Monday, August 14, 2017

The Demise of the McIver Building and its Mural

The McIver Building is slated to be demolished in the spring and summer of 2018, making way for the new Nursing and Instruction Building. Designed by J. N. Pease and Company of Charlotte, North Carolina, when the McIver Building officially opened in October 1960, it was one of the few modern buildings on campus. It was also one of the first to be air-conditioned.  Named for Charles Duncan McIver, the founder and first president of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, it replaced the previous McIver Memorial Building, which stood in the same location until it was razed in 1958.
The “new McIver Building” was planned as a classroom space, but it was primarily meant to house the Art Department. In 1967, a wing was added to expand the department and to create the Weatherspoon Gallery. A kiln was constructed behind the building in 1966.

McIver Building
Opinions differ on the architectural merit of the structure, especially because of its juxtaposition to the historic Foust Building, but at the time of its construction, it was a cutting-edge design with an innovative art installation on its facade. Yet, from the time that the new structure was completed, it was controversial. While some welcomed the modern design, many felt that the new, contemporary edifice was reminiscent of a “penitentiary,” and missed the more conventional architecture of the old McIver Memorial Building. This opinion was echoed by Professor Randall Jarrell, who referred to the structure as “The Thunderbird Motel.”

McIver Building Dedication, October, 1960

The art installation on the western facade was also controversial. Architect J. N. Pease commissioned Joseph Cox (1915-1997), a professor at the North Carolina State University School of Design in Raleigh, to create a large “mural,” which would be featured above the western entrance of the building. Cox was a native of Indianapolis, Illinois, earning his B.F.A. from the John Herron Art School and his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He began working on large projects in his early twenties, including a commission sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to paint murals for post offices in Indiana and Michigan. In 1954, Cox took a position at the School of Design, and he taught there for twenty years, also fulfilling commissions for his art throughout the state. His interest focused on the use of interesting and diverse material, and capturing the light and shadow seen in nature.

"Mural" Created by Joseph Cox

He was asked to create the art installation for the McIver Building only a few years after he came to North Carolina. Although he was faced with financial limitations and unusual space restrictions, Cox created the modern design from a series of gray enameled panels that projected about three inches from the wall. This 35 x 20 foot sculptural facade was designed as an abstract “art piece” and was created to cast a changing pattern of light and shadow as the sun moved west during the day. In the morning, the mural would be hidden in shadows, and it would be gradually illuminated by the sunlight. At night, lights hidden behind the columns would create a green-silver sheen on the facade.
Cox’s continued interest in light and shadow can be seen in his “Color Wall,” which was created in the early 1970s for the D. H Hill Library at NC State University. This kinetic sculpture was designed to display constantly changing vertical patterns of color when lighted by twenty-three spotlights.  Although the Color Wall remains a part of the Hill Library, other of the artist’s art installations no longer exist. It is likely that the mural on the facade of the McIver Building will suffer the same fate, and be disassembled as part of the demolition of the structure, which will take place next year.

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