Odell, A. G., Jr. (1913-1988)
Arthur Gould Odell; Jr.; A. G. Odell; Jr.; Associates
Concord, N. C.
Styles & Forms:
International style; Modernist
A. G. (Arthur Gould) Odell, Jr. (November 22, 1913-April 21, 1988), a native of Concord, N. C., numbered among the principal leaders in the North Carolina’s architectural profession during the post-World War II building boom. A forceful personality with an elegant presence as well as a thorough-going modernist philosophy, he played a major role in shaping the state’s modernist approach to government and corporate architecture as well as religious and residential buildings. His large firm, A. G. Odell, Jr., Associates, led in making Charlotte a center of corporate modernism and a complement to the more academic and diverse modernism promoted by faculty at the (then) School of Design at present North Carolina State University in Raleigh under Odell’s near-contemporary, Dean Henry Kamphoefner.Together Odell and Kamphoefner and the many architects they influenced and encouraged made North Carolina a remarkable center of mid-century modernism. The Odell firm’s best known works in North Carolina are probably the highly innovative Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte and Blue Cross Blue Shield Headquarters near Durham, but the firm also led in the production and acceptance of more standard modernist works. Odell’s obituary in the Raleigh News and Observer of April 23, 1988 gives a brief outline of his career. His firm and its influence deserve far more attention from architectural and cultural historians.
Arthur “Goolie” Odell was the son of Grace Patterson and Arthur Gould Odell, Sr., of a leading textile manufacturing family in Concord; his grandfather, William Robert Odell, was a pioneering textile industrialist and banker. His family’s stature and connections would open many doors for him. During the early 1930s, Odell studied civil engineering at Duke University and architecture at Cornell, graduating from the latter in 1935. In 1935-1936, like many future modernists, he studied at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After returning to the United States, he worked for the New York firm of Wallace K. Harrison and Jacque Fouilhoux, architects for the Rockefeller Plaza project and the 1939 World’s Fair. Of the Harrison and Fouilhoux design for the Trylon and Perisphere that became icons of the Fair, “I was the first to come up with the idea of a sphere,” Odell recalled. In 1938 he joined the firm of Raymond Loewy, the French-born industrial designer of many modernist products. As noted by Mary Carolyn Dominick in The Original Concept and Design of Charlotte College: 1957-1965, Loewy had a “continental natty style” of dress, which may have influenced Odell’s style of attire in Charlotte as well as encouraging his bent toward sleek architectural designs.
These experiences introduced the young Odell to the growing modernist movement in Europe and America, especially in its expressions influenced by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. He emerged as a devoted modernist who by dint of his connections and personality exerted a powerful and widespread influence on the modernist movement in North Carolina, both in individual buildings and in urban and campus planning projects that reflected the tenets of Corbusier and Mies.
According to Odell, he decided to move to Charlotte in 1939 because it appeared to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the southeast, and in 1940 he opened his office there. It was also near the piedmont communities where Odell ancestors had made their mark and his family was well known. After serving in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, he returned to Charlotte and continued his practice under the name of A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates. He married Mary Walker Ehringhaus in 1951, and they had three children.
In Charlotte, Odell frequently expressed his disdain for the existing eclectic and revivalist local architecture and insisted on the superiority of modernist design. Early on, he showed his ability to gain prime commissions and produce memorable designs that became landmarks of their communities. As Charlotte historian Thomas Hanchett phrased it, “In a society where class connections still counted for much, young Odell had automatic entry to the offices of the area’s mill owners and businessmen” (Hanchett, Sorting Out the New South City) and thus took a major role in shaping the business elite’s taste for modernism. With the stated philosophy—evidently quoted from Louis Kahn—that architecture is 90 percent business and 10 percent art (Charlotte Observer, August 15, 1982), he established an immensely successful and productive firm, which he headed for many years. Like Kamphoefner at the School of Design at present NCSU, he was outspoken in his advocacy of modernism. Odell’s access to clients with deep pockets enabled him to execute his philosophy on a large scale.
The firm’s first major work in North Carolina was among its most famous, the Charlotte Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium. The complex, including the coliseum with its immense dome, was a powerful statement of modernism and structural innovation. Odell began negotiations with civic leaders about the project in the 1940s and was formally chosen as architect in 1950, but the project was delayed by Korean War limitations on construction. The project’s fame at its completion in 1956 was a reputation-making accomplishment for Odell nationally and even internationally, being featured in many prestigious architectural publications. Look Magazine (January 24, 1956) called the coliseum the “world’s largest dome.”
