On a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1954, a young woman from Raleigh made the trek to Wendell to see an unusual and unique house she had heard about. She inched her car up the muddy street and slid to a stop in front of a strange looking structure with a flat roof, deep overhangs and large amounts of glass. As she tried to move the car further along the way, the tires began to spin in the mud and she eventually became stuck. Angrily, the woman grabbed her umbrella, marched to the house and banged loudly on the front door. When a man appeared, she demanded to know if he was the architect of this strange creation. When he replied that yes, he was Walter Burgess, the young lady furiously insisted that he pay for a tow truck to come and remove her car.
She said that if he was going to build something so unusual in such an out of the way location, then he was responsible if people get stuck when coming to see it.
Or so the story goes…
Wendell architect Walter C. Burgess’ personal home is a modernist architectural treasure quietly nestled into the pines on Dogwood Trail. The house still retains most of the original features, materials and colors as when it was designed and constructed in the early 1950’s. The design was years ahead of concepts that are common in home architecture today. It utilizes a non-traditional open floor plan and has large windows that blur the separation between inside and outside.
It incorporates green building techniques that allow for natural ventilation and uses numerous built-in features and “design over size” concepts. The newly popular “Not So Big House” movement, based on the successful design books of architect Sarah Susanka, exemplifies many design concepts that Burgess incorporated in his home nearly 60 years ago. These features and many more, make the house a special structure that should be noted and appreciated.
Recently, at the house on Dogwood Trail, Burgess’ son and former Wendell Town Manager Tim Burgess gave a presentation about his father’s life and journey to a career in architecture.
Walter Carstarphen Burgess was born in Rocky Mount on December 11, 1916 and was raised in Plymouth. Burgess served in World War II as a combat engineer with the 5th Division, which was part of General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. His talent for drawing and interest in architecture were evident in the numerous sketches he did of buildings throughout war-torn Europe. Upon returning home from the war as a First Lieutenant and Purple Heart recipient, Burgess met his future wife, Wendell native Alta Ruth Cooke, while they were both teaching at Plymouth High School. They were married in 1947.
Desiring a career in architecture, Burgess approached the legendary Dean of the North Carolina State University School of Design, Henry Kamphoefner. Kamphoefner was so impressed with the young man that he encouraged him to forego a formal architectural education and begin an immediate internship with an architectural firm.
Burgess followed his advice. He passed the registration exam on his first attempt and established his own architectural practice. Burgess and his family moved to Wendell in 1950 and he began to design his house.
His personal masterpiece
Similar to noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Burgess’ designs emphasized the use of natural materials such as stone, wood siding and glass. The way these elements are arranged make the house appear to be integrated with the site rather than occupying it.
The approach to the house is down a short walk that parallels the front wall. The walk has a roof covering which does not connect to the front wall of the house like a traditional porch. There is a gap that allows sunlight to fill the interior of the building.
Entering the front door, the “foyer” is defined not by walls but by a painted teal built-in cabinet immediately in front of the door and a wood “grid” suspended over the space. Each of these elements is simple in design but create a clear and distinct point of arrival. The “foyer” opens directly into the family room on the left.
The most prominent feature of the house, both inside and out, is the massive stone fireplace—a rectangle of rock that separates the house from the carport and runs the depth of the structure. Inside, it forms one full wall of the family room. It clearly denotes that this space is the “heart” of the house. The front and rear walls of the family room are large windows that allow natural light to permeate the space and outside views to dominate. The roof slopes to the rear and has exposed beams that align with the windows. This detail draws your eye through the space and to the exterior.
All the interior walls are covered with naturally stained wood panels and the interior door and window trim are thin strips of wood painted the same teal as the entrance area cabinet. There is a significant emphasis on clean, simple lines with no adornment or ornamentation. Another notable feature is the bedrooms and bathrooms have door panels with vents to the outside. These openings provide natural cross ventilation to cool the house.
Almost 60 years after it was built, the house has aged well reflecting the architect’s care in design and construction. In many ways it is still as unique and unusual as it was in 1954.
In addition to his Dogwood Trail residence, Burgess designed the Wendell Municipal Building, the Fleet Fuels building on Wendell Boulevard, Dr. Ralph Brashear’s office in Wendell, Dr. Joseph Sedwitz’s office in Zebulon and four other houses in Wendell. Although Burgess designed private residences and commercial buildings, he was probably best known for his numerous church designs including projects in Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Dunn, Mount Olive, Apex, Williamston, Hobbsville, Durham, Greenville, Laurinburg, Hertford and Augusta, Georgia.
Burgess was a man of strong conviction, integrity, and faith. He was active in the Wendell United Methodist Church where he served as a lay leader and Sunday school teacher. He and his wife are the parents of four children. Burgess died on April 9, 1969 at the age of 52.