Underwood, H. A. (1888-1949)
Harrision Aubrey Underwood
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Colonial Revival; Neoclassical
H. A. (Harrison Aubrey) Underwood (1888-1949), an engineer and architect active in North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Tennessee but moved with his family in his youth to Durham, where his father, Norman Underwood, became a substantial contractor. Having learned much from his father, H. A. established himself in Raleigh and took on major building projects there and elsewhere, with his best-known work the 11-story Raleigh Banking and Trust Company Building (Raleigh Building) (1928-1929).
H. A. Underwood was a son of Norman Underwood and his wife, Elsie. The family originated in Ohio, moved to Tennessee, and then moved to North Carolina in the late 1890s, where Norman soon became a successful builder and civic leader. The 1900 census listed the family as residents of Durham, including Norman, a carpenter aged 38, and Elsie E., aged 34, both natives of Ohio. Their eldest child, aged 15, was born in Ohio, and the younger ones, aged 13 to 9 years old, were born in Tennessee, including Harrison A., born in December, 1888.
By 1910, the United States Census listed H. Aubrey Underwood and his North Carolina-born wife Rosia L., both aged 21, in their own household in Durham. H. A.’s occupation was listed as a manager for contracting. Next door lived his brother, Norman B. Underwood, a building contractor aged 23, his wife Nellie M., aged 23, and their infant son, Norman B., Jr. The brothers may have been working with their father at this time. Norman Bruce Underwood eventually moved to Ohio.
Deciding to remain in North Carolina and likely assisted by his father’s reputation and connections as well as his training, H. A. Underwood established himself as an engineer and architect by 1920. According to Helen P. Ross’s National Register nomination for the Raleigh Building, H. A. arrived in Raleigh in the 1910s and by 1920 had become the secretary-treasurer for the Raleigh Engineering and Construction Company.
For a time, he was employed in the State Architect’s Office as superintendent of construction under State Architect James Salter.One of the projects begun during Salter’s tenure in that office was the “temple of agriculture”—the Beaux Arts classical style Agriculture Building on Edenton Street across from the State Capitol. Salter encountered difficulties and left the project. The plans, dated January 22, 1922, are stamped by the Raleigh firm of Nelson and Cooper, Salter’s former associates. The edifice was completed in 1923. H. A. Underwood was by this time a member of the Nelson and Cooper firm and the engineer of record for the Agriculture Building.
An important source of work for architects and engineers, including Underwood, was the construction of new school and college buildings in the 1920s, part of the statewide campaign to boost educational opportunities for North Carolinians. The Manufacturers’ Record of May 25, 1922 noted that Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School (now Western Carolina University) in Jackson County was planning to erect a brick dormitory with Spanish tile roof and ornamental terra cotta, designed by G. Murray Nelson and Thomas W. Cooper, with H. A. Underwood as engineer; it has not been further identified. During the same period, Underwood provided services for East Carolina Teachers’ College in Greenville. His company’s 1925 aerial view of the campus may be seen at https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/23002. He is credited with designing at least one building there, the Wright Building.
In Raleigh, H. A. Underwood was an important figure in the capital’s flurry of architectural ambition in the 1920s. He associated with contractor builder and developer C. V. York (who had succeeded as a contractor in Greenville and then moved to Raleigh) as engineer on the landmark Sir Walter Hotel of 1925 on Fayetteville Street (see William Stoddart), a modern hotel that was considered a major advance for the city’s stature.
Underwood’s principal Raleigh landmark, the 11-story Raleigh Banking and Trust Company Building (Raleigh Building)on Fayetteville Street not far from the Sir Walter Hotel, was erected in several distinct phases (see http://goodnightraleigh.com/2014/06/raleigh-banking-and-trust-co-raleigh-n-c/). As related by Helen Ross, the first three stories of the bank (1913) were designed by P. Thornton Marye, the Beaux-Arts architect from Atlanta who planned a number of Raleigh’s most distinguished buildings of this period. A robust and handsome classical design, the initial structure was built to support additional stories.