In the immediate postwar years, Odell undertook other, smaller projects, including public schools that were many architects’ bread and butter and which promoted advanced theories of education. Notable among Odell’s early examples of modernist public school and college design was his progressive design for Double Oaks Elementary School (1950) for black students in Charlotte, which departed from traditional schoolhouse architecture in its display of simple forms, abundant light, and a flowing plan that followed the terrain; it won an AIA National Honor Award in 1954, one of many awards the firm’s projects would garner.
Especially in the early years of his career, Odell designed modernist residences in Charlotte and elsewhere, chiefly for friends and corporate clients, but he did not publicize these, considering them essentially private works. For a listing and images of these, see http://www.ncmodernist.org/odell.htm. Early among these was the Robert and Elizabeth Lassiter House in Charlotte, where the architect worked closely together to develop the plans for the house.
The Odell firm attracted so many commissions in downtown Charlotte that an article in Southern Architect (July 1957) carried an article, “Odell’s Work Featured,” illustrated by an aerial photograph of the central city with a dozen Odell buildings labeled. Among these was a trend-setting modernist skyscraper, the Wachovia Building. It asserted the presence in Charlotte of a major bank headquartered in Winston-Salem. Odell’s Charlotte work then and later was tied to the city’s emergence as a regional and even national banking center.
By capturing the spirit of mid-century modernism in designs suited to establishment clients, Odell’s operation expanded rapidly to an office staff of fifty by the early 1960s. The firm’s brochure, “A. G. Odell, Jr. and Associates” of the era stated, “The basic premise of the firm is to produce on schedule superior designs which can be built within prescribed budgets. The creation of structures and facilities of maximum efficiency, economical cost, and distinctive beauty is the result of this policy” (http://www.ncmodernist.org/Odell-1960s-brochure.pdf). In 1962, when the News and Observer polled 22 North Carolina architects on their favorite buildings in the state, five of the top eight selections were by Odell’s firm: the Charlotte Public Library; the Charlotte Coliseum and Auditorium; and the Commerce Center (Wachovia Bank), all in Charlotte; Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover; and St. Andrews College in Laurinburg. These were followed by such well-known works as the world headquarters for the R. J. Reynolds Company in Winston-Salem and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Building near Durham, both with stunning forms in glass. According to Michael Warner, an architect with the firm, Odell believed the BCBS Building, for which Charles McMurray was the principal designer, was the firm’s best work. These attention-getting designs generally featured bold geometric forms, extensive use of glass, and structural innovations. For other projects, the firm used less dramatic designs that embodied the period’s rectilinear forms and simple details. In several cases, the Odell firm was associated with prestigious out-of-state architectural firms. The firm reportedly received more than 75 design awards.
Moving beyond individual buildings, Odell’s firm gained commissions for new college campuses on rural sites where he could employ modernist principles to create a master plan on a clean palette as well as designing an ensemble of buildings. In 1958 Odell was selected as the architect for the master plan and buildings at the newly established Charlotte College, later the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Its open, suburban site offered the architect a blank slate for designing functional and economical buildings in a clearly modernist mode. The buildings that made up the core of the campus were constructed in the 1960s, beginning with the Kennedy Building (1961). After seeing a drawing, the Charlotte Observer of March 17, 1960, lauded the design as “Modern But Dignified,” and “Clean, open, efficient-looking with straight lines—in a word businesslike.” In a stripped-down version of classical concepts, the rectilinear brick buildings were defined by vertical strips of glass alternating with brick pilaster strips rising to a plain frieze. An abstracted arcade shelters the principal entrance at Kennedy, design elements of which were incorporated into the college’s official seal.
Also in the 1960s, Odell’s firm planned another modern college campus on a large and undeveloped site—the master plan and initial buildings at present St. Andrews Presbyterian College at Laurinburg, a new college formed from two older local colleges and named for the region’s Scots heritage. With Richard P. Leaman as lead designer, the Odell firm collaborated with landscape architect Lewis James Clarke of the NCSU School of Design to create an ensemble of buildings, driveways, a variety of plantings, and a lake. The architecture displayed a consistent vocabulary of rectilinear forms rendered in earth-toned concrete aggregate and taupe brick to blend with the natural setting.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Odell firm gained commissions that would apply modernist concepts to much larger and already fully developed sites—major urban planning projects that would remake the center of Charlotte and downtown Raleigh along lines advocated by the modernist LeCorbusier. In contrast to the open sites for his two college campus designs, these projects envisioned—and generally affected—the destruction of existing urban fabric to create radically new cityscapes, socially and visually. Using concepts developed in Europe, the new schemes pursued differentiated use zones (instead of traditional mixed uses); extensive clearance of old buildings and street patterns: and creation of large new open spaces among new skyscrapers and other large new buildings. (Note: Detailed building entries for these projects and their components await further research.)
