Research Triangle Park landmark could soon meet the wrecking ball
The Elion-Hitchings Building, an architectural landmark that helped cement Research Triangle Park’s reputation for being on the cutting edge, is largely obscured by trees these days.
Soon it may disappear altogether.
United Therapeutics plans to demolish the building it acquired eight years ago when it bought 132 acres off Cornwallis Road along the Durham Freeway from GlaxoSmithKline. The pharmaceutical company says the 48-year-old building is beyond restoration and clearing the site will allow it to build something it can use.
That has alarmed fans of modern architecture and of the building’s designer, Paul Rudolph, a noted 20th century architect and one-time head of the architecture department at Yale University. They’ve gathered 2,500 signatures on an online petition urging the United Therapeutics’ board of trustees to save the building.
“This building was celebrated worldwide when it was built,” said Kelvin Dickinson, president of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, which works to preserve and protect the architect’s work. “You would expect this to be designated a landmark.”
The pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome hired Rudolph to design the building when it decided to move its headquarters from suburban New York to RTP in 1969. Rudolph was known for a style of architecture called Brutalism, which produced spare, sometimes hulking, structures often made of concrete.
For Burroughs Wellcome, Rudolph designed an A-frame with terraced floors and angled walls and windows that would appear to extend from the hill on which it was built. As people struggle to describe the building, they’ve used words like “spaceship,” “beehive,” “honeycomb” and “horrible postmodern Mayan temple.”
That last phrase comes from an article written by Alex Sayf Cummings, a history professor at Georgia State University and author of the book “Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy.” Cummings had just toured the building as part of an architectural conference held in Durham in 2016 and wrote that Burroughs Wellcome and its iconic building helped define the image of RTP.
“Love it or hate it, Rudolph’s design remains an impressively audacious creative gesture and an important part of the history of both architecture and Research Triangle Park,” she wrote.
Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, was in college when the building opened and remembers it being a milestone for the Triangle.
“The futuristic architecture conveyed such confidence that it confirmed for skeptics that RTP was really going to be a big deal,” Howard wrote in an email. “The building didn’t quietly sit back in the piney woods like the other buildings in the park. It was perched on a knoll overlooking the new highway. There was a real sense that ‘we have arrived.’”
Writing in the 1990s, News & Observer architecture writer Chuck Twardy acknowledged that some people didn’t care for the “aggressively modular” building, but said he did.
“The innovative building set the design standard for RTP and remains the park’s most remarkable structure,” Twardy wrote in 1996.
INNOVATIVE RESEARCH AND A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE
Burroughs Wellcome built several additions to the original structure in the 1970s and early 1980s and used it for research that included the development of antiviral drug AZT to treat HIV/AIDS. In 1988, the building was named for Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings, research chemists with the company who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that year.
The building’s futuristic look attracted Hollywood producers who used the interior and exterior in the 1983 sci-fi movie “Brainstorm,” staring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood.
Burroughs Wellcome merged with Glaxo and later with SmithKline Beecham to become GlaxoSmithKline. GSK built other buildings at RTP and put the Rudolph building on the market in 2010. Still seeking a buyer, the company moved out the last employees still working in the building in 2011.
United Therapeutics, which already had a building and 55 acres next door, agreed to buy the Elion-Hitchings Building and two others from GSK in 2012. The company, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, wanted space for a planned major expansion in RTP.
United Therapeutics demolished the later additions. But Dickinson said the company had indicated that it planned to preserve Rudolph’s original building.
“We understood the building was going to be renovated,” he said.
But Dewey Steadman, head of investor relations for United Therapeutics, said the company has determined that renovation wasn’t possible. The company, which has 430 employees at RTP, wants to create a “sustainable, modern and buildable campus” on the site, Steadman wrote in an email, and the Elion-Hitchings Building won’t be part of it.
“We looked for ways to incorporate the building into our plans,” he wrote. “After conducting exhaustive studies, we have concluded that the building is unsafe, not environmentally sound, and functionally obsolete.”
DIFFERENT IDEAS ABOUT PRESERVATION
Dickinson and others who want to see the building preserved are skeptical. The petition asks that the building be made accessible for independent studies of what it would cost to rehab the building and preserve its “architectural, historical, cultural, and functional value.”
Steadman said the company understands the feelings people have for the Elion-Hitchings Building but sees a different way to preserve it.
“We have a tremendous appreciation for this building’s history and have offered to share our vast archive of materials related to the building with architectural and preservation groups,” he wrote. “To us, what it so special about this site is the groundbreaking research and life-saving medicines that were developed here. That is a legacy that United Therapeutics looks forward to carrying on in the years to come.”
After her tour in 2016, Cummings, the history professor, posted photos of the Elion-Hitchings Building, stripped of carpet and furniture and darkened by a lack of power. The chipping paint and vines growing over windows and across walkways gave the building “a distinctly postapocalyptic vibe,” she wrote.
“One could imagine aliens coming to Earth and finding the structure well after humans have succeeded in wiping themselves out as a species,” she wrote.
The aliens better hurry. Steadman said United Therapeutics has received a demolition permit, and the building will be removed in “the near future.”
(News and Observer, 9/18/20)