“Discovering” Place


Cynthia de Miranda, MdM Historical Consultants

Hello, fellow historic architecture enthusiasts! I joined the Board of Preservation Durham in the summer of 2015 after several years of active membership. I am a Raleigh native who proudly calls Durham home; I have lived in our Bull City for fifteen years since returning to North Carolina. I love the appreciation Durhamites have for old houses and for downtown’s historic core.

Architecture is my bread and butter. I am an architectural historian and cofounder of MdM Historical Consultants, a cultural resources firm that specializes in researching and contextualizing historic properties for owners, municipal and county governments, and government agencies. As I study the “built environment” (as we architectural historians call it), I see its stories. Architecture is a language and I translate the tales told by buildings.

Like time, these stories don’t stop. Old is not an absolute. Just as we are creeping up to our own maturity, so are our buildings. And I have a call to action: It is time to stand up for not-so-old buildings.

Not-so-old buildings are those that don’t yet qualify as “historic” under the strict guidelines of the National Park Service. I mean, of course, buildings that will be so recognized with a little more time: those edifices that are good examples of a specific style, that are architecturally intact, that evoke a particular time, and that contribute to a sense of place. But it takes perspective to see a building in that light. Fashions change. When they do, styles gets denigrated before being rediscovered and often revived.

The 1978 Durham County Judicial Building on E. Main Street is a case in point. Today, it is unloved by many. There is a common belief that the building has always been hated. It isn’t true. The Durham Morning Herald reported that a month after its opening “the atmosphere of love-at-first-sight lingers.” Meanwhile, the paper referred to the 1916 version across the street as “the shabby, 62-year old courthouse.” Was it a foregone conclusion in 1978 that the 1916 building would be saved? No. It might have been demolished if local architect and preservationist Frank DePasquale had not come to its defense in another Herald article after it sat empty and deteriorating for two years.

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In fact, another local architect had recently honored the 1916 courthouse. It was Archie Royal Davis, the designer of the 1978 Judicial Building. He paid homage to the old with his composition for the new, reflecting the classical roots of the predecessor and reinterpreting its style for a modern era. The Judicial Building mimics the scale and retains the classical arrangement of base, shaft, and capital employed in the older revival-style courthouse. The late twentieth-century structure, in typical Modernist mode, strips away ornament and distills the Classicism to form and materials. The surface of the modern material—concrete—is embedded with crystalline quartz chips that add texture and dimension to the surface. Still, the new building clearly refers to the old, acknowledging their physical, historical, and architectural connection.

But at the moment, the Judicial Building is going through an awkward phase. It is so much easier to appreciate the hundred-year old specimen than the thirty-eight-year-old. But when the not-so-old buildings are in their ungainly period, that time just before we start to understand what they tell us about the past, we risk losing them from the landscape. This means that right now, our Modernist architectural heritage is threatened. Although some of the Midcentury Modernist buildings Preservation Durham began defending about five years ago have been rehabilitated, others have been lost or remain endangered. And now buildings from the 1970s are in trouble, too. They are our ugly ducklings, but only because we have not yet come to see them in their historic context. Rather, we are examining them in comparison to new structures, or perhaps in contrast to rehabilitated older buildings. Either way, we are looking at a building that hasn’t seen any love in a while.

One of the many reasons for preserving buildings is that they record and reflect our history. Changing architectural styles tell a story. Small-scale shops built up downtown Durham in the late nineteenth century through the 1920s. The boom of the 1920s saw our first wave of tall buildings. The Depression and World War II stifled continued development, and Durham had a major slump in the 1950s. The scarcity of buildings from this period reflects the paucity of new construction. The economy picked up in the 1960s, and the city and county governments shaped the downtown core as well. The three buildings that best reflect the architecture of the 1970s are the Durham County Judicial Building, the Duke Power Building, and City Hall. City Hall has already been altered with a change in surface materials.

Buildings from the late 1960s and the 1970s are hard for many to love right now.
Structures from the period often used innovative systems or cladding, and those experiments didn’t always work. Perhaps maintenance has been deferred; exteriors are often stained or faded. The style is not being heralded by many magazines or popular TV shows. But these buildings are part of our story and they deserve champions.