In Charlotte in 1965, Odell and Associates developed a comprehensive plan for the transformation of Center City Charlotte, which obliterated many areas of town and separated the community into strongly defined zones, with a downtown of open spaces and large new buildings. The firm also designed skyscrapers such as the Bank of America (NCNB) Plaza to populate the new plan.
In Raleigh in the late 1960s and the 1970s, Odell and Associates faced a city planned in the eighteenth century according to classical principles, with a principal central square, four axial streets, and four secondary squares. Buildings of various eras lined the streets and created termini to key views. The Odell firm created two transformative plans: the Fayetteville Street Mall south of the State Capitol—the southward axial street—and the State Government Mall north of the State Capitol centered on Halifax Street, the northward axial street. Other original street patterns near the capitol were realigned. These projects captured the spirit of the time on a major scale and were to face controversy in later years.
The Fayetteville Street Mall did not entail wholesale destruction of the existing commercial sector, but in keeping with trends of the day created a pedestrian mall instead of a street and planted the Raleigh Civic Center (1977) astride Fayetteville Street, blocking the intentional view between the south façade of the Greek Revival style State Capitol and the Beaux-Arts classical portico of the city’s Memorial Hall.
The transformation by the State Government Mall was far more extensive. In an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer in 1964, Odell said the state needed to gain control of the property around the State Capitol and develop a complex that would create a “distinguished government plaza symbolizing the heritage and dignity of our state.” The government mall required the demolition or moving of several blocks of 19th and early 20th century buildings north of the capitol and the creation of a wide, grassy mall flanked by large buildings with the high-rise Archdale Building (1977, 512 N. Salisbury St.) at the northern terminus. The Civic Center has been removed (2006) and the Fayetteville Street Mall converted back to a broad axial street, reopening the Beaux-Arts view that many citizens had not known before. The State Government Mall and Archdale Building still exist as of 2020.
In addition to his firm’s vast and oft-awarded architectural output, Odell was also a leader in the architectural profession. He served as president of both the North Carolina chapter of the AIA and the national AIA and was the first architect from North Carolina to hold the latter position. In addition to awards to his firm for individual projects, Odell was honored with the designation of Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He was involved in civic affairs including the Charlotte planning board and chamber of commerce. Many architects who worked in the Odell firm went on to establish distinguished careers; the firm was known as a “graduate school” for young architects and engineers. Within the firm, various architects served as lead designer for specific projects. Among those who became prominent architects in North Carolina were Harvey Gantt, Charles McMurray, Harry Wolf III, Charles Lyman Bates, Sr., and the architects who left the Odell firm in 1973 to form Clark Harris Tribble and Li. Odell expressed his pride in the success of many of the men who had worked in the firm for a time. Through them, as well as through the buildings the firm designed, his influence on modernism spread far and wide. After suffering from health problems, in the early 1980s Odell retired and turned over direction of the firm to his younger associates. According to his obituary, he sold his interest to them. At the time of his death, Odell Associates was the largest architectural firm in Charlotte with more than 150 employees, and by 1986 it was listed among the 100 largest such firms in the nation. When the firm celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1990, the company counted projects in 25 states.
The following building list is, as indicated above, only a fraction of the work produced by Odell’s firm during his lifetime. He and his firm warrant a fuller study of their role in 20th century American architecture. The Arthur Gould Odell Papers are held by the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNC Charlotte.
Mary Carolyn Dominick, “The Original Concept and Design of Charlotte College, 1957-1965,” M. A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 2013 (http://landmarkscommission.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/FINAL-THESIS-APRIL-3-2013.pdf)
- Contributors:A.G. Odell, architect; A. G. Odell Jr. Associates, architects; Charles McMurray, project architectDates:
1973Location:Durham, Orange CountyStreet Address:
NC 15/501 (Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard)Status:
CommercialImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:
Still a stunning landmark on a busy thoroughfare, the 4-story glass-walled building is 400 feet wide and 100 feet deep and takes a rhomboid form with its upper 3 stories set at 45 degrees. The client wanted a glass building but knew the problems of such a building in the hot and sunny climate. To mitigate the summer sun, the architect designed the angle of the southern and western walls and employed tinted, sky-reflecting glass.
1953-1956Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
2700 E. Independence Blvd.Status:
PublicImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:
The auditorium and, especially the coliseum, built in 1953-1956, were exemplars of modernism and symbols of a forward-looking community when they were built, and they maintain their position as Charlotte landmarks. The Charlotte Coliseum, built of steel and concrete and roofed in aluminum was cited at its completion as the world’s largest unsupported domed structure (332 feet in diameter). It gained wide acclaim in national publications and won numerous prizes.
