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
9. Ad Valorem tax appraisal:
10. Date of preparation of this report: 16
11. Prepared by: Jason S.
Summary of Significance
The James and Elizabeth Purcell House has special historic significance for
four fundamental reasons. First, it is locally important as an
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
The history of
is intertwined with
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.
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
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.
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
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
Modern homes on 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.
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. 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.
As architectural historian Clifford Clark expressed, “The new style, in
other words, would emerge in an innovative and non-ideological way from the
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.
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
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
Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye, International Style
The Purcell House is a Contemporary Modernist home of high integrity and
rich associative history. James Purcell was a longtime faculty member of
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.
The Purcells entertained often, and the house became well known among the Davidson
community. The current homeowners expressed their surprise at the number of
people familiar with the house 
The Purcell House carries further significance because it was designed by
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
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
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.
William Little House, Harold Cooler architect
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).
Interview with Elizabeth Purcell, conducted 12 December 2005.
Clifford Edward Clark, The American Family Home, 1800-1960
(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 198.
Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses
(New York: Alfred A. Knophe, 2002), p. 477, 482.
Interview with Elizabeth Purcell.
Interview with Elizabeth Purcell and interview with the current
homeowners, James N. Bartl and Dawn A. Blobaum, conducted 12 December 2005.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The original fireplace maintains an open continuity but provides some
division of space.
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
After/Casement Windows on Left
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.. 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.
The beautiful and well-weathered redwood siding is original.
Click here for more exterior
Click here for interior photos
Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New
York: Alfred A. Knophe, 2002), 470.
Interview with current homeowners, James N. Bartl and Dawn A. Blobaum, 12 December 2005.
Two Other Examples of Davidson Modernism
414 Lorimer Rd.
Gabled style Modernism