestyle.  The Contemporary Modernist style had its roots primarily in three earlier traditions- the Prairie school, popularized by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the International style, which originated in Europe after World War One and which was transported to the United States by the likes of Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, and the Craftsman Bungalow tradition of the early twentieth century.[9] High International Modernism, with its stark white facades, flat roof and juxtaposed orientation against the landscape melded with the features that popularized the Prairie and Craftsman styles- brick and stone cladding, hipped and gabled roof designs and integration with the natural environment.
                        Frank Lloyd Wright, Robie House, Prarie Style

Die Villa Savoye von Le Corbusier (1928)
                        Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, International Style

                        Craftsman Bungalow

The Purcell House is a Contemporary Modernist home of high integrity and rich associative history. James Purcell was a longtime faculty member of Davidson College, serving from 1939 to 1980. He was exposed to the Contemporary style while in Florida. His wife, Elizabeth, said he grew to love “the flat roof houses,” and knew he wanted one when the opportunity arose in Davidson. The Purcell’s had no qualms about building one of the first modern homes in conservative Davidson, because they cared little about what others thought of the house. James and Elizabeth liked the home, and it provided plenty of room for their children.[10] The Purcells entertained often, and the house became well known among the Davidson College community. The current homeowners expressed their surprise at the number of people familiar with the house [11]

The Purcell House carries further significance because it was designed by noted Charlotte area architects, Marshall McDowell and Harold Cooler. Cooler was an early proponent of Modernism and was a contemporary of other well-regarded architects, such as A.G. Odell, Jr., Jack O. Boyte, and Henry Kamphoefner. Cooler graduated from Clemson College in 1943 and, after serving time in the Army, moved to Charlotte, where rapid growth provided ample work for young architects. He began with Wooten and Wooten architecture and engineering firm, but soon formed a partnership out with Marshall McDowell. Cooler’s Modernist work focused primarily on commercial construction, because his residential clients preferred more conservative treatments. Consequently, not many residential examples of Cooler’s Modernist designs exist.[12]

 William Little House, Harold Cooler architect 


[1] Dan Morril, History of Charlotte-Mecklenburg,Ch.4, Internet version. 

[2] For the most detailed history of Davidson during its first one hundred years, consult: Mary D. Beaty. Davidson: A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937 (Davidson: Briarpatch Press, 1979).

[3] Interview with Elizabeth Purcell, conducted 12 December 2005.

[4] Survey and Research Report on the P. Conner and Harriet Lee House. 

[5] Clifford Edward Clark, The American Family Home, 1800-1960 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 198.

[6] Clark , 203-205.

[7] Ibid., 201.

[8] Final Report: Post World War Two Survey. Sherry Joines Wyatt & Sarah Woodard for David E. Gall Architects. 

[9] Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses  (New York: Alfred A. Knophe, 2002), p. 477, 482.

[10] Interview with Elizabeth Purcell.

[11] Interview with Elizabeth Purcell and interview with the current homeowners, James N. Bartl and Dawn A. Blobaum, conducted 12 December 2005. 

[12] Research and Survey Report on William E. and Penny E. Little House. 


Architecture Description


Modernist architects eschewed historicist details, preferring to evoke a feeling of progressiveness through their innovative designs. The Swiss architect, Le Corbusier called Modern homes a “machine for living.” Homes were to serve its residents, not the other way around. Most importantly, they should be functional and thus devoid of applied and superficial adornments. One should understand the structural logic of a dwelling and materials should be used in a judicious fashion. [1] Contemporary Modernism embraced these principles of the International Style, but also incorporated characteristics of the earlier Prairie and Craftsman styles, such as the use of wood and brick exteriors, gabled roofs, and integration with the natural environment. The Contemporary style was, in a sense, more palatable to American tastes than was International Modernism.

The James and Elizabeth Purcell House is a well preserved example of Contemporary Modernism. It is a one story, flat roofed structure with a brick foundation. It has a rectangular front facade, but the rear elevation reveals an overall tee shape caused by an enclosed porch that was added five years after the original construction.[2] It has casement  windows in the front and East elevations, and hopper windows in the rear and West elevations. The house is situated at an unusual angle to the streetscape. When viewed along its axial line, the house forms a triangle with Lorimer Rd. and Hillside Dr.

                            Front Elevation                                                    East Elevation

The house is situated on an undulating corner lot with 135 feet of frontage on Hillside Dr.and 150 feet of frontage on Lorimer Rd. The dwelling is sensitively placed in terms of topography. From the front, the home has the appearance of being a natural extension of the terrain. The tall shrubbery gives the house a “human” scale. It is not until one moves around to the East elevation, that the true size of the structure is revealed. From this perspective, the dwelling appears two stories in height, but the foundation is composed of a half basement, with the remainder being a crawl space. The West elevation is situated even with the rise in the terrain, and the side entrance provides access to a space for outdoor activities.  A nine panel hopper window bank occupies half the wall space. This outdoor area is fully concealed by the wooded lot.
                 West Elevation/Hopper windows                         

The current owners have made some alterations to the home. The interior has changed substantially from its original design, though the current configuration mimics the original spaces somewhat. For example, though the kitchen is completely new, it is located in the same location as it original. This truth also applies to the other living spaces in the home. This writer had the pleasure of seeing the inside and believes it is in keeping with the functionality of the Modern philosophy. The most striking interior feature is the fireplace and hearth which is original and remains untouched. It provides the anchor around which the interior revolves. The current owners stated there is not one space in the home that they do not utilize on a regular basis.[3]
The original fireplace maintains an open continuity but provides some division of space.

Click here for renovation photographs 

The exterior of the house maintains a high degree of  integrity. The current owners have made five basic changes to the exterior. First, the original one piece fascia was rotted and was replaced with a three piece fascia of like appearance. Secondly, the built-up roofing material was replaced with a commercial grade rubberoid material. This has no bearing on the outward appearance. The single stepped rear patio was replaced with a similar two stepped patio in the same location. The rear railing was replaced with one of different design. The most significant alteration concerns the front fenestration. Originally, a double hopper window was located to the left of the front entrance. It was replaced with two banks of casement windows. The design for the windows was borrowed from the original casement window located to the right of the front entrance. 

              Before/ Hopper Windows on Left                    After/Casement Windows on Left

The homeowners, both architects, expressed that this change solved the lighting problem that prevented them from fully enjoying the interior space, which is presently used as a library.[4]. The other window casements and hardware are intact. The current owners managed to locate original parts (springs, seals, etc.) of the fifty-year-old windows. The doors were replaced for increased energy efficiency but occupy the original doorways.[5] The beautiful and well-weathered redwood siding is original.

Click here for more exterior photos

Click here for interior photos




[1] Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York: Alfred A. Knophe, 2002), 470.

[2] Interview with current homeowners, James N. Bartl and Dawn A. Blobaum, 12 December 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


Two Other Examples of Davidson Modernism

                            776 Virginia Rd.                                                         414 Lorimer Rd.
                          Shed style Modernism                                               Gabled style Modernism