The complex was conceived promptly after World War II, and a committee led by department store executive David Ovens chose Odell as architect in 1950. In part due to Korean War materials restrictions, its construction was delayed until 1953-1956. (Work on Raleigh’s innovative modernist landmark, the Dorton Arena (1950-1952), began in the nick of time before the wartime delay (see Matthew Nowicki. Some accounts report that the governor became aware of the forthcoming restriction and moved quickly to get the arena under construction before it took effect.)
- Contributors:A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates, architects; A.G. Odell, architectDates:
1959Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
N. Tryon St.Status:
No longer standingType:
Composed of a rectilinear, glass-enclosed front section and a drum-like rear section, the modest but strikingly modern library of pure geometry replaced the previous Carnegie Library of 1903 and contrasted with the predominant eclectic styles of its neighbors. It has been replaced by a larger facility.
- Contributors:A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates, architects; Odell, A. G., Jr., architectDates:
1957Location:Conover, Catawba CountyStreet Address:
215 5th Ave. SEStatus:
ReligiousImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, The Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:
The dramatic exemplar of mid-20th century modernist church architecture is defined by its broad copper roof that shelters the sanctuary and rises and narrows from the east entrance to the chancel at the west end (a contrast to the traditional east-west orientation of many churches). It won an American Institute of Architects award.
1952Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
1326 Woodward Dr.Status:
Recognized as an advanced elementary school design, the horizontally composed brick and glass school was built for African-American students in 1952. Numerous modernist schools were built for African Americans in the mid-20th century, when schools were still racially segregated. The complex of 1-story brick buildings with low-pitched roofs, large windows, and open corridors linking sections typified many modernist school designs promoted in the post-World War II era. It won an AIA National Honor Award in 1954. This school was part of a larger movement by architects to develop advanced school designs, as well as a political strategy—sometimes called “equalization” schools—in the South to provide good school buildings for black students in defense of the “separate but equal” concept that supported racial segregation in public schools.
1971-1973Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
E. Stonewall St.Status:
The 7-story modernist office tower, of white brick and concrete combined with black glass side walls, has a distinguished history as a project developed by leading African-American lawyers Julius Chambers and Mel Watt, in association with other attorneys and doctors, as a real estate development for both black and white businesses and professional offices in the heart of Charlotte. They formed a partnership called Westside Professional Associates. Chambers is considered by many the most important Civil Rights attorney in the Southeast, and his law partner Mel Watt was one of the first two black representatives elected to Congress in the 20th century.
As traced by Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett for a forthcoming article, the partnership was organized to join in the real estate boom taking place in Charlotte on land cleared by urban renewal in the 1950s and to provide a central and prestigious location for black and white professionals. Located a short distance from the city’s government center, the area had been part of predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood. After the land was cleared, it became the site of new buildings built by white companies and developers. To design their building, the Westside Professional Associates commissioned the Odell firm, well established as the preeminent designer of corporate modernism in Charlotte.
Among the notable partners and tenants were Gantt Huberman Architects (the firm of architect and Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt); medical and political figures Dr. Reginald Hawkins and Dr. Raleigh Bynum; and the law firm of Chambers, Stein, Ferguson and Lanning, which included the famed civil rights attorney Adam Stein. Although the ideal of a truly integrated office tower was never fully realized, many of those who had offices there recalled how important it was to have a presence in a major building at the center of the city. In 1994 the property was sold to Mecklenburg County, which renamed the building and filled it with government offices. In 2020 negotiations were underway for its sale.
- Contributors:A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates, architects; Charles Lyman Bates, Sr., architect; A. G. Odell, architectDates:
1959Location:Belmont, Gaston CountyStreet Address:
216 N. Main St.Status:
The small but imposing church of rectilinear forms with walls of grids of light and color was a powerful statement of modernism for its time and place, as it is today. Contrasting with the seeming severity of the exterior, the tall interior glows with warm light coming through translucent panels and colored glass accents. The church received an award of merit from the North Carolina chapter of the AIA.
- Contributors:A.G. Odell, architectDates:
1960sLocation:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
9201 University City Blvd.Status:
Odell’s firm was chosen to design the master plan and initial buildings for the young college on a rural site. The design combined a clearly modern sensibility with economic strategies and a red brick palette with touches of abstracted classicism. The core buildings were erected in the 1960s in this mode, beginning with the Kennedy Building (1961). Later generations of buildings have varied from this vocabulary.
