By Lou Perron
While there are some terrific and architecturally important houses in the Triangle, it is not often that I see one of such historical significance as the “Gamble House,” located in Old North Durham. This is an International Style house, looking like something out of Europe built in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s.
When I saw the listing in the MLS, I thought, where is this building? When I checked on the map, I realized that I must have driven by it hundreds of times without seeing it behind its brick wall and overgrown plantings.
The first time I went to see the Gamble House, I was fascinated. How did this house get here? Though I studied architecture in a previous life, my schooling was far away from North Carolina, so I wasn’t aware of that the Gamble House is well known to the local architectural community.
So I looked it up on Endangered Durham. (http://endangereddurham.blogspot.com) and then George Smart’s website for Modern homes in the triangle area (http://www.trianglemodernisthouses.com). Then I started connecting the dots. Some time ago I had peeked in at the neighboring Dillard house, on the corner of Mangum and Markham, not realizing what was next door. In fact, the land for the Gamble House was split off of land owned by the Dillard family. Mrs. Gamble was the daughter of Richard E. Dillard. On the land given by Mrs. Gamble’s parents, the Gambles built one of the earliest examples of a residence in what had become known as the “International Style.”
The name “International Style” comes from a book written in 1932 by the architect Phillip Johnson and the historian Henry Russell Hitchcock for an exhibit of modern architecture at the relatively new Museum of Modern Art in New York. Johnson had ridden a motorbike around Europe looking at postwar buildings, especially those influenced by the French architect/painter know as Le Corbusier and a German school of design called the Bauhaus. (He also got swept up in the Nazi movement, but that’s another story.)
Some of the key ideas of the International Style, as put forth by Hitchcock and Johnson are:
Form follows function – you can tell what is happening on the inside from looking at the outside. Since the functions necessary on the interior do not need to be squeezed into a predetermined form, this creates an emphasis on balance rather than symmetry.
Materials out of the industrial age allow creation of open spaces with exterior walls that need not be load bearing and can be opened to the exterior with strip windows. Roofs can be flat. Thus Volume is created by a series of planes covered by a “curtain.” The materials themselves create the detail. This lack of ornament also allows the volume to take precedence.
The International Style was slow to catch on in America. Part of the reason is that the forces of tradition in European culture were not present here, so a basic motivation was missing. (The International Style in Europe was tied to a strong social contract.) Further, especially in the South, which was generally conservative, there was little interest in this movement outside of small groups.
To build the Gamble House in 1935, in Durham, North Carolina seems extraordinary. It took a combination of 1) a client who clearly was interested in the arts and architecture, and in particular modern architecture, and who had funds (during the Depression) and the willingness to not only build but also to live in a house singularly different house from those of all of their neighbors and friends; 2) an architect who had the talent, interest, understanding and willingness to create and implement such a design; 3) a support network so that such a design could exist and persevere in NC; and 4) building techniques and materials not commonly used here.
With these challenges, how did the Gamble House get here? One connection to North Carolina I knew: In the early 1930’s, Black Mountain College had taken some of the Bauhaus faculty fleeing Germany. (The influence of Black Mountain College can be seen in the NCSU School of Design and from there to modern architecture throughout North Carolina.) Black Mountain College was near Asheville, the home of the architectural firm that designed the Gamble House, Greene and Rogers (though I found differing accounts of who the architect of record was). This seemed more than a little coincidental. Then I discovered this in a paper by David Black for the National Registry of Historic Places:
Perhaps the earliest, and one of the best, of these homes was the Howard Gamble House (NR), built in Durham in 1935. It was designed by W. Stewart Rogers of the Asheville firm of Greene and Rogers. Rogers was an Asheville native, but had received his Master of Architecture degree from the School of Architecture at Harvard, where he studied under Walter Bogner, an Austrian architect whose work had been influenced by Gropius. (Claudia Roberts Brown, National Register nomination for the Dillard and Gamble Houses).
(Walter Gropius was headed the Bauhaus in Germany, then emigrated to the US and became faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.) So while I’ve uncovered no evidence that Black Mountain College was connected to the Gamble House, the International Style had its students in North Carolina.
But how about the design of the Gamble house, itself?
The siting of the Gamble house is incredible. From the street, it’s a geometric stack of blocks, stuccoed white, punctured by bands of windows that wrap around the corner, and topped off with a series of flat roofs. The lot looks flat from the front approach, but this is hardly what you find when you step inside. You move through a central entrance, featuring to the left a tight curved staircase with a beautiful spiral metal railing. The floor is a fine grain hardwood like maple. Ahead of you is a large central room with fireplace and an enormous window looking out at huge hardwood tree and the land falling away into the distance. It’s hard to imagine that you are in the middle of Durham.
The land below has been subdivided, but because of an easement for the large high voltage lines, this land has yet to be built upon. Not surprisingly, the large transmission tower at the end of the driveway has been a deterrent to many prospective buyers of this unique house.
Originally there was a series of balconies and outdoor terraces on the second floor, but over time these have been enclosed, making the front façade more monolithic than it was originally. The windows have almost all been replaced, without the grids of the steel framed windows and their detail.
Two large additions have been built off of the living room, with large exposed wood beams. I suspect that these beams came out of one of the large Durham warehouses that were torn down in the last couple of decades.
Yet with all the changes, there are still some delightful details remaining. There is a curved canopy roof over the entry and a sweet round window to the right, bringing light into the bathroom and animating the facade. The living room ceiling is smooth plaster with two small recesses that give it a subtle cascading effect. There are niches in the walls of the staircase and the dining room that have glass shelve bases that can be lit from below. A window in the staircase brings borrowed light from above. And in the center of the dining room ceiling there is a large round tray ceiling, lit from a hidden recess. The upstairs has lots of light, two bedrooms with a huge changing room, a couple of sunrooms and a large terrace on the roof of the garage. The kitchen still even has some of the original marble countertops, and flour and sugar hoppers with cranks.
This is a house that was built for entertaining. This is a house that demands to be preserved.
(Note: At the time of publishing this blog, I was happy to hear that the Gamble House went under contract. I hope the new owners will have the respect, imagination, and finances to bring this unique building back to the gem it once was.)
Early Gamble House photo from the North Carolina Collection, circa 1940. Historic details of the Gamble house thanks to Endangered Durham, Triangle Modernist Houses and David Black paper on Early Modern Architecture in Raleigh Associated with the Faculty of the NCSU School of Design, Raleigh, Wake County, North Carolina for the National Registry of Historic Places, 1994