Police Headquarters Building
Why it’s important:
In the mid-1950s, John Sprunt Hill was persuaded by his son and grandson to hire Raleigh modernist Milton Small famed Italian architect Aldo Rossi to design a sleek new headquarters building for their Home Security Life Insurance Company, then located in the eponymous Hill building a few blocks east. Small had studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology under Mies van der Rohe, and embraced Miles’ stark urban (“less is more”) style, celebrating structural framework and modern materials. Small was prolific, designing NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium and Student Center, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the Raleigh Municipal Building, and countless modernist houses throughout North Carolina and the southeast. The Home Security Life building opened in January 1959.
Why it’s imperiled:
Like other architectural styles before it, mid-century modernism fell out of favor. It proved difficult to regulate the temperature in poorly insulated glass and steel buildings, and as fuel costs rose many were heavily modified or demolished. In the 1980s Home Security Life Insurance merged with another company and vacated the building for a taller, shiner tower between Durham and Chapel Hill. Like its sister building in Raleigh, the Durham structure was repurposed as a headquarters for the Police Department–a poor fit for its large open floor plan. The building has not aged gracefully, and despite costly upgrades to its HVAC system, roof, and building envelope, it remains uncomfortable, leaky, and expensive to operate and maintain. The building is functionally obsolete, and the renovations required for a 21st century police facility are simply not economically or logistically feasible.
The City continues to study alternatives for a new downtown headquarters, with the current site among three apparent finalists. Although officials insist they have not ruled out re-use or sale of the building, “test fit” drawings presented by the City’s Department of General Services show a new structure and parking deck occupying the southern portion of the four-acre site, with surface parking along West Chapel Hill Street.
Preservation Durham supports our City administration and the Police Department in their search for an appropriate headquarters location. The West Chapel Hill Street site has many geographical and logistical advantages, and with more than three acres of surface parking, appears large enough to accommodate both the new program and the existing building.
West Chapel Hill Street is an important gateway corridor between Duke University, the Durham Freeway, and downtown. Recent redevelopment projects such as the adjacent 338-unit 605 West Apartments demonstrate the attractiveness of this area to private investors, and illustrate how dense urban infill that properly addresses the street can begin to bridge the gaps between Brightleaf Square, the West End, and downtown.
Preservation Durham encourages the City to solicit proposals for the renovation and re-use of the Home Security Life Building–ideally with retail or active commercial space on the ground floor–and we will continue our efforts with the North Carolina Modernist Houses and others to raise awareness and identify interested and qualified developers.
More Information on Open Durham: