Dorton Arena, North Carolina State Fairgrounds, Raleigh, 1953. Photograph from the Division of Archives and History Photograph Collection, State Archives of North Carolina.
The usual narrative credits the building’s namesake, Dr. J. Sibley Dorton, with its vision. A professor of veterinary medicine who became the director of the state fair in 1937 (soon after the fair’s move to its current location in west Raleigh in 1927), Dorton called on his colleague Henry L. Kamphoefner, the recently appointed dean of the new School of Design at North Carolina State College, to help him select the right architect to design a visionary arena and modern fairgrounds that would showcase North Carolina’s agricultural and industrial products on a year-round basis. In 1939, the New York World’s Fair had succeeded in restoring America’s faith in industrial production in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Following World War II, state fairs across the country quickly followed suit to light the beacon of modernization, progress, and technology in every citizen and state in the Union.2
Fittingly, this symbolic project came at the very beginning of Kamphoefner’s twenty-five-year career as the dean of the College of Design—a test for him and the school. Kamphoefner appointed one of his newest lieutenants, Matthew Nowicki, chair of the Department of Architecture, to the project. Nowicki was to work with the longstanding architect of state and federal projects, William H. Deitrick, to lead a design team to develop a new master plan. Among the new faculty that Kamphoefner had brought with him to NC State, Matthew Nowicki and his wife, Stanislava (Sandeka) Nowicki, were arguably among the most controversial figures, given the social and political contexts of the Cold War and the soon-to-come McCarthy investigations. The Nowickis were two of the most prominent designers of their generation in interwar Poland. Their debut in the United States came with Matthew Nowicki’s involvement in the design of the Polish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Surviving the war as part of the Polish resistance, the Nowickis returned to the United States in 1945 as cultural attachés. Serving on the international design team of the United Nations, Matthew Nowicki was recognized as the talented young architect of the UN’s Assembly Building. This involvement led to the couple’s collaboration with Eero Saarinen, by then also a well-recognized young architect, on the design of the Brandeis University campus, which served as a model for a number of postwar campuses around the world. It was in this context that the Nowickis met Lewis Mumford, who connected them with NC State.3
Mumford was a sought-after lecturer at the American Institute of Architects events in Washington, DC, and drew Kamphoefner’s attention with his thoughts on architecture, planning, and the postwar world order. Mumford assigned an important role to architecture in creating the type of civic spaces that would prevent the reemergence of fascism and would bring together a society otherwise fragmented by industrialization and overspecialization. In his book Technics and Civilization (1934), Mumford provided a historical critique of the social consequences of industrial production. At the same time, he embraced the potential of science and technology to create a more cohesive and advanced democracy. As demonstrated in his contributions to Henry Dreyfuss’s Democracity exhibition at the New York World’s Fair, he believed that electrification and the automobile, along with a national highway system, provided the key components of a healthier and more democratic society.4
The South held an important role in the realization of this new social and spatial experiment. Infrastructure and power generation projects carried out by the Tennessee Valley Authority and New Deal programs had set the stage for this new model of regional development. The promise of this New South had also drawn Kamphoefner to the region. In order to sow the seeds of these ideas in the minds of future generations, he invited Mumford to provide a series of lectures as a primer to architecture and engineering students. Chancellor John W. Harrelson supported this idea, as it paralleled federal programs to balance technical education with courses in the humanities. To augment these initiatives, Mumford recommended Matthew Nowicki as the founding chair of the Department of Architecture. The Nowickis, who had fought fascism at close range in Poland, shared his ideas on postwar reconstruction. Raleigh, as the center of a new and thriving region, and NC State, as the locus of new technologies, including atomic energy, was a perfect node from which to instill the foundation of a more ethical and sustainable future.5
Raleigh, as the center of a new and thriving region, and NC State, as the locus of new technologies, including atomic energy, was a perfect node from which to instill the foundation of a more ethical and sustainable future.