Greensboro is best known – in architectural circles – for its flagship Italian Villa-style Blandwood Mansion, its signature Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Skyscraper, and its Art Deco-style Kress and Woolworth (International Civil Rights Center & Museum) buildings. However, to fans of modern architecture, Greensboro might represent a high-water mark in the region for its collection of Brutalist-style buildings.
Brutalism is the pragmatic name given to the style inspired by the French term béton brut, which literally means, “raw concrete.” It was popular among urbane and sophisticated designers during the 1960s when it was utilized to challenge the architectural landscape of college campuses and city centers. The style reflected an open and honest use of structural concrete, and leveraged a play between solid masses and voids of space. Arguably never a populist style, designers likely saw the pragmatic benefits of the style in the affordability of poured concrete.
Brutalist buildings are identified by their appearance of weight or mass that is often articulated through the use of concrete. Structural forms are often rectangular, and windows are often deeply recessed, taking the appearance of having been punched into masonry walls. The skin of the building is an important detail, often executed in concrete, sometimes formed into corrugated patterns or textured by hammer in order to expose the crushed stone aggregate inside. Structure is often highly manipulated, taking the form of buttresses, stacked trays, and even egg-crate effects. Often, the structure is a play on gravity, suspending heavy forms above voids, or by cantilevering masonry masses above glass or entrances.
Why Greensboro? The Gate City was the second largest city in North Carolina when Brutalism was at the zenith of its popularity. It was economically vibrant and architecturally confident as a manufacturing and educational center. Though the style was introduced as a sophisticated choice initially for academic and public buildings, it was applied to a broad selection of structures including a parking deck and even bus shelters!
A selection of Greensboro’s most iconic brutalist buildings includes the following.
The Greensboro Tower Apartments
1101 North Elm Street
Presaging Greensboro’s Brutalist bent, the façade of this residential high-rise suggests the solid forms characteristic of the style using brick. In February 1962, Towers Holding Corp. of Charlotte announced plans for a 14-story structure with 104 luxury apartments on North Elm Street. Roughly half of the units contained three bedrooms, another half featured two bedrooms. All units had two bathrooms, air conditioning and were accessd by high speed elevator. The building was innovative in being constructed using poured reinforced concrete. The construction system utilized V-Form concrete slab forming, popular for hospitals and dormitories at the time.
Harry Swimmer and Leon Greenberg were the principal officers of Towers Holding Corp. The designers and architects for the Greensboro project were Charles L. Bates and Conrad M. Tayler AIA, both of Charlotte. The general contractor was Little Construction of Charlotte and the structural enginner was Carver Hunt of Atlanta. Towers Holding built and operated the Queens Towers and Garden Towers in Charlotte, and acquired land for similar projects in Columbia and Greenville SC.
The apartments were redeveloped as Hampshire condominiums in the 1980s, and originally open balconies were filled in to provide more space. Other elements of the design remain intact.
Guilford County Governmental Plaza
Greensboro Municipal Building and the County Courthouse
200 West Washington Street and 201 South Eugene Street
Eduardo Catalano (1917-2010) of Cambridge, Massachusetts is the designer responsible for what some consider the best examples of Brutalist architecture in the southeast. Catalano was a native of Argentina, and he studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard through a scholarship. He taught briefly at the Architectural Association in London before his appointment as head of the Department of Architecture at the North Carolina State University School of Design in 1951. At NCSU he taught and practiced for five years, during which time he designed and constructed a revolutionary house that House and Home magazine named the “House of the Decade”. In 1956 he took a position at MIT where he remained for the duration of his career. Among his most important contributions were the Juilliard School of Music, one of five buildings at the Lincoln Center, and U.S. Embassies in Argentina and South Africa.
Catalano was selected for the Greensboro project by a 12-person advisory committee in 1966 that sought “something out of the ordinary” in appointing Catalano. The group was confident that he would design “something the people of Greensboro and Guilford County can be proud of for 50 years to come.” Criteria used to select the architect included design capability, site planning ability, professional qualifications, professional reputation and personal qualities. Catalano was recognized as one of the 10 leading architects of the world in 1956 and his design for the student center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was on the cover of Architectural Record magazine the month it was announced that he was chosen for the Greensboro project.
The complex is innovative and futuristic, especially through the lens of the 1960s. It is arranged around a futuristic courtyard of hanging gardens, terraces, balconies and graceful stairs. The landscape promotes a mid-century approach to urban design that separated pedestrian traffic from autos. Automobiles were parked beneath the plaza, called Governmental Plaza (later changed to Phill G. McDonald Governmental Plaza), and the entirety was landscaped using specimen trees such as Deodar cedar, gingko, red maple, live oak, crepe myrtle, and magnolia.
