Pebbles In The Pond: News & Musings by Landscape Architect Dick Bell

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A History of Landscape Architecture in North Carolina June 25, 2009

brochure cover from the Sixties...

brochure cover from the Sixties...

By Richard C. Bell, FASLA, FAAR, at the request of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects —

Part I:
Toward Registration & Establishing a North Carolina Licensing Board for Landscape Architecture –General Assembly, House Bill 521, 1969 —

Landscape architecture in this state began in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, at North Carolina State College as course work. There were few graduates but two were quite notable: John Harris and E.G. Thurlow. Both men were determined to build a profession the South.

John Harris remained in the College and became “The Tar Heel Gardener,” the host of an early-morning, weekly radio program which informed the public about  the horticulture department and North Carolina nurserymen. His was a “one man approach” to educating all of us about landscape architecture.

Edwin G. “Gil” Thurlow went to war from 1941-45, serving as a naval officer on board a sub-chaser on The Murmanx run. That one, single service on the crucial lifeline from the United States to Russian on an attack vessel established a work ethic in Thurlow that stayed with him throughout his life: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” He later served on the search committee to bring in a dean for the new “School of Design,” which would now be comprised of faculties from architecture (mechanical engineering) and landscape architecture (horticulture), which Thurlow was resurrecting as a program.

Dean Henry Kamphoefner emerged as the new dean, with Gil Thurlow at his right hand. I was a student at the time, finally graduating in 1950 as part of Dean Kamphoefner’s first class of 15 architects and four landscape architects. Afterwards, I served as an apprentice in John and Philip Simonds office in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and Fred Stresaus office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This is significant because both of those states were pursuing registration at the time. Just how important this was became very clear to me.

At age 21, I received the Prix de Rome. So I left my apprenticeship to study and travel abroad via the American Academy in Rome. When I finally returned home to North Carolina, my soul was invigorated by the concept of a profession of landscape architects who could create private practices, which, in turn, would influence politics and policies in North Carolina toward environmental design, large and small-scale design projects in our cities and towns, historic preservation, natural systems design, and environmental education.

In 1955, Jim Godwin and I established an office Raleigh. We were practicing landscape architecture and survival! Godwin’s aspirations stemmed from his war years in the Pacific theater fighting the Japanese: “Take no prisoners” were his watchwords. His idea of being involved in the political process was limited to service in the old Southeastern Chapter of the ASLA, which was comprised of six states: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. Tight control of chapter activities and a tight little profession in these six states appealed to him.

Fortunately, Godwin’s colleagues in the old chapter did not agree with him.  Georgia and Florida pulled out to establish their own chapters and to achieve registration. Other states pursuing registration at that time included New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California (three chapters and registration acts), Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

My aspiration, then, was to bring my friends and practitioners in the four remaining states – Alabama, Tennessee, South and North Carolina – into the “statehood” of landscape architecture. Of course, North Carolina was my first priority.

To understand the principles behind my efforts and my resultant strategy, one must understand our strengths and weaknesses as a professional group at the time.
The new graduates, practitioners, and apprentices from the new School of Design now numbered about 24 and included Jim Godwin and myself from the class of 1950, and, from 1951-60: Bob McDonald; Rufus, Ken and Wayne Coulter; Bob Phillips; Charlie Burkhead; Loddie Bryan; Jeff McLean; Heath Carrier; Gus Moore; and Jerry Turner. Older practitioners included R.D. Tillson, Aiji Tashiro, John Townsend, R.J. Pease, Charles Pitkin, Bob Campbell, Harold Bursley, and educators E.G. Thurlow, John Harris, Morley J. Williams, and Larry Enersen. Charles Gillette of Richmond, Virginia, was a great practitioner in eastern North Carolina with ties to Washington, D.C. bureaucratic systems. He was a spiritual confidant to us. My partners at this time — Hal McNeely, Ralph Graham, Dan Sears and Wes Frame – concentrated on building our firm while I worked on registration.

The strategy I devised and was worked out over a period of time (1955-1965) by observing the various foot-in-the-mouth “diseases” that pervaded our profession and its leaders (and, to some degree, still do today).

First, we were unrecognized as a profession and our members were consistently suspicious of any “new blood” that might undermine their individual lifestyles and prestige within their communities. In all of the Southeastern Chapter’s meetings, it was very common to hear, “We must each protect our territories and keep other firms out!”  I espoused a new concept: Move as many apprentices as possible through our offices and encourage them to open their own offices as soon as possible, thus increasing our presence through extensive practice throughout the state. This would help us politically when we were seeking registration.

