The first historical essay I wrote was back in 2012 for the Historic Preservation graduate course at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dr. Dan Morrill, who at the time was the director of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, was the professor. He assigned us various properties in the College Downs neighborhood of Davidson, which was developed in the 1950s and was home to many Davidson College professors and staff. I chose the Donald Plott House at 103 Hillside Drive, and here’s the unpublished essay (with a few updates here and there as it’s been almost a decade since I wrote it):
The historical value of the property at 103 Hillside Drive lies not only in its representation of mid-century modernist architecture but also as evidence of the influence of Davidson College its namesake town. The home was designed by Charlotte architect Harold Cooler and constructed in approximately 1957 along with several other homes in the College Subdivision just south of the college campus. Although the property’s significance does not rest solely upon its original owner, Davidson College music professor Donald Bryce Plott, its connection to the history of housing in Davidson is of vital importance. Many local landmarks, whose construction and use span several generations, were home to college faculty members as well as students. Traditionally, these homes were rooted in revivalist or vernacular architectural styles, reflective of Davidson’s traditional value and religious roots. The incorporation of modern homes, such as the subject of this survey, highlights the evolution of architectural and societal philosophies at the local, national, and international level. These factors make the Donald Plott House a both worthy Davidson and Mecklenburg County landmark.
The original owner of the residence was Donald Bryce Plott (1922-1981) and his wife Mary Whitaker Plott (1919-1973). Born in Forsythe County, North Carolina, Donald received his bachelors and masters degrees in music from the University of Michigan. He was a professor of music at Davidson College for over 29 years, joining the faculty in 1951. Plott served as director of the music department as well as director of the Davidson College Male Chorus. In the community, he was well-known as the director of the choral group Oratorio Singers of Charlotte. At the time of his death from cancer he lived at 103 Hillside Drive. The circumstance of Plott’s illness and death helped to fuel an urban legend surrounding the music department building at Davidson, the Cunningham Fine Arts Building. Upon the announcement of the building’s remodeling in 2007, the Davidsonian found that, “four music department professors, all of whom had their offices on the side of the building nearest to Main Street, have died of brain tumors and cancer. These professors include David Richey in 1977, Donald Plott in 1981, Mary Nell Saunders in 1993 and James Swisher in 1996.”
Plott was buried in Mimosa Cemetery, Davidson, on Feburary 28, 1981. In his memory, the college held a memorial concert in his honor in 1983. Colleagues and former students also established the Donald Plott Memorial Endowment, which awards the Donald B. Plott Memorial Scholarship, valued at $10,000 annually, to an incoming student of music. His son Thomas Michael Plott inherited the property and sold 103 Hillside Drive to biology professor Jeremiah Lee Putnam and his wife, Mary Adeline King Putnam. Also a faculty member at Davidson College since 1973, Putnam was a professor of comparative anatomy and director of the premedical program (Note: Dr. Putnam retired in 2019). Although no longer the owner of 103 Hillside Drive, Putnam’s residence in the dwelling continued the tradition of Davidson faculty occupying many of the town’s homes.
The property located at 103 Hillside Drive passed to several owners over the years. The holders of the property before any residential development were the Trustees of Davidson College. Before selling the property for development, the Trustees placed a Restrictive Covenant on the property, designated as Lot 5, Block D of College Subdivision. This required the owners to construct a single-family residence larger than 1,000 square feet, with designs subject to review by the college. In a reflection of the town’s unique history, the covenant barred boarding houses, which were considered commercial property, but allowed “provision for the housing of members of the immediate family of the owner or occupant within the house or the renting of not more than two rooms.” On June 12, 1956, the College Trustees sold this property to Donald and Mary Whitaker Plott. The family held the property until 1983, when son Thomas sold the property to Jeremiah and Mary King Putnam. The Putnams divorced in the 1990s, and the house was tranferred to Mary. At the time of the report, Mary and her husband Rox W. Bailey reside in the residence (Note: Rox passed in 2016).
As previously mentioned, the forenamed Donald Plott House is historically significant for two reasons: as an indicator of the intertwined history of the town of Davidson and in the institution of Davidson College and as an example of mid-century modern residential architecture. These elements shall now be closely examined.
Davidson: College and Town
First and foremost in Davidson, North Carolina, is education. The heart of this small town of just over 10,000 people is Davidson College, a private institution established in 1835.
The Presbyterian institution was built on rural land purchased from the family of General William Davidson, a Revolutionary War hero. Until this time, the settlement was virtually non-existent. The growth of the future town of Davidson was almost entirely due to the college’s student and faculty populations. The first structure designated solely to house faculty was constructed in 1839 by the Reverend Walter Pharr; its first occupant was mathematics professor Samuel Williamson. Numerous boarding houses sprung up throughout the area as the student population grew. Historian Jennifer Payne cites various literary societies and fraternities that also housed students. Philanthropic Hall and Eumenean Hall, constructed by 1850, were home to the two main debating societies that dated back nearly to the founding of Davidson College. These and similar organizations provided both housing for students as well as socially-constructive atmospheres for regulating behavior. Despite the tight-knit relationship between students, the college’s relatively isolated location caused the institution to struggle in its early years. Davidson College faced several near closings.
The college served as the sole economic focus of the town until 1874. Before this date, the town’s primary route of access was the road between Charlotte and Statesville. But the revitalization of the railroad between these two locations led to an increase in both student and faculty population. The town and college were so intertwined that the act passed by the state assembly on February 11, 1879, that incorporated the community specified “that the town of Davidson College, in the county of Mecklenburg, is hereby incorporated into a body politic and corporate by the name and style of the town of Davidson College”. The growth of Davidson truly accelerates following this event. The combination of improved transportation and improved collegiate curriculum led to homes and businesses popping up along Main Street and Concord Road.
