‘We Built This’: A look at North Carolina’s architectural past

“We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” That quote, uttered by Martin Luther King Jr., addresses both the consequences of hubris and the allure of local histories.

Local history incorporates the experiences of the ordinary and mundane. How many of us know — without help from Google — the origins of Holladay Hall, named for NC State’s first president?

We encounter these facilities, or ones like them, every day. Yet, we do not know about the people who built them. Likewise, with the exception of NC State’s architecture students, the intricacies of building design elude most of us. Regardless, we are shaped by our architectural history.

The Dix Park Pop-Up Museum, located at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh, explores the architectural history of North Carolina and the eponymous ‘Dix Hill.’ This museum, the first of its kind at Dix Park, features two exhibits.

“We Built This” is one of the two attractions —  a traveling exhibit commemorating the Black builders and architects of North Carolina. Created by Preservation North Carolina (PNC), the display profiles about two dozen craftspeople.

The display includes detailed biographies on veterans, educators and even a Senatorial candidate, Harvey Gantt. Gantt lost the 1990 senate race to five-term Senator Jesse Helms. If Gantt had won the narrow race, then he would have become North Carolina’s first Black Senator since the Reconstruction era.

This exhibit is not constrained by spatial boundaries. Rather, it traces the importance of Black professionals throughout North Carolina’s history — from colony and early statehood to the modern era.

Additionally, this exhibit represents an array of craftspeople, from bricklayers to stonemasons to plasterers. The men profiled include enslaved peoples and freedmen — some alongside their families or apprentices.

In fact, some of the biographies include sections about the men’s descendents, depicting generations of history-makers in one exhibit.

The pop-up exhibit relies on audience participation to guide visitors’ interactions with historic content. At Dix Park, the interactive exhibits include an option to engage in art therapy.

“We Built This”’s sister exhibit is “From Plantation to Park.” The latter traces the origins of Dix Park from a former plantation to North Carolina’s first mental health hospital.

Dorothea Dix Hospital treated patients with variable diagnoses — from epilepsy to dementia. In the interactive art exhibit, visitors can see cartoon renderings of the hospital from the perspective of former patients.

One patient humorously documents his progress at the hospital. He quips that his hallucinations of “large birds” are now almost gone. Instead, he writes, he only sees visions of “small birds.”

This drawing and other artifacts like it are scattered throughout “From Plantation to Park.” However, very few tangible visuals are included in the exhibit “We Built This.”

Citizens encounter artifacts from Black builders and architects in every corner of North Carolina. However, the history of those structures eludes us, which exemplifies the issue of accessibility to local history. Dix Park’s pop-up exhibits show us the extraordinary that was already here.


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