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The Rise Of The Colonial Revival Style


 

Dr. Dan L. Morrill
July, 2000

These are the two homes of Charlotte Mayor Frank R. McNinch.  Different aren't they?  Why did the Mayor feel compelled to move?  These two houses represent a fundamental change that occurred in American architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- the rejection of Queen Anne Victorianism and the embracing of Colonial Revivalism.  That's the Liddell-McNinch House on North Church St. on the left and the Frank R. McNinch House on Sharon Lane on the right.

Everywhere today you will see the products of architects who fake their materials in order to simulate the charm of craftsmanship. Houses two years old look like two hundred years. . .. The public likes their scenic effect. There is a sort of refuge in it, as dreams are a refuge from reality. . .. This trend in architecture has so completely captured our domestic work, that. . .such homes. . . have become little theatres

Professor H. Vandervoort Walsh, Columbia University (1928)

       This article attempts to explain the rise of Colonial Revivalism in Charlotte and to set forth the consequences of that phenomenon in terms of appreciation of less revivalist motifs such as Modernism.  Overwhelmingly conservative, Charlotte's business elite favors revivalist styles of architecture, especially Colonial Revivalism. This is evidenced by the design of the Cornwell Family Life Center that Myers Park Baptist Church will build on the Bland-McAden House site on Selwyn Avenue.  The Family Life Center is Colonial Revival to its core. The architecture of the building is familiar, safe, traditional, and pleasant.  It stirs no deep emotions.  It breaks no new intellectual ground. Indeed, this writer finds it a bit boring.   The destruction of  the Bland-McAden House by Myers Park Baptist Church on July 17, 2000, raised little public outcry, even from the neighbors.  In this writer's opinion, this meager reaction was partly due to the fact that  the great majority of Charlotte's affluent citizens have little regard for the Craftsman style of architecture or for any other design that does not seek to mimic the past.

The Cornwell Center
The Bland-McAden House exhibits distinctive characteristic of the Craftsman style.  Note the broad, overhanging eaves, the exposed rafters, and the large, shed-roofed  front porch. Many Charlotteans think houses like this are ugly. The Cornwell Family Center is a purposeful replication of concepts of beauty that date from the Renaissance.  Designers such as Andreas Palladio and Sir Christopher Wren were among its champions. Note the pedimented entrance.

    In his 1984 essay on the history of architecture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett asserts that by the 1920s the homes and offices of elite Charlotteans "reflected this increased interest in tradition over innovation, in social correctness rather than risk-taking."  Many examples of  Charlotte's penchant for Colonial Revivalism come readily to mind.  Lynnwood, the local home of philanthropist and industrialist James B. Duke, was completed in 1922. The Howard Madison Wade House, designed by nationally-known architect Charles Barton Keen, was started in 1928 and finished in 1930.  The Alexander James House on Cherokee Road in Eastover looks like the centerpiece of a baronial estate. It was completed in 1929.

 
Lynnwood or the James B. Duke Mansion (1922). Architect: C. C. Hook. Howard Madison Wade House (1930).  Architect:  Charles Barton Keen.  
  
Architect Martin E. Boyer, Jr. designed this Eastover home in 1929.  Note the large gable roof with end chimneys, the oculus lunette in the front pediment, the dormers, and the central entrance with an arched fanlight above.  It essentially follows the same design philosophy as that found in the Gautier-Gilchrist House in Dilworth.

   The man who introduced Colonial Revivalism into Charlotte-Mecklenburg's built or man-made environment was Charles Christian Hook (1870-1938).  Hook was a native of Wheeling, West Virginia and graduate of Washington College, now Washington University,  in St. Louis.  He came to Charlotte in 1890 to teach mechanical drawing in the Charlotte public schools.  In May 1891, Edward Dilworth Latta's Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company or Four C's began selling lots in the streetcar suburb of Dilworth, and Hook began designing homes for wealthy suburbanites.  It was not long before he established himself as an architect. 

Charles Christian Hook as a young man.

     Among Hook's earliest houses was the Mallonee-Jones House at 400 East Kingston Avenue. Completed in 1894, it is an unambiguous example of the Queen Anne style.  The mechanical lathe and the scroll saw made it possible for architects to adorn buildings with lavish decorations in wood.  That's what the Queen Anne style was all about.  It was a testimonial to modernity and made little reference to the past..  Asymmetry and ornate wooden ornamentation or filigree were its fundamental characteristics.  Just three years later, in 1897, Hook completed his design for the Gautier-Gilchrist House at 320 East Park Avenue.  It is definitively Colonial Revival.  It is symmetrical.  Dormers penetrate a gable roof that surmounts the rectangular massing of the house.  The fenestration is regularly punctuated.  Modillions decorate the eaves, not lavishly ornamented bargeboards as one commonly finds in Victorian homes.