Architecturally, Catalano maintained the 1918 Guilford County Courthouse as a primary component of the complex, but mimicked the massing and grandeur of the older edifice in the new. The City Hall, also known as One Governmental Plaza, is an aggregate concrete building, set upon a podium, and rises in platforms of varying weight expressed in glass versus concrete. In a nod to the classical features of the historic courthouse, the top floor of the building is evocative of a dentil cornice. Glass is shaded in a darker tone to contrast with pale concrete. An interior atrium and glass roof allows sunlight inside the building, and positions the City Council Chamber central in the public’s eye.
In contrast, the new Guilford County Courthouse looks to the future with few nods to the past. The Plaza façade features a broken dentil form that echoes the two previously mentioned buildings, but the composition is primarily a counterintuitive inversion of solids versus voids. Set upon a podium, lower floors are glazed with dark glass, which provide a sense of lightness or void of space. Upper floors are progressively sheathed in masonry, and promote a sense of weight or solid. Upper floors are also progressively cantilevered to create a tension of upper floor solids floating above lower level voids. This tension of suspended mass is key to several Brutalist compositions.
Construction of the complex, including courtyard, used poured-in-place concrete and precast panels. All surfaces were carefully battered upon curing in order to chip-off the top layer of masonry to expose the underlying aggregate. The complex was completed by 1973.
Federal Home Loan Bank of Greensboro
444 North Elm Street
Perhaps emboldened by the progressive architecture of Catalano’s project, the Charlotte architectural firm Cameron, Little and Associates set out to design a bank office that was considered “eye-catching, was completed in 1970. The new building was a replacement for offices at 617 West Market Street, and served as a district bank office for member savings and loans in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and the District of Columbia. District banks were not able to own their own buildings until laws were changed by Congress in 1966. The Greensboro office was the first in the country to erect a new building. Total investment in the new structure was estimated at $1.75 million, with the Greensboro-based company George W. Kane as contractor.
The lead architect was Praise Connor Lee (1929-1977), a Grimesland, North Carolina native who graduated from the School of Design in 1960. He joined Charlotte-based J. N. Pease Associates, and worked with other firms before joining Cameron, Little & Associates in 1966. Lee became partner in the firm after Mr. Cameron’s death in 1967 and was responsible for the design of Federal Home Loan Bank in Greensboro. With an lofty budget and comprehensive scope of work, the project was a benchmark in Lee’s career. Lee established his own firm in 1971, and continued to work until his death.
The building features a stone podium supporting a monolithic cantilevered second floor. The second level features oversized punched windows with exaggerated frames. An open central atrium served all three levels of the building. The office building was purchased in 1973 by First Home Federal Savings and Loan of Greensboro as their company headquarters for a decade. Today, the building houses offices for VF Corp.
First Union National Bank
122 North Elm Street
The new city and regional operations offices for Charlotte-based First Union National Bank opened in this 10-story building on February 18, 1971. Among the striking features of the bank lobby were two wall rugs by V’Soske of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a well-known rugmaker. The architect for the building was Leif Valand of Raleigh. Daniel Construction was the general contractor for the $2.5 million building. The exposed aggregate sheathing, articulated concrete frame and structure, and deeply recessed windows make this building a great example of Brutalist high-rise architecture.
Leif Valand (1915-1985) was a prominent Raleigh architect from the late 1940s to the 1970s. He was born in Norway and immigrated to New York as a youth. Valand attended the Pratt Institute and practiced architecture in Scarsdale NY, before moving to Raleigh in the late 1940s to work on the Cameron Village Shopping Center. In his prime, Valand was among the most prolific architect in Raleigh. His works includes the Cameron Village Office Buildings and Apartments, Enloe High School, a Federal Building on New Bern Ave, North Hills Shopping Center, the Velvet Cloak Hotel, the Central Raleigh YMCA, and many private residences. Taking on partner Nelson Benzing in 1969, Valand, Benzing was the architect for both Holly Hill and Four Seasons malls. The First Union National Bank office tower is now operated as the Self Help Center, which has incorporated the Brutalist building form into their logo.
Southern Bell Building
100 South Eugene Street
In 1970, the Southern Bell announced plans to construct a new central office with a total project cost of $24 million. The 5-story, 180,000 building was an addition to an earlier Art Deco structure. The building was built to house a massive computer and telecommunications equipment. Described as having “concrete panels and exposed aggregate stone of alternating light and dark colors” it was designed by Holloway-Reeves of Raleigh, and constructed by George W. Kane Inc. of Greensboro. It was completed in 1972.
