Raleigh Municipal Building (courtesy Alan Neifield/CCCC)
A version of this piece appeared as a Point-of-View editorial in the Raleigh News & Observer (Sunday, April 18, 2010). See the editorial . . .
The elegant Art Deco Hotel
Carolina graced the northeast corner of Hargett and Dawson streets, until it was
demolished in 1970 to make way for the current city hall. Only a few people objected.
It was generally thought to be rundown, out of fashion and not worth saving. Now
we wish we had a historic luxury hotel.
There was also the Park Hotel
on McDowell Street, torn down in 1976 to make way for the News & Observer parking
lot. Only the Professional Building on the corner of Hargett and McDowell
Streets remains of the mix of commercial buildings and Victorian houses that once
made Nash Square a fashionable place to see and be seen.
And now once again we are contemplating
demolition in the heart of our city. In the debate over the Lightner Public
Safety Center, not much has been said about saving and reusing the old
Municipal Building. Before we bring out the wrecking ball, let's stop and think
about what we're giving up.
Have we considered that the 1960
Municipal Building is part of Raleigh's history and identity? It was designed
by Milton Small, one of a cadre of cutting edge Modernist architects that made
NC State University's School of Design nationally known. Small worked with Mies
van der Rohe in Chicago before being recruited to Raleigh, bringing the
International Style with him. Only a handful of his commercial and institutional
buildings survive. (Even NCSU is considering replacing its Small-designed
bookstore with a new building of roughly the same square footage.)
The Municipal Building was
our modern, statement building of its time. It consolidated several city
government departments in one central location. The building was hotly debated.
Cost was a major issue. Ultimately a blue ribbon panel of 25 citizens selected
the site, chose the architect and came up with a way of paying for it. The
building cost $1.42 million or $14.31 per square foot.
It was solidly built to last.
And like the First Federal Building, a mid-century landmark demolished last
year, it will likely be tough to tear down a costly endeavor adding tons more
construction material to our landfill. It has been said before but bears
repeating: the greenest building is the one that is already built. It takes about
50 years to recapture the embodied energy (the energy used in the materials and
construction) in a typical older building, and the Municipal Building turns 50
this year. Let the city set a sustainable example by conserving resources and
using what we have.
architecture, the physical legacy of our 20th-century history as a
hub of technological innovation, is in danger of slipping through our fingers.
We have one of best collections of Modernist architecture in country, and we
are only just now coming to realize it. If the city leads the way in demolishing
these structures, how can we expect our citizens to respect and cherish them?
The common refrain is that
this building, like so many others, is out dated, in ill repair and not
conducive to modern use. The simple fact is that it can and ought to be
rehabbed and reused. Rehabilitation is consistently less expensive than new
construction. The business model of rehabilitation and adaptive use has been
proved time and again.
The building could be
renovated into sleek, modern offices, like something out of Mad Men. The city is always short of office space, and this
could be the coolest space in its portfolio. Imagine an outdoor café on the
corner overlooking the square. The reactivation of Nash Square is part of the
city's new Comprehensive Plan, and a day/night, pedestrian-friendly use on the
corner would be a great start.
Downtown Raleigh's historic
buildings are in high demand, occupied by some of our best restaurants and most
creative businesses. These are the spaces and places that make Raleigh,
Raleigh. It is by weaving the new with the old that we will create an excellent
21st-century city truly one of the best places to live in the
If the city wants a new
statement-making public safety center, then by all means it can build one but
not at the expense of a fine building we already have.
Elizabeth Sappenfield is the Urban Issues Director for Preservation North Carolina.