Last Thursday, April 7, would have been the 86th birthday of my father, Mark Bernstein, who died last year after a long career as an attorney and community leader in Charlotte. Dad was dedicated to the arts, helping build the symphony and playing key roles in the creation of the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and the Levine Center for the Arts. An important part of his legacy was the house he and my mother, Louise Bernstein, built in 1970.
They bought a wooded lot in Pellyn Wood and imagined a home that sat among the pines, insulated from the adjacent road and nearby houses. Dad’s brother Lawrence, an architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it. Larry named the house “Promontory” in honor of the hilly lot that it crowned, and somehow combined mid-century California modern design with the organic architecture embraced by Wright, who insisted that architecture live in harmony with its environment.
It was an idyllic place to grow up for me and my five siblings. We played in the woods, climbed the formal front stairs, and occasionally broke one of the many windows that brought in views of the forest. The house was our home base and our inspiration. The ground floor was what architects call an “open plan” that flowed freely from our double-height kitchen, through the family room, into the soaring sky lit living room with windows on three sides, to Dad’s study. My mother’s domain was at one end, my dad’s at the other, and we inhabited the space in between with family meals, celebrations and frequent parties. My brother and I had circular bedrooms stacked in a tower, each with an enormous bubble window. We once smashed a stack of Mom’s good china when an errant football, thrown on the second floor, sailed over the balcony that overlooked the kitchen and landed on the counter below.
My parents, both Northerners, decided almost 20 years earlier to move to Charlotte because they saw the enormous possibilities of the place, and their house was an essential expression of that optimism. Modern, wide open, and just a little eccentric, the home they made was imbued with both a sense of beauty and the possibilities of a better future for each of us. The world was a place to inhabit with joy and improve with ideas, even challenging ones.
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The house had challenges. Like many influenced by Wright, it leaked and the fireplace didn’t work. It needed four roofs in the 34 years they owned it. All that glass meant it cost a fortune to heat and cool, having been designed before the energy crisis, so much so that years ago Dad’s friend Bill Lee, the late CEO of Duke Energy, liked to joke that we were his favorite residential customers.
Like Charlotte, our family grew and matured. The city limits captured our neighborhood and many beyond. The Pell family sold the surrounding property, and much of the forest adjacent to the house gave way to tiny lots with enormous homes. One of those owners bought my parents’ “empty nest” in 2004, hoping to protect his property from a similar fate. Our house, now his, topped North Carolina Modern Houses’ list of “most endangered” properties, and sat unoccupied and moldering for twelve years for reasons we can’t really discern. Last Thursday he demolished it. Having lost both our parents in the last two years it felt like another death in the family. Near our old neighborhood, others were restoring their mid-century modern Charlotte houses to new life.
I’m an architect myself now and visit Charlotte often. I’m astonished by its growth and sophistication, worried about its state politics, and proud of its architecture, which gets better each year. But truly great cities are built by people with an eye on the future and deep respect for the past that got them there. My parents understood that, and they – and our house – are part of that history now. I hope Charlotte can hold both values as dearly as they did.
Phil Bernstein is an architect who grew up in Charlotte. He lives in Connecticut and teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.