"The Box on Cox" is on today's claass HAUS.
In 1962, famed California modernist Harwell Hamilton Harris accepted Dean Henry Kamphoefner’s offer to teach at North Carolina State College's School of Design. Moving across the country to the Carolina capital, Harris and his wife, writer Jean Murray Bangs, would make Raleigh their home- living, working, and eventually retiring in a small, unassuming house on Cox Avenue.
Like Harris’ better-known California commissions, the architect's work in North Carolina seems both modern and familiar. His is a quiet modernism- simple in form, straightforward in function, and firmly rooted in a sense of place. In the pine woods of the Carolina Piedmont, Harris continued to create a singular architectural expression sympathetic to the landscape, using rich earth-toned hues, warm natural materials, and abundant light to convey the natural context.
After his first few years at NCSU (it seems the architect was very popular with his students), Harris began the task of designing a small house for himself and Jane, a kind of retirement home that would meet the couple's needs as they aged. Nestled into an urban lot close to campus, the Harris house and studio exemplifies the architect's modest modernism- deceptively simple in form but complex in its layering of space and light. From the street, the stucco cube with a flat roof presents a blank face, its boxy, unadorned mass standing in contrast to the jumble of more traditional residences and campus buildings nearby. But this house is no ordinary Bauhaus box, it is a thoughtful private retreat ideally suited to the couple's domestic needs.
From first glance, the plain stucco cube doesn’t seem like much. The only real clue to Harris’ hand is the Craftsman-like lamppost marking the home's entry. Located in an area with heavy foot traffic, the home was designed to look inward, the closed facade opening to an interior filled with light and private views of the landscape. Unlike the cold abstractions of some of his modernist mentors, Harris softens the building's outward severity with warm Craftsman-like elements (the lamppost, wooden sills, an entrance bridge leading to the front door), exposed natural materials, and careful attention to the environment.
During the late 1960s, Harris designed the house and studio to meet the social and physical conditions of advancing age. Originally, the structure housed his practice on the second floor (visible from the street) along with the couple's home and a rental apartment on the ground level. Harris' studio included small office spaces and an impressive drafting room lit by ribbons of translucent glass. At the rear of the house, a double-height living room drenched in light provided a transition from Harris' office to the couple's domestic quarters (you can see a few interior images here). Overlooking an open-air garden room with sequestered views of stately oak trees, the living space offered a quiet respite from the density of the surrounding neighborhood. Responding frankly to the future, the design's modest size, flexible spaces, and easy accessibility accommodated the Harris' personal needs. After retirement, for example, the couple could rent out Harris' studio and the ground-floor apartment for extra income.
A practical (and honestly, pretty elegant) solution for retired living, the design for the Harris home and studio is driven by use, and yet it still embodies the architect's career-long devotion to nature. Despite its urban location, the dwelling conveys a confident sense of place, its airy rooms and artfully framed views of the landscape providing both privacy and connection to the natural world. Today, the Harris house remains a reclusive retreat woven gracefully into Raleigh's bustling city fabric.
In 2010, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Image at top:
Cynthia de Miranda, Harwell Hamilton and Jean Bangs Harris House and Office (facade view). Photographs from the National Register of Historic Places nomination.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.