Numerous homes formerly occupied by Davidson College faculty are now local landmarks, including the modernist Purcell House in the College Subdivision. Historically, faculty resided in college-owned dwellings, namely Louisiana, Danville, the Blake House, the Grey House, Oak, and the President’s House, constructed between 1837 and 1870. By the early twentieth century, the limited number of homes could not contain the expanding faculty. A wave of new faculty brought in concurrently with Davidson’s tightened curriculum elected to construct their own homes. Davidson College owned much of the land in the area, and its status as a parochial school lead to unique restrictions upon leased property. As noted by local historian Mary D. Beaty in her seminal Davidson: A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937, the 1844 lease of college property to Professor Mortimer Johnson stated that the lessor could “not vend, barter, traffic, give or deal in any way ardent spirits, wine, cider, gin, porter, ale or any other kind of intoxicating liquor.” These restrictions would later be relaxed as Davidson, which shed College from its name by the mid-1890s, grew into a town now dominated by both collegians and merchants.
Harold Cooler, architect of the Donald Plott House, was a contemporary of noted Charlotte modernist architects including A.G. Odell and Jack O. Boyte. Born and raised in Jasper County, South Carolina, Cooler was a 1943 graduate of Clemson University. After serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, he relocated to Charlotte to begin his architectural career. Although architectural education at the time had focused on reiterations of classical detailing and proportion, many young graduates were drawn to modernism’s emphasis on clean lines, modern technological influences, and forward philosophical outlook. Architects from Germany and surrounding countries had fled to the United States shortly before the breakout of World War II and found positions at various universities throughout the country. These instructors, many who had either taught at or attended the Bauhaus school, thus shaped the architectural outlook of their new home. In his early career in Charlotte, Cooler worked first for Wooten & Wooten and then Charles W. Connelly. He later partnered with fellow Connelly draftsman Marshall McDowell to form McDowell & Cooler. Through these stages of his career, Cooler’s architectural clientele allowed more and more opportunity for incorporating modernism, although much of his work in conservative Charlotte still tended toward more classical and vernacular designs.
In Davidson, the overwhelming majority of notable structures call back to Classical and vernacular styles. Older structures such as the Eumenean and Philanthropic Halls represent the tradition, in the past as well as presently, of the Greek revival architectural style on university campuses. The detailing of this style is reliant upon the ability of the craftsman to shape natural building elements, such as stone into the Doric columns of these two Davidson College structures. Geometric proportions and symmetry also characterize classical revival architecture. The homes of Davidson, however, reflect the diversity in historic architectural preferences. Built in the 1880s and 1890s, the Martin-Henderson House and the Holt-Henderson House are examples of the Folk Victorian movement. The intricate woodwork characteristic of Queen Anne homes was made possible by technological innovation, allowing craftsmen to utilize machinery rather than handcraft each piece. Homes such as these spread along Main Street and Concord Road and were easily accessible to the college, important in that they continued the tradition of boarding houses. By the 1920s, the Craftsman style of residential architecture had come to Davidson, as seen in the local landmark Ralph Johnson House. However, despite the evolution of architectural styles evident in the homes of Davidson, the town’s residential architecture remained rooted in conservative tradition.
However, the potential for incorporation of modern architecture into the fabric of Davidson reflected not only the continued evolution of residential design but also the conflict of interests that may arise in small college towns. The career of a college professor more often than not incorporates a great deal of moving. It is not unusual, nor unlikely, for a faculty member to feel less of a connection to a community than a lifelong resident. When Davidson College hired 49 new faculty members in anticipation of increased student population due to the Montgomery G.I. Bill awarded to World War II veterans, many newcomers were given the opportunity to shape the town. In the early 1950s, Davidson College surveyed land just south of the campus along Lorimer Road and began dividing it into lots to sell to faculty members. Among the faculty for which Cooler recounted designing homes in the area were Plott, English professor James Purcell, mathematics professor Richard Bernard, biology professor Tom Daggy, and several others. Many of the potential homeowners, especially Plott and Purcell, directed Cooler to conceive a home reflective of the modern style. The architect noted that the planning conferences were “stimulating and efficient” for the well-educated clients “were able to convey their wishes to me with great clarity and the homes that sprang from these sessions were uniformly successful.”
The Donald Plott House is a custom home focused upon the needs and desires of its original owner, and Cooler was more than willing to craft a space best suited for its users. Being a concert pianist, Plott owned a full-size grand piano. Cooler incorporated this instrument into the design of the home. According to then-owner Rox Bailey, the living room was especially insulated to contain noise, which enabled Plott to play whenever necessary without disturbing his family. Although Cooler designed many multi-family residential and commercial properties, along with single-family residences, he cites the design of the College Subdivision homes for Davidson faculty as “one of the most satisfying phases of my professional career.”
As demonstrated, the Donald Plott House is an excellent example of modernist residential architecture in Davidson. A continuation of the evolving residential styles in the town as well as in Mecklenburg County and around the country, this property is especially significant within the contextual landscape of Davidson College. Since the town was made possible by the college, and for much of its early history was populated by the institution’s students and faculty, the interdependent relationship between the two is undeniable. It is for these reasons that the Donald Plott House should be upheld as a local landmark.
See photos of the Donald Plott House from 2012:
Mary D. Beaty. Davidson: A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937. Davidson, NC: Briarpatch Press, 1979.
Harold L. Cooler. Booster Kuester and Beyond: An Architect’s Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Okatie Press, 2009.
Jennifer Payne. The Evolution of the Built Environment of Davidson, North Carolina. Edited by Dan L. Morrill. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. April 2006.