Holloway-Reeves was formed by partners, John S. Holloway (1923-2005) and Ralph “Bernie” Reeves, Jr. (1920-1984), both of whom graduated from North Carolina State College. The firm began in 1948 and eventually became one of the largest architectural firms in the state with commissions including school, government buildings, churches, residences, and hospitals. The firm collaborated with New York architect Edward Durell Stone on designs for the North Carolina State Legislative Building and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Greensboro Daily News Business Editor Conrad Paysour reckoned the new building for the regional telephone service provider was “nice to look at, even if it is reminiscent of dam construction.”
No. 2 Parking Garage
211 S. Greene Street
In 1969, a model of Greensboro’s No. 2 Parking garage was exhibited before City Council by J. Hyatt Hammond of Asheboro. The 650-car garage incorporated vertical exterior panels of precast aggregate similar to those used in the nearby city-county governmental center. The garage cost $1.5 million and was completed around 1972. A glass-enclosed elevator tower was designed to serve the building and to provide dramatic views of West Washington Street. The ground level, separate from the rest of the parking area, was to provide space for street-level shops and a sidewalk café.
John Hyatt Hammond (1926-present) grew up near the Randolph County community of Farmer, near Asheboro. He graduated from the NCSU College of Design in 1953 and started his own design firm in Asheboro in 1957. The firm quickly attracted attention on account of its forward-looking designs, and took on commissions for new schools, industrial projects, commercial, and residences. Hammond’s work in Asheboro remains a notable in that city’s architectural patrimony. The firm opened a second office in Greensboro in 1962, and it continued receiving recognition in the form of two awards in 1963 and 1965 from the AIA through Awards of Merit related to designs for the Asheboro Bank and Randolph Public Library.
In Greensboro the firm’s modernist legacy quickly left the Brutalist era and flourished in post-modernism, famously in consort with Cambridge Six on plans for the Cultural Arts Center on North Davie Street. The Brutalist-inspired municipal parking garage at the corner of Greene and Washington Streets remains the best known severely modern building in the Gate City associated with the firm that remains in use today.
In 2009, the Cemala Foundation commissioned Burnsville NC artist Ron Fondaw to revamp the Greene Street parking deck in downtown Greensboro with color and art.
Walter Clinton Jackson Library at UNCG
320 College Avenue
Contracts for the 10-story $3.05 million library were let in 1972 for the 120,000 square foot building. The structure was an addition to the earlier Jackson Library completed in 1950, and the tower was used primarily for book storage, but also provided space for technical services, private study, and small seminars. The building was designed by A. G. Odell Jr. and Associated of Charlotte.
Arthur Gould Odell Jr. (1913-1988) was born in Concord, N.C., and studied at Duke University before completing a bachelor’s of architecture degree at Cornell University in 1935. Odell took additional instruction at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris before returning to Charlotte in 1940 to establish his company Odell Associates. During World War II, he served in the US Army Corps of Engineers. Odell was elected president of the American Institute of Architects (1964-65). His most prominent designs included the Blue Cross Blue Shield Office in Chapel Hill and numerous projects in Charlotte.
Odell opened a regional office in the Wachovia Building in downtown Greensboro in 1971, staffed by A. C. Woodroof Jr. Wooroof was an established Greensboro architect, and the partnership led to several projects through the Gate City office in the Wachovia Tower, such as the Burlington Industries Research & Development Center on Swing Road, the Burlington Industries Corporate Headquarters at Friendly Center, the Jackson Library, the National Environmental Health Center for the U. S. Public Health Service in the Research Triangle Park.
The Jackson Library tower opened in 1973. Its design represented the evolution of Brutalist design as the movement evolved away from exposed concrete surfaces and presented a more formal white or marble façade. The white masonry façade of the library tower created a greater contrast to deeply-recessed dark windows, and worked to emphasize the mass and weight of solid bookend service towers that flanked the fenestrated north and south facing facades.
Today, Brutalist designs are enjoying a second look by architectural historians across the globe as many iconic examples cross the 50-year threshold. Contemporary art and public lighting campaigns are particularly fond of Brutalist facades as they provide a blank slate for projections of color that brighten the night streetscape.
Honorable mentions and future research in Greensboro include the Downtown Marriott Hotel, Gateway Plaza, Guilford County Jail, Community One Bank, Odell Office Building on East Lewis Street.