                   Gautier-Gilchrist House (1897)
  The contrast between these two houses designed by the same architect within a three year period is striking.  In the case of the Mallonee-Jones House, Hook was following accepted concepts of Victorian design.  The Gautier-Gilchrist House, on the other hand, shows that Hook was abandoning the Queen Anne style in favor of Colonial Revivalism.
Mallonee-Jones House (1894)                     
     Hook was following a national trend when fashioning structures like the Gautier-Gilchrist House.  Spurred on by such prominent architectural firms as McKim, Mead and White, Colonial Revivalism was sweeping the country in the 1890s.  "Colonial houses, with their white or brick red exteriors, their symmetry, and their symbolic ties to our supposedly plain, honest forebears, were the perfect antidote to Victorian opulence," writes Hanchett. In September 1894, a local newspaper announced that Hook's design for the J. Frank Wilkes House (no longer standing) on East Morehead St. would adhere to the following principles: 

 

"genuine 'ye olden time' house. . .after the style of the typical Southern home, with four large columns, two full stories high, surmounted by a classic pediment. Mr. Hook. . will make the plans after the true classic style of architecture, which at one time predominated in the South and is being revived. The most striking feature of the house will be its simplicity of design and convenience of arrangement. The so-called 'filigree' ornamentation will not be a consideration, and only the true design will be carried out and thus give Charlotte another new style. . . ." 

Hook "pointed the city in the new national architectural direction," says Hanchett.  Such Hook-designed houses  as the Villalonga-Alexander House, the Walter Brem House, and the William Henry Belk House had the  symmetrical massing and simple hip or gable roof shapes that are characteristic of  Colonial Revivalism.  

Villalonga-Alexander House (1901) Walter Brem House (1903) William Henry Belk House (1925)

     Hook also rejected Victorian ornamentation in commercial and public buildings.  The oldest extant non-residential structure in Charlotte that C. C. Hook designed is the Seaboard Air Line Railroad Passenger Station.  There is nothing Victorian about it.  It is instructive to compare the Seaboard Station with architect Frank Milburn's Spanish Mission style Southern Railroad Station that stood on West Trade St.  

Seaboard Air Line Railroad Passenger Station (1896)  This is the oldest C. C. Hook designed non -residential building still standing in Charlotte.  It is truly a remarkable design for its day.  A simple hip roof, regularly punctuated fenestration, and a general lack of ornamentation mark this building as essentially classical in form.  Frank Milburn's Southern Railroad Station was almost ten years younger than the Seaboard Station.  Its design philosophy appears less "up-to-date" than that used in the Seaboard Station.  That because it was not Colonial Revival.  It emulated the look of a Spanish Mission.  On a visit to Charlotte  President Wilson reportedly once asked if the building was fireproof.  When the answer was "yes," the President allegedly  said, "That's a pity."  The building was demolished in the early 1960s.
     The emergence and enduring popularity of the Colonial Revival style have added grace and beauty to Charlotte-Mecklenburg's built or man-made environment.  Neighborhoods like Dilworth, Myers Park, and Eastover bear dramatic testimony to this truth.  Also, just as with any other type of architecture, Colonial Revivalism should be appreciated as a distinctive phase in the evolution of the building arts.  But, at least in this writer's opinion, the public's affection for designs that draw their inspiration from America's grand homes of the 18th century has made the job of the historic preservationists more difficult in Charlotte and elsewhere.  

     Not a few people believe that preservationists should only be concerned about saving aesthetically pleasing buildings and that anything other than traditional designs are ugly and dispensable.  This writer remembers talking several years ago with a woman about the wisdom of preserving mill houses.  She was dumbfounded. "Why," she asked, "should we try to preserve an ugly thing like that?"

A lot of people reject the spending of money on restoring mill houses.  This one stands on Mercury Street in North Charlotte. Imagine what some people thought when they saw this shotgun house being hauled up McDowell St. on its way to be restored?
     Another difficulty arising from a love of Colonial Revivalism is a lack of appreciation or outright rejection of Modern architecture.  This aversion sometimes produces what preservationists derisively call "facadamies," the remaking of the outer walls of buildings to make them look more traditional.  The most obvious local example of this technique is what  happened to the Charlotte Public Library on North Tryon Street.  Designed by A. G. Odell, Jr. in the 1950s, the building was noted as an especially sensitive example of Modernism.  That is true no more.  The library has been expanded and done over to make it look like it was built "a long time ago."
Main Library
Odell designed the Charlotte Library to be open to sunlight.  He also was determined to save two large trees. Here is the building after it was "improved."  The walls have been bricked up.  The colors are more subdued.  Do you like it better?