Secondly, we were noticeably snobbish with very little to be snobbish about. We were not happy with the architects, engineers, artists, nurserymen, arborists, and state and school construction authorities. We were hands-off to all university and college teachers in our schools of design as well as to other practitioners from other states. The “me” movement was alive and well. This was unfortunately – and disastrously — personified by Professor Thurlow’s remarks to the North Carolina Nurserymen’s Association (NCNA). In a botched attempt to receive approval for our profession, he told them that under the new registration act, they would no longer be able to draw plans, install drainage systems, do rough and fine grading, etc. Naturally, this infuriated the nurserymen and set them against us for a long time.

Something had to be done. So, I began to monitor all the other professions – architects, civic, structural, and mechanical engineers. I joined the Raleigh Section of the NCAIA. I worked with engineers on our projects. I joined and worked with the nurserymen in the NCAN to obliterate Thurlow’s image. (It didn’t hurt that I was the son and grandson of nurserymen on Roanoke Island!) I made friends with the arborists’ group and with officials in State Construction and School Planning, and became a director and scholarship awards sponsor to the N.C. State University School of Design.

It’s important to remember that in 1969, we were an agrarian state with a legislature that related to the state’s farmers. Our lawyers were farm-raised and our governors knew well the agricultural pulse of the state. Governors Kerr Scott, Bob Scott, and Jim Hunt were raised on farms and were members of the NCSU “farmhouse fraternity.” I began to make friends with those legislators, lawyers and governors.

In 1967, our group was increasingly anxious to seek registration. But to do so, we needed a well-recognized lawyer, preferably a strong Democrat, who was also an astute political fighter and a country gentleman at heart. We found all attributes in R. Mayne Albright, a Raleigh attorney who had campaigned for governor in 1952 — in a bus! As luck would have it, I had met Mayne and his wife, Frances, at his mother’s home where I resided during my first year in practice with Jim Godwin. We’d become fast friends and he had provided my fledgling firm with its first commission: a $1,500 stone wall from which we made a $65 fee.

In the summer of 1968, at a bimonthly meeting, I requested an opportunity to speak to our small group of practitioners and professors. I told them that I believed the 1969 General Assembly was the prime time for our push for registration. I told them that I had spoken to Mayne and had asked him what he would charge to represent us. I also told them that I had made strong connections with our natural allies: the architects, under whose Statute 89 we would fall (as 89A); the engineers; the nurserymen, who were all farmers with strong legislative contacts; and the educators. (Among the latter, Gil Thurlow was as bellicose as ever, but I swore him to silence throughout the endeavor.) Finally, I told them I would gladly handle the entire process.

Our group anteed up $10,000 to hire Mayne Albright to begin reviewing all of the state laws in effect and to begin writing our act. Mayne was the attorney for the architectural registration board and he lobbied its members to accept us under their bill and help us with the legislators.

Finally, our bill – House Bill 521 — was presented to the state legislature. I had worked closely with the Democrats and Charlie Burkhead had worked with the Republicans. In the end, we managed to get almost everything we requested in the bill, And we made a lot of friends in the process. The only thing we lost was my recommendation that Governor Bob Scott appoint Charles Burkhead to the first board since his efforts with the Republicans had helped us greatly. Unfortunately, Charlie’s Republican fervor did not impress our Democratic governor.

As it turned out, I was the first person elected to the registration board (see certificate). John Townsend became chairman, Charlie Fountain became vice chairman, and Bob McDonald and John Harris became members.

So what did we accomplish?

Many landscape architects have asked me why we did not go for a practice act rather than a title act since we had so little opposition to our proposed legislation. I remind them that this was a planned endeavor built around the monies and efforts of the existing North Carolina members in the old Southeastern chapter, which was comprised of four states. We asked for no help from the other states and received none. I had requested $10,000 for our attorney and in return I promised to deliver a strong title act. In a sense, I had bonded my soul to this cause and promised a fast, cheap campaign with no additional funds required. Remember, too, that I had already spent 14 years making friends with the state’s architects, engineers, artists, academicians, State Construction officials, nurserymen, NCSU Department of Horticulture and School of Design officials, as well as other practitioners in our state. I felt confident that we would prevail if the group left the strategy of the campaign to Mayne Albright, Charlie Burkhead, and myself.

In other words, I was determined that we would not make the registration issue a sensitive matter by inadvertently opening our mouths at the wrong time. Since many of them had been in military service, I reminded them that, “loose lips sink ships!” They took this to heart and at no time in those four months did any of us put our feet in our mouths.

This “gag order” is the reason so few people know this history. I know it because I lived it. And now, at 77 years of age, I believe it’s time for you to know it, too!