In 1928, when the company decided to expand and create an office tower, H. A. Underwood Architects and Engineers Company designed the upper eight stories, which were built in 1928-1929 by local contractor John W. Hudson. The Underwood plans reiterated some of the existing bank’s classical detailing. Underwood’s engineering expertise was essential to the “structural success” of the upper eight stories, which required new footings, reinforcement of concrete columns with steel rods, and extensive use of structural steel. When the work was completed, the Raleigh News and Observer of September 15, 1929, lauded the “beautiful eleven story building” as an asset to the city. Like many other financial institutions, the bank company failed early in the Great Depression, just a year after the building gained its new height.
The building was sold in 1934 to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, and within a year, that company commissioned architect Underwood to revise the original 3-story part in a more modern character; the contractor was local builder John F. Danielson (News and Observer, Feb. 19, 1935). When the National Register nomination was written in 1993, the plans and documents for the new work of 1928-1929 and 1935-1936 survived in private hands and at the North Carolina State Archives.
After the economy began to recover in the late 1930s, Underwood designed two major apartment complexes in Raleigh, the Cameron Court Apartments(1938), 817 Hillsborough St., and the Raleigh Apartments (1938), 1020 W. Peace St. (Helen P. Ross, interview with H. A. Underwood III, in Ross, Raleigh Building National Register nomination). Underwood is also credited with the similar University Apartmentsin Durham (1938), located on property once occupied by his father’s residence. All three of these apartment complexes exemplify an important national trend of “garden apartments,” with substantial and well finished apartment houses of medium scale, sited in an informal “garden” setting with trees and other landscaping, and typically located at favorable, semi-suburban addresses. These met the needs of middle-class citizens looking for convenient and respectable rental housing after a long hiatus in construction. Other work by H. A. Underwood remains to be identified.
As of 2018, all of H. A. Underwood’s major works in Raleigh and Durham still stand in good condition and active use. H. A. Underwood was buried in the Alamance Memorial Park Cemetery in Burlington, NC.
- Helen P. Ross, “Raleigh Banking and Trust Company Building (Raleigh Building),” National Register of Historic Places nomination (1993).
- Dates:1938Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:187 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The apartment complex was built on property formerly owned by the Cameron family, which was the site of the residence of planter and banker Duncan Cameron and later his grandson Bennehan Cameron.
- Dates:1938Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1020 W. Peace St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Source of information: Helen P. Ross, interview with H. A. Underwood III. The Raleigh Apartments, like nearby Cameron Village, were built on land that was formerly owned by the Cameron family.
- Dates:1913; 1928-1929; 1935-1936Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:5 West Hargett St. at Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:CommercialImages Puslished In:Norman D. Anderson and B. T. Fowler, Raleigh: North Carolina's Capital City on Postcards (1996, 2000, 2002).Note:The Raleigh Banking and Trust Company originated in 1865. By 1868 the bank had built a brick, Italianate building at the corner of Fayetteville and Hargett streets in downtown Raleigh. That building was razed to make way for a 3-story classically designed building by P. Thornton Marye. Marye designed it as a boldly classical 3-story edifice with tall Ionic columns along the 3-bay front and 7-bay sides. Built with load-bearing walls, a steel interior frame, and reinforced concrete floors, it was designed to enable more stories to be added. In 1928, the officials of the company decided to erect an additional eight stories. After the bank failed early in the Great Depression, a new company acquired and remodeled it, including altering the original 3-story section to give it a sleeker, more modern appearance. See http://goodnightraleigh.com/2014/06/raleigh-banking-and-trust-co-raleigh-n-c/, and http://goodnightraleigh.com/2013/07/the-raleigh-building-the-short-story-of-a-tall-building/.
- Contributors:H. A. Underwood, attributed architectDates:1938Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:1500 Duke University Rd. (West Chapel Hill St.), Durham, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:According to opendurham.org, the apartments were built on two parcels of land, one of which had been the site of Norman Underwood's home; the street was then known as West Chapel Hill Street. See http://www.opendurham.org/buildings/university-apartments.
- Dates:1925-1927Location:Greenville, Pitt CountyStreet Address:East Carolina University, Greenville, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The large brick building named in honor of the school's former president, Robert Herring Wright, in 1936 was completed in 1927 and served as the social and religious facility for the campus. Its arched portico complements earlier campus brick buildings. The building, converted to a student union in 1949, has seen fires, renovations, additions, and changes in use over the years.