- Contributors:A.G. Odell, architect; A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates, architects; Thompson, Venchett, and Stanbach, architectsDates:
1972-1974Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
101 S. Tryon St.Status:
The glittering tower, set back from the street, began the transformation of “the Square,” the prime intersection of Trade and Tryon streets at the heart of the city. From its completion in 1974 to 1987, its 40 stories made it the tallest building in the state. Earlier in the twentieth century, Greensboro and Winston-Salem had competed with Charlotte for the status of having the tallest building in the state. Charlotte captured the prize with this building and has maintained that status with ever taller buildings. Thompson, Venchett, and Stanbach (now TVS) was and is a major Atlanta architectural firm with an international practice. A recent ranking listed the 1974 skyscraper 8th in height in the state; the tallest is now cited as the Bank of America Corporate Center (1992) in Charlotte at 60 stories.
1977Location:Winston-Salem, Forsyth CountyStreet Address:
CommercialImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, The Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).Note:
The immense, glittering office building, 5 stories and 800 feet long in an accordion form, is covered in mirrored glass walls that reflect the changing seasons and time of day. It received several design awards.
1951Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
726 Hempstead PlaceStatus:
The house built in the Eastover neighborhood in 1951 is cited as the oldest fully realized modernist house in Charlotte. It was designated as a Charlotte historic landmark in 2003. A few other 1950s modernist houses by Odell no longer stand. Typical of Odell’s residential commissions, Odell and Robert Lassiter were friends. The architect worked closely with Robert and Elizabeth to create a plan that suited their preferences and needs. It is a flat-roofed 1-story house with redwood-sheathed walls and large areas of glass, a contrast to the more traditional houses prevalent in the neighborhood. Like many modernist houses, and again unlike others in the neighborhood, the house emphasizes privacy and is more open to the rear than to the street and has only a driveway from the street, not a walkway from the sidewalk. An addition was designed by Odell’s firm in the 1970s.
- Contributors:A.G. Odell, architect; A. G. Odell Jr. Associates, architects; Richard Leaman, project architectDates:
1962-1969Location:Laurinburg, Scotland CountyStreet Address:
1700 Dogwood MileStatus:
EducationalImages Published In:
North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office: St. Andrews Presbyterian College Laurinburg Scotland County SC0363 photographs by Heather Fearnbach May 2015 (https://files.nc.gov/ncdcr/nr/SC0363.pdf).Note:
As in planning the present University of North Carolina at Charlotte, when Odell’s firm gained the commission to design the master plan and initial buildings at present St. Andrews Presbyterian College, the 225-acre site provided a clean slate for the campus development. Formed by the merger of Flora Macdonald College in Red Springs and Presbyterian Junior College in Maxton, the new school’s name (like one of its predecessors) reflected the region’s Scots heritage. The Odell firm, with Richard P. Leaman as lead designer for the project, worked in collaboration with the distinguished landscape architect Lewis James Clarke of the North Carolina State University School of Design to create an ensemble of buildings, driveways, a variety of plantings, and a lake. For the buildings, Odell’s firm selected a clean-lined, unpretentious modernist vocabulary of rectilinear forms rendered in earth-toned taupe concrete aggregate and brick, which contrasts with the windows in aluminum frames. Odell aimed for a consistent vocabulary throughout the campus, and that premise has been generally continued. See Heather Fearnbach, “St. Andrews Presbyterian College,” National Register of Historic Places Nomination, 2015.
1962-1965Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:
227 Fayetteville St.Status:
Designed in 1961 and built in 1962-1965, the 9-story bank, extends 210 feet deep and features vertical panels of marble and concrete that accentuate its height. It is cited in the Fayetteville Street National Register Historic District as one of several mid-20th century modernist buildings along Raleigh’s principal business street. This was one of several banks the Odell firm designed for Wachovia, a bank founded in Winston-Salem which became one of the largest in the state until its merger with another bank and the termination of its historic name.
- Contributors:A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates, architects; Harrison and Abramovitz, architects; A.G. Odell, architectDates:
1956-1958Location:Charlotte, Mecklenburg CountyStreet Address:
129 W. Trade St.Status:
The 16-story skyscraper, the first postwar skyscraper in Charlotte’s development as a regional banking center, was built by the large bank headquartered in Winston-Salem during a period of competitive skyscraper construction. Contrasting with the city’s earlier Beaux-Arts influenced skyscrapers, the sheer vertical block is enlivened by a three-dimensional grid of concrete and glass. Architects Harrison and Abramovitz were best known as the architects of the United Nations Building in New York. This bank and its successors would transform the style and scale of uptown Charlotte.