Part II:
Developing the North Carolina Chapter of the ASLA

In 1969, our registration board was off and running. We had prevailed on Governor Scott to give us five appointees from the following members: Bell, Burkhead, Townsend, Fountain and Harris. As stated previously, the governor denied our request for Burkhead. Instead, he appointed Bob McDonald, a hot-headed Democrat. I was the first member, appointed for one year, McDonald and Harris were appointed for two years and Townsend and Fountain for three. The others asked that I become chairman. I declined the honor, suggesting that we install the three-year members since they could pass on our initial desires to those appointed after us.

Part of our reasoning for the title act came from our sister state, Florida. Florida had succeeded in passing a practice act, but it created a furor in the ranks of nurserymen, landscape contractors, landscape maintenance men, irrigation specialists, and horticultural greenhouse people. They all presented qualifications as landscape architects and were all “grandfathered” in.

John Harris and I took on the problem of settling the “grandfather clause,” which would stay in force for one year and would allow anyone who requested it the title and registration stamp for landscape architects.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had worked long and hard with the nurserymen and had managed to get them to respect our intentions. John Harris and I sent letters to all of the nurserymen at the time asking them not to request a “grandfather” form of registration. We ended up with only 15 “grandfathers,” 10 of which were working in nurseries as educated landscape architects with the appropriate degrees. We considered ourselves lucky!

By then we had made believers of the entire Southeastern Chapter. The members elected John Townsend to complete his last year as chapter trustee. I was elected president and Kenneth Coulter was elected secretary-treasurer. When the results were read at our chapter’s summer meeting and I was allowed to say a few words, I told them that my first official act would be to disband the Southeastern Chapter and to create four distinct state chapters for North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. I told them I would work with the practitioners in each of the states, as well as the National Society in Washington, D.C., to achieve this goal.

Kenneth Coulter and I proceeded immediately to prepare four requests for chapter status, with paperwork, for the American Society of Landscape Architects. John Townsend, as our trustee, kept the Southeastern members well informed as to what we were doing.

We had friends in the other three states: Harry McLeod in Tennessee, Ed Pinckney and Robert Marvin in South Carolina, and Gene Brock in Alabama. We made up the deficits in South Carolina and Tennessee by taking members from our chapter so that they would meet requirement for 10 members. Our mountain contingency included three practitioners who working on projects in Tennessee. The rest of us easily helped South Carolina since many of us worked there out of Charlotte and Raleigh.

We were officially disbanded and recreated in about 30 days.

Our new chapter held a quick election with Dick Wilkinson finishing up John Townsend’s term. (John had his hands full as chairman of the North Carolina registration board.) I was elected president. Jerry Turner was elected vice president and Kenneth Coulter was elected secretary-treasurer. We assumed our duties and our chapters prospered.

Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee soon achieved registration as they gathered more members and associates.

Besides my work with the new North Carolina chapter, I attended 30 straight annual meetings of the North Carolina Association of Nurserymen and became a director in their organization, rising up to incoming president status before I formally withdrew. My final efforts led to their gaining “certified nurseryman” status that required examinations for competence. I also worked with the embryo group of landscape contractors to help them achieve registration as a fulfillment of my last promise to them.

I look back on the entire process as one of the truly great moments of my life.


6 Responses to “A History of Landscape Architecture in North Carolina”

  1. […] in the Pond.” He’s been posting for not even a week, but his blog is already littered with NC State references and trivia: Landscape architecture in this state began in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, at North […]

  2. Yona Says:

    I read where you list the first graduates of School of Design and you have Lewis Clarke listed as one of the graduates. Lewis was a professor from 1952 to 1968. He got his graduate degree from Harvard. I hope you can delete his name in your list of students!

    • Kim Weiss Says:

      Thank you for your comment. We will make the correction!

      • Yona Owens Says:

        I didn’t mean for you to leave Lewis Clarke out of mention at all. I think his name needs to be added at “…and educators E.G. Thurlow, John Harris, Morley J. Williams, […] Larry Enersen,” and Lewis Clarke.
        Thanks for maintaining!

  3. Hunter Jones Says:

    Delightful, I passed this on to a crony of mine, and he actually bought me lunch because I found this for him, so let me rephrase: Thanks for lunch.

  4. Yona R. Owens Says:

    Kim, when I suggested deleting Lewis Clarke from the list of students, I meant for you to add him to the list of educators. Clarke was a SOD professor from ’52 to ’68.

    Bob McDonald; Rufus, Ken and Wayne Coulter; Bob Phillips; Charlie Burkhead; Loddie Bryan; Jeff McLean; Heath Carrier; Gus Moore; and Jerry Turner were famously Clarke’s students.


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