From the 1920s through the 1940s, architects from North Carolina and beyond designed and built art deco buildings that coexisted with more traditional buildings from the mountains to the sea. These buildings ranged from skyscrapers in our cities to movie theaters and car dealerships in small towns. While it is still possible to visit many of these buildings today, the popular medium of linen postcards gives us a glimpse of how they were seen in their own day—complete with cars that are a bit more modest than the autos of Rolling Sculpture.
“Buncombe County Court House and City Hall, Asheville, N.C.” in North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill
Designed by Johnston County–born and Parisian-trained architect Douglas Ellington, the Asheville City Hall (on the right) was completed in 1928. Ellington used colorful materials that referenced the palette of the soils and rocks of the Asheville landscape. His design for City Hall was part of a Civic Plaza proposal that paired the city building with a similar courthouse, but Buncombe County decided to award the contract to the firm of Milburn, Heister, and Company for the neoclassical building on the left. Ellington designed many of the art deco buildings in Asheville, N.C.
“Night-time, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Office Bldg., Winston-Salem” in North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill
For 37 years Winston-Salem’s R. J. Reynolds Building was the tallest skyscraper in North Carolina at 22 stories. Architects Shreve and Lamb (later Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon) won the National Architectural Association’s Building of the Year award for it when the building was completed in 1929. That same year, the firm was awarded the contract for the Empire State Building and used the plans for the Reynolds Building as partial inspiration for the design, as seen in the stepped design of the roof. The building is now home to a hotel and condos with art deco design details maintained in the interior of the building.
“The Hill Building, 111 Corcoran Street, as viewed from Main Street, Durham, N.C.” in North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill
Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon also designed the Hill Building in downtown Durham. Commissioned by John Sprunt Hill to house the Durham Bank and Trust company, the 17-story building was occupied by banking offices until 2006. It was renovated and opened as a boutique hotel and contemporary art museum by 21C Museum Hotels in 2015.
“Municipal Building, Wilson, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill
While the Great Depression didn’t stop private building projects, the race to create the next great skyscraper that resulted in the Chrysler and Empire State buildings slowed down. At the same time, New Deal–sponsored projects supported building programs throughout communities of all sizes. In Wilson, N.C., hometown architect Frank W. Benton designed a new municipal building for the town, which was constructed by the Jones Brothers with funding from the Works Progress Administration. This 1938 building is still in use for city offices.
“Insurance Building, in Raleigh, N.C.” in North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC–Chapel Hill
Built for the Durham Life Insurance Company of Raleigh, this 12-story skyscraper was designed by the Northup and O’Brien firm of Winston-Salem. While its stepped roofline makes it similar to other skyscrapers of the time, it was set apart from its peers by being one of three buildings in the nation to use an air-conditioning system for tall buildings, designed by Willis Carrier. The insurance company also owned the WPTF radio station, and their studios were housed in the building. This Salisbury Street building is now used as an office building by Wake County.
Moviegoers in Kannapolis, N.C., can still visit the Gem Theatre, which opened in 1936. It was built by the Cannon Mills Company to be managed by the Cannon Memorial YMCA. The back of the original building burned down in 1942, but the facade was saved. The theater reopened in 1948 after building materials became available again after the end of World War II.
Other art deco gems have been lost, such as the Norment Motor Company building on West 5th Street in Lumberton. This building probably reflects a corporate style that appeared in towns across the country.
For more detailed information about the buildings and architects mentioned here, N.C State Libraries has a database of North Carolina architects and builders and a rare photographs database . Several of the postcards in this post were found in the North Carolina Postcards Collection of Wilson Library at UNC–Chapel Hill.