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Feature Article
Catalano House: Destroyed Forever

The only place you'll see the Catalano House is in photos, unfortunately.

The house was leveled to the ground in March 2001. Gone to the dump. This is a very very sad situation. The only saving grace here is that Catalano is now considering to build a similar outdoor pavilion on the grounds of a nearby museum for the public to enjoy. They'll have to use all new materials though, as the house was completely destroyed.

Commentary by Joe Kunkel
O ne of my favorite designs died a slow, undignified death. No visitation, no funeral, just a slow, miserable, lonely death.

The Catalano House, hailed as one of the most significant designs of its decade and an icon of American mid-century optimism, was decayed and neglected... and now it's gone. We didn't save it, but can we learn a lesson here???

One by one, our country is losing its wonderful mid-20th century architectural designs, one after another, victims of a blind and unattentive public. A few get saved and preserved as monuments, like the Farnsworth House or the Kaufmann House or Fallingwater. But the vast majority get bulldozed and replaced with McMansions and parking lots. I cannot understand how or why this happens. But it does. Repeatedly.

It would have taken only take one person and some serious money to save this unique, crystal clear design. Who would have thought that one of the most celebrated houses of the post-war modern design era would end up decaying and being demolished. One of the most famous 20th century houses is at the dump, literally.

T he Eduardo Catalano House in Raleigh, built in 1954 by the young Argentinian architect for his own use and one of the few buildings ever praised by Frank Lloyd Wright, was offered by Preservation North Carolina for sale with protective covenants. Unfortunately, they did not find a buyer to preserve it, and the protective covenants proved to be worthless. The lot sold and the house was leveled to the ground.

After coming to Raleigh in 1950 to serve as a founding member of the NCSU School of Design, Catalano built his highly innovative house with a hyperbolic parabaloid roof and walls of glass. Unfortunately the house became severely deteriorated, and eventually the roof started to fall in, all the result of years of neglect and lack of maintenance. Preservation North Carolina got involved and tried to find a buyer to rebuild the roof and rehabilitate the rest of the structure. Alternately, PNC looked for a donor to provide the funds to PNC to stabilize the building and prevent its destruction. Unfortunately that effort failed.

In the early 1950s, the NCSU School of Design, under the leadership of founding Dean Henry L. Kamphoefner, brought together a brilliant group of architects including Catalano, George Matsumoto, Matthew Nowicki, and others who were pioneers in the creation of new architectural concepts. The Catalano House, which epitomizes the innovative designs emerging from the early School of Design, was probably the most important 20th Century residential building in North Carolina. In fact, Catalano's design elicited a favorable response from Frank Lloyd Wright, who was known to rarely praise the work of other architects. Wright wrote, "It is refreshing to see the service of shelter treated as in this... house by Eduardo Catalano."

After leaving the NCSU School of Design, Catalano went on to M.I.T., where he continued his brilliant career and designed numerous buildings around the world. But it was his 1954 design for his own home that was highly publicized as the "House of the Decade" by House and Home Magazine in the 1950s and later became recognized as one of the key residential buildings in the United States. Robert Burns, FAIA, Distinguished Professor of Architecture at NCSU, says of the house, "For a long period after its construction, it inspired architects, students, and laypeople as well, and brought international acclaim to the School of Design, the city, and the state." Sadly, its integrity was greatly diminished through neglect and improper maintenance, and its future was threatened. The threat became reality. Its loss is a crushing blow to our architectural heritage.

The three-bedroom house featured a 4,000 square foot roof which was a hyperbolic paraboloid, built of wood and is only 2.5" thick. The roof was warped into two structural curves (similar to the shape of a shoehorn), with two corners of the roof firmly anchored to the ground and two corners soaring high into the air. Sheltered beneath the double-twisted roof is a square interior enclosed entirely in glass. The undulation of the roof provided openness in some areas and privacy and seculsion in others.

PNC has protected over 450 historic properties of all types in North Carolina and is very concerned about the fate of modern historic buildings. A recent loss was a Raleigh residence designed by George Matsumoto, which was torn down several years ago. However, PNC hopes to secure the future of similar modern historic buildings through protective covenants, such as those PNC holds on the 1950 Kamphoefner house in Raleigh, home of the former dean of the NCSU School of Design. Let's hope that house doesn't follow the Catalano House's tragic storyline.

Preservation North Carolina, North Carolina's only statewide nonprofit organization, operates an Endangered Properties Program which identifies and acquires endangered historic properties throughout the state. These properties are resold to sympathetic buyers under protective covenants to insure the future of each property. As one of the oldest and largest statewide preservation organizations in the nation, Preservation North Carolina also provides educational opportunities and public recognition to individuals and groups working to preserve the tangible evidence of North Carolina's history.

The house was located on a beautiful private wooded lot at the end of a quiet street in Raleigh, NC. For more information on PNC, please visit the PNC website at www.presnc.org or call them at 919-832-3652.

The following photos show the house as it stood in November 2000. These images are tiny to reduce their pain. The demolition photos are even more shocking so I didn't post them here! Click each one to see larger versions.

If you know of other great mid-century designs in jeopardy of neglect, modification beyond recognition, demolition or other pending destruction, please contact me now, before it's too late. We can try to save the Catalano House from its near-certain doom; perhaps we can save other structures before they are neglected beyond repair. I commit to publicizing more examples of America's great mid-century modern architecture. Please help me in this effort. Let's save our country's significant mid-century architecture.

Special thanks to Jeff Warden for his photos and invaluable information, Barbara Wishy, Peter Rumsey, and Preservation North Carolina for all their preservation efforts, and to Michael John Smith for supplying the House and Home (August 1955) images which showcase the house in the glory we hope to again see it in.

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Questions? Comments? E-Mail the author at dalchicago@aol.com
(c) 1999, 2000 Joe Kunkel and Jetset - Designs for Modern Living and Preservation North Carolina (PNC). All Rights Reserved.

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