UFO Homes, Clamshell Gas Stations, and Giant Domes: 6 NC Destinations for Bizarre Architecture

UFO Homes, Clamshell Gas Stations, and Giant Domes: 6 NC Destinations for Bizarre Architecture

The last remaining Shell gas station shaped like a clamshell in Winston-Salem. (Image via Wikipedia)

By Emily Jaeger

August 30, 2022

Modernist architecture, which peaked between 1933 and 1965, is spacey, minimalistic, and experimental. But vestiges of this eye-catching period can be found all over North Carolina.

Whether you’ve been lost in Charlotte’s IKEA since it opened or felt indescribably drawn to hoisting all of your heaviest furniture onto four spindly legs, then you know that these days everything Mid-Century Modern is on trend.

MCM refers to architecture, furniture, and design made between 1933 and 1965 (or, these days, anything vaguely inspired by that period and painted mustard yellow). MCM embraces earthy tones, industrialism, minimalism, the space age, and experimentalism. If you’ve ever asked, what do buildings mean?, then you’d fit right in. 

NC is home to the 3rd most modernist homes in the country, not to mention a whole host of other MCM architectural wonders. 

So grab your GPS and your favorite Mad Men get-up: you have arrived. 

Pam-Oil Gas Station, Fayetteville 

Abandoned, extremely rare example of space-age inspired architecture, check

The Pam-Oil Gas station in Fayetteville, designed by architect J. Hyatt Hammond in 1956, was inspired by the now demolished home of another Raleigh-based MCM architect, Eduardo Catalono. The roof, a giant concrete hyperbolic paraboloid — think weird, bendy curves —was meant to attract passing motorists. But don’t get a fender-bender trying to take pictures. 

The building is arguably the most structurally innovative Modernist building in Fayetteville…which is why it is completely unmaintained

Visit this architectural wonder while it lasts at 974 Bragg Boulevard from the safety of the sidewalk. 

UFO Homes, Clamshell Gas Stations, and Giant Domes: 6 NC Destinations for Bizarre Architecture
A hallmark of mid-century modernist architecture, the Kamphoefner House in Raleigh is a relic of a bygone era. (Image via Raleigh Historic Development Commission)

Kamphoefner House, Raleigh

Frank Lloyd Wright was the most influential MCM architect and these days his name is still synonymous with architecture. While there are no Wright-designed homes in NC, his concept of Usonian design–affordable, single story homes designed for the American middle class (US-onian)–spoke deeply to NC architects Henry Kamphoefner and George Matsumoto

They designed Raleigh’s first Usonian house in 1948, featuring the typical flat roofs with generous overhangs, cantilevered carports, and lots of tall windows. The style took off, and many Usonian homes were built on the outskirts of Raleigh through the 1960s. 

The Henry L. Kamphoefner House, a private residence, can be spotted at 3060 Granville Drive.

Futuro House, Frisco

Futuro Pods are either prefabricated houses designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in the 1960s or UFOs. We’ll leave it to you to decide after you stop by NC’s own Futuro House in the Outer Banks. 

One of only 100 ever manufactured in the 1960s, the Frisco pod is a little dinged up: more Millenium Falcon than Elysium.

While the Futuro Pod was generally disliked for its appearance, in NC, it has found acceptance. Today, you can see alien faces peering from the portholes and if you’re lucky, you might run into the current occupant, who’s known for dressing up as a green alien for photo ops. 

Geodesic Dome, Black Mountain

It takes a creative mind to (first) try to build a full-sized home entirely from vertical vinyl blinds and (second) end up with the Montreal Biosphère. But it was just this type of out-of-the-box thinking that was embraced at the Black Mountain College, a pillar of MCM art and design which was located about 20 miles outside of Asheville. 

But, Bucky Fuller, a professor at Black Mountain College in the late 1940s, put Geodesic Domes–self-supporting, spherical buildings made of hundreds of tessellating triangles–on the map. 

Today, there are many Geodesic Dome homes to scout out in NC or just stop by the Spaceship Earth the next time someone drags you to Disney World. 

Shell Gas Station, Winston-Salem 

Imagine if Amelia Bedelia designed a Shell Gas Station. Oh wait, you don’t have to: just visit the last extant clamshell Shell Oil Station, a pearl of literalist design.

There used to be 8 in total in Winston-Salem and nearby towns. 

It was not easy to create a gas station in the shape of a clamshell in the 1930s. R.H. Burton and his son Ralph had to construct a bent wood and wire frame around the office and restrooms, and then cover the entire thing stucco. 

Thankfully, this last standing clamshell is under the protection of Preservation North Carolina–so it’ll be sticking around. And you can even go inside to see archival photos and other memorabilia. 

Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter, Belmont 

If you are looking for a quick MCM day trip outside of Charlotte, NC, check out the Holy Comforter in Belmont. The building, with its industrial facade, was designed by pioneering North Carolina architect Charles Bates

You’d never guess from the modest exterior, but walking into the Holy Comforter Sanctuary is like stepping into a cubist rainbow. Vertical stained-glass panels let in blocks of bright, colored light, pulling your gaze up towards, well, the Holy Comforter himself. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. 

Bates also built many private homes that showcase MCM architecture around Charlotte, NC but it may take some sleuthing to find out their exact addresses. 


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