1913 Glendale Avenue

36.01555, -78.896288

Year built
Architectural style
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National Register
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1913 Glendale Avenue, 2011
(Courtesy Alex Maness)

Text in italics from the Preservation Durham 2011 Home Tour booklet:

William M. Upchurch House, 1953
1913 Glendale Avenue

There are two Duke Park neighborhoods (even more if one’s architectural scalpel is sharp). The first is the 1920s neighborhood of deep narrow lots populated with period revival and eclectic style houses – mostly Tudors and colonials with a few craftsman bungalows to leaven the mix. These are the American homes of President Harding’s “normalcy.” Some are large and some are small, but all have essentially the same spatial elements sorted out in the same way. Formal living and dining rooms up front display fancy fireplaces and woodwork for company. Kitchens and service areas are tucked at the rear. The houses, like the lots they occupy, are often deep. Quaint cottage fronts conceal the bulk of the structure in wings and gables that push to the rear. These are homes for the prosperous middle class with appearances to maintain. The development of this Duke Park sputtered and then stopped in the twin cataclysms of the Great Depression and World War Two. Money was gone, materials were gone, men were gone, normalcy was gone.

The second Duke Park, the Duke Park represented by the Upchurch house, lies physically right next to the first, but is separated from the first by a great distance in time, experience, and attitude. Men and women picking up and starting new lives after years of depression and war no longer felt they had to keep up appearances. They wanted homes for the family life so long delayed – homes with no formality and no pretense. What was wanted, then, was a design to fulfill this expectancy, to make the longed-for simplicity of life real. Stockbroker Tudors and little “Taras” would not fill the bill. Homebuyers turned away from the European and eastern styles so important a generation earlier. Instead they turned to the new styles sweeping west from California.

The “Ranch” style as envisioned by architects like Cliff May and Lutah Maria Riggs provided the comfort and informality homebuyers of the late 40s and 50s wanted. These houses, with their long, low lines, shallow, hipped roofs, and open floor-plans evoked the sunny, relaxed California style people saw on their new televisions.

Bill and Elizabeth Upchurch were no exception. Bill grew up in Depression-era Durham. He emerged from N.C. State as a new engineer and went to work at Duke University where he was involved in the development of the medical center. When it came time for the Upchurches to build their own home, they turned to the Ranch style. Because ranch houses tend to be one level and present long facades to the street, the small deep Duke Park lots platted in the 1920s couldn’t accommodate the new style. Developers recombined the old narrow lots into wider lots large enough to hold the rambling ranches. The Upchurch house contains no more area than its bungalow predecessors, but it requires a lot-and-a-half to site it.

Although the house is modest, it possesses many of the characteristics that mark pure Ranch styles houses. Its living area is all on one level. Everywhere the horizontal is emphasized. The roof is hipped and low. The deep overhanging eaves carry all the way shining California sun. The front façade is not symmetrical. In their size and arrangement, the window openings serve the functions of the rooms inside and not the appearance of the house outside. Note the large corner window to the left. This is a typical Ranch-style feature. The entryway is recessed beneath the roof - also typical of Ranch style homes. Guests awaiting entry are invited in out of the sun. The house is clad in large, regular cedar shingles laid in broad courses creating strong lines. The corners are mitered permitting no vertical post to conflict with horizontality of the house. Even the window lights are divided in three horizontal bars corresponding with the shingle courses.

The interior plan is also markedly different from pre-war Duke Park houses. The front door opens to a central hall from which all the principal parts of the house are visible. Note: there is no living room and there is no dining room. There is no formal space in the house at all. Instead of being a relatively small space at the back of the house, the kitchen is in the front where the living room or parlor of a 1920s home would have been. The kitchen is large and its finishes are among the finest in the house. With the exception of the countertops, all of the cabinetry and fittings are original. Even-grained blond fir and chrome pulls cover ample and practical cabinets. There are pull-out shelves and a built-in ironing board. (While you are at it, be sure to notice the very high quality mechanical hardware that operates the heavy jalousie windows.) This kitchen was not merely a work space. It was a designed to be a family space and a guest space too. This was a revolutionary idea. No one in Duke Park would have invited his guests into the kitchen before the war. Although the original screened porch has been enclosed to make a less-than-satisfactory dining room today, originally the only eating area in the house was in the kitchen beneath the corner window. The house was designed to be lived in and be operated by the family. There are no areas set aside for servants.

Instead of a living room there is a den - a place where the family can relax and work together. As in the kitchen, everything in this room is original. The fireplace and built-in bookcase share the same frame - the top shelf of which performs duty as a mantel. Its long line enlarges the room and reinforces the horizontal emphasis. The bricks surrounding the firebox are laid in ranks and files marking the intersection of the horizontal shelves and the vertical paneling above. Because the room occupies the entire rear wing of the house, it is beautifully lit and ventilated.

The hallway leading from the entryway to the right provides access to two small bedrooms on the front of the house and the larger master on the back corner. This is the customary arrangement of such rooms in a ranch house. The bathroom arrangement, however, is unique. The half bath on the hallway opens into the full bath serving the master bedroom beyond. The sinks and tub are original.

Back outside, note that the driveway sweeps around the house to the rear. The Ranch style was first American style to move the family car into the family house. Although absent here, many ranch houses include a “carport” with a door directly into the kitchen. This door became the new main entry for America’s homes in the 20th century.

Ranch style houses are often dismissed today, but this is error. Every style goes through a period when it is little appreciated and the ranch may only be just emerging from its own period of unpopularity. When considered in the context of American social and cultural history, the Ranch style has much to say to us. It is the house of the TV and automobile age. It is the first truly servant-less home. The idea of the large kitchen as the center of family living was born here. The Ranch style dominated American homebuilding into the 1960s. Its beginnings in Durham are here, in the second Duke Park.

A legend associated with the house was that Mr. Upchurch designed it himself. While that may or may not be true, it almost certain that he selected the top quality fittings and materials that have served the house and its occupants for more than fifty years. The durability of these things and the functionality of the home’s design obviated the need to make subsequent changes. The result is an early Ranch style house in nearly original condition for us to enjoy and appreciate.

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I'm fully guilty of dismissing the Ranch style. I have to remind myself that ranches are an architectural style, and not simply a lack of imagination.

How should one treat an architecture which you find aesthetically somnolent but historically important?

Michael, I, too, find the ranch style boring, but maybe it will become more interesting to the next generation. I think we just have to acknowledge what the style reflected about society and home life at the time (as Gary does so well) and that we can't all like the same things.

Frankly, compared to 90% of what's been built in the last 20 years, it soon will seem downright inspired.

I think the value of the ranch is the pragmatic approach to what people felt was a bottom line answer to suitable housing: bedrooms, bathroom, living room, and a kitchen. Stained glass, exposed rafter tails, crown molding, formal dining rooms, shingle patterns, steep roofs, and all of the other things that make a house intriguing, although nice for grandma's house, were certainly details one could live without. Besides, they didn't fit in with the salaries of the 1950's satellite generation where less was more. As Anonymous said, it is the style that reflected society and home life at the time. Conversely, they are pretty cool when outfitted in the Danish style by people who like that minimalist mid-century look.

I love mid-century interior decor, whether Danish or otherwise, but I find ranch houses extraordinarily boring and spiritless compared to older homes. But maybe that's because I was raised in one, in Oklahoma, where there was little else.

Strikes me that these were homes built for the mass market, homes that could be built cheaply enough that families that wouldn't have owned in the 20s could now afford them.

I also observe that they were built around their "modern" mechanical systems. Gary's post covered how the house accommodates the family car. (In fact, it's kind of anomolous for these to have been built near downtown in Durham, in Duke Park. These were usually the house of greenfield suburbs. So why make the footprint compact when land was so cheap, people bought in the burbs for big yards, and everyone could drive to their destinations anyhow?)

We're installing HVAC, so no need for huge, double-hung windows to open or porches to sit on when it's too hot inside. Also, let's have 8-foot ceilings instead of 10, less cubic footage to condition. Look at all the modern appliances like fridges, ranges and dishwashers! Let's make a shrine for them; these are the signs of material success we want to show off to those who come and visit. And they're perfect for preparing technological food like cream of mushroom soup casserole and TV dinners (another reason why no need for a dining room -- you needed TV trays). And Gary noted well how the living area is designed around TV viewing.

This particular house is well built with many natural finishes. But this approach (not this shape of house, but approach to building mass-market housing) reached its nadir around the early '80s where instead of oak floors over diagonal dimensional lumber subfloors, you'd have particleboard subfloor designed for carpet, linoleum, etc., laminate cabinets imitating wood, plastic sidelights to ape stained glass... And Masonite siding.

Many newer houses actually try to draw the most livable aspects from this (50s ranch) uber-pragmatic style as well as the ornamentation of the more historic styles. We seem to appreciate (and want) both in the same house now. And people of course retrofit the mechanical systems into historic houses.

Very interesting post.

Thanks for the comments, everyone - just to note, I did not write the above - it's from the Preservation Durham home tour booklet. I noted such at the beginning of the week, but forgot to add the note to the top of this post - now corrected.


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