A Natural Order of Design
Remembering Bob Conner, architect
By Peter Freeman
Photograph by Amy Freeman
One of my earliest memories is what we called “the big fire.” It was next door. I was no more than 3 or 4, and my biggest impressions were the wailing sirens and the raging flames that overtook the house . . . and I can faintly remember the firemen. My brother, nearly three years my senior, remembers more. He recalls that Mr. Conner came over to use the phone, not once but several times. Although agitated, Mr. Conner was collected and polite. Tugging at his beard as well as his suspenders, he apologized for having to use the phone over and over again. My brother was afraid that the fire would spread through the woods and set our house on fire. It burned for what to me seemed to be the rest of the day. As the firetrucks pulled away, very little of the Conners’ house remained but its absence made a big impact.
We humans have a complicated relationship with fire. Of the classical elements, earth, air, fire and water, fire may be the hardest to command. But Robert “Bob” Conner the architect — and our neighbor — had a unique way of coming to terms with the elements. Bob was not just an architect. He he was also a naturalist and an environmentalist. He was passionate about the elements, and it showed in his architecture. And in time, the fire that destroyed his own creation seemed to be part of the natural order of things. Mr. Conner rebuilt his house almost exactly as he had originally designed it. As a reminder, he left a charred tree in a prominent place on his terrace. It was many years before I realized it was a symbol of fire’s power to cleanse and renew.
Bob Conner was a forward-looking man. He embraced the progressive American Modernism being practiced after the Second World War. He attended Duke University and graduated from N.C. State at a time when new directions in architecture were encouraged. He was part of an exciting generation of North Carolina architects and practiced with the venerable High Point firm of Voorhees and Everhart before striking out on his own.
Bob’s commercial architectural works — Ragsdale High School, Ragsdale Junior High and the B’Nai Israel Synagogue — are widely regarded as fine examples of the high level of Modern architecture that proliferated in flourishing, mid-century High Point. But it is the design of his own home that best reflects the personality of Bob Conner.
To say Bob practiced Green architecture before it was in vogue would be an understatement. Bob lived Green. He took long walks in the woods. He worked determinedly for environmental causes and he certainly looked the part, sporting a luxuriant beard, flannel walking pants, suspenders and at times, a walking stick. He and his wife, Lib, were Friends of the State Parks, founding members of the Conservation Council of North Carolina and avid travelers.
As a student of architecture, I knew that the Conner house was different, in fact special. Nestled in the woods, it possesses a symbiotic connection to its site. The house has a light environmental imprint. There are no organized lawns or over-considered landscaping. It simply emerges from its surroundings. The house is clad with rough-hewn, lapped cedar siding, an aesthetic complement to the wooded backdrop. The low-slung roof rises from the north to the south in a distinctly Modern fashion, opening up to the world and to the sun in a way that reminds me of Bob Conner’s infectious laugh.
The house is oriented so that its long side is situated along the north-south axis. Warm winter light penetrates the expanse of south-facing windows. The roof overhangs, providing protective shade in the heat of summer. Bob understood the sun and the wind. The house, originally designed in 1956, was built with no air conditioning. A high-perched cantilevered porch was designed with three screened sides. The porch design takes advantage of natural cross breezes and allows air to flow from below to cool the floor structure. Bob was not a big fan of air conditioning and was known to sleep on the cool porch. His home was like a treehouse, and fulfilled an ancient urge to be among the tree canopy.
When the original house was consumed by fire, Bob Conner understood the natural order of things. Like a natural wildfire that fosters new growth, Bob would rebuild, regenerate. Ever the environmentalist, he used repurposed bricks from a demolished downtown building for the renewed foundation. According to his daughter Susan Conner Levin, Bob said that he “got a chance to fix a couple of things I missed on the first go round.”
Bob Conner left the Earth he so loved in 2007, but his aerie in the woods remains, a constant reminder of the continuity of life. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently put it in The Great Gatsby:
“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
Peter Freeman is a practicing architect with Freeman Kennett Architects and remains a rascally Emerywood Drive neighbor in the Wendover Hills subdivision of High Point.