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North Carolina Triangle a hotbed for fans of modernist homes

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A 1950s two-bedroom home in a neighborhood just outside downtown may not seem special at first glance, but this North Carolina house has just been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a superb example of midcentury modern in a neighborhood known for the architectural style.

Jacquelyn Jordan, a school principal who bought the home in Raleigh's Cameron Village, says she wasn't that impressed when she saw the house from the outside in 1998. "But I went inside, and I just loved it. I loved the big rooms and the big windows. I walked into the backyard, and I really fell in love with it."

Fans of modernist architecture estimate that North Carolina, particularly the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, has the third-largest collection of modernist homes in the country after Los Angeles and New York's Long Island. George Smart, executive director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, bases the estimate on his research, which shows the Triangle area of North Carolina with 700 to 800 modernist homes. Statewide, he estimates North Carolina has 1,200 to 1,300 of the homes.

The local proliferation of the style has an academic connection, says Smart, whose nonprofit is dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting modernist homes, along with encouraging the building of new ones in the same style.

In 1948, North Carolina State University started a new School of Design and hired Henry Kamphoefner, one of the foremost modernist professors in the country, to head it. He brought in top-notch modernist faculty and students and within two years, "the school was on the map," Smart said. Frank Lloyd Wright, whose pioneering aesthetics were reflected in the trend, spoke there in 1950, and Buckminster Fuller was a frequent lecturer.

But just having the best modernist faculty and students wasn't enough for Kamphoefner, who encouraged professors and students to design homes for themselves, family and friends. "They would build little great houses all over Raleigh and some in Durham in the late '40s, early '50s, until modernism reached its peak in the late '50s. And then houses were going up all over the state," Smart says. The building continued into the late 1960s, when modernism lost its glow.

The Wachovia Building Co. built many of the Cameron Village ranch homes, including Jordan's. While the company and the school weren't connected, the first owner of Jordan's home was Arthur McKimmon, a Raleigh architect, and his wife, Elizabeth. Jordan's home maintains the same footprint as it did in 1951, and even the breezeway between the home and the garage hasn't fallen victim to the urge to enclose the outdoors as much as possible.

North Carolina is at the forefront of recognizing midcentury modern homes and buildings, said Paul Lusignan, historian with the register.

"We're looking at that time period now as an era unto itself," he said. The AMC television show "Mad Men" contributed to interest in the period, although not necessarily to interest in the architecture. The show was set in New York City and filmed in Los Angeles, with few exterior shots.

Midcentury modern furniture is also one of the hottest and most expensive trends in home decor right now.

But the popularity of the architecture declined in the '60s partly because design concepts exceeded materials science. Architects were designing details that couldn't be built well, such as flat roofs, which ended up leaking, Smart says. Now a rubber membrane goes under the roof, and moisture isn't an issue, but that know-how didn't exist then.

Another factor in the decline of the trend was the American tendency to accumulate belongings that must be stored in basements and attics, which are typically not part of the modernist design.

Jordan learned that the hard way after she found herself with her mother's furniture from a 4,000-square-foot home in the mountains. Once she sent her mother's oversized armoire and other pieces off to new homes with relatives and friends and purchased new items at a modernist used furniture store, Jordan saw the true beauty of her home.

"It's nice to come home to a sanctuary of sorts, where there's not a lot of clutter," Jordan says. "It's kind of like 'ahhhh.' It calms me down when it's like that."

If You Go...

MIDCENTURY MODERN IN NORTH CAROLINA: The Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill has several neighborhoods with modernist homes. Homes are typically occupied and not open to tourists, but photos and some addresses for self-guided drive-by tours can be found at http://www.ncmodernist.org/raleigh, http://www.ncmodernist.org/durham and http://www.ncmodernist.org/chapelhill. The Triangle Modernist organization also occasionally hosts events and tours that go inside homes, including ModaPalooza on Oct. 10; http://www.ncmodernist.org/tours.htm. History overview: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/raleigh/modernism.htm.

Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc