Places in Peril 2012: Public Park Buildings

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Former Duke Park pool and boarded up bath house, 1/17/09. Courtesy of Open Durham.

Why It’s Important:
Neighborhood concern for park properties throughout Durham has brought these buildings to the 2012 list. Some of these structures include: the Duke Park Bathhouse, a 1930s Works Projects Administration project; the Forest Hills Park Clubhouse, designed by George Watts Carr, Sr in the 1920s; and the Lavender House in the Northgate Park neighborhood, home to the Trailside Museum in the 1940s which became the NC Museum of Life and Science. Other historic DPR properties include Leigh Farm, West Point on the Eno, Spruce Pine Lodge, and the City Armory.

Why it’s in Peril:
Durham is recognized statewide and beyond as a community rich in historic resources, showcasing such redevelopments as the American Tobacco Campus, West Village, and the Golden Belt mill complex. Durham doesn’t have a beach, a riverwalk, or a mountain range; instead, the clever reuse of historic buildings and the private sector’s support of preservation sets Durham apart. While our local government has contributed financially to projects like West Village and American Tobacco, it has failed to adopt preservation guidelines into the treatment of its own property holdings and has a history of neglecting historic schools and significant structures that impact entire neighborhoods.

The poor treatment of park buildings is symptomatic of the larger problem of how Durham maintains and renovates its public structures – a paradigm that can result in galvanized neighborhood concern for buildings with important pasts but uncertain futures. Moreover, that preservation standards are not utilized in undertakings funded by bond referendums further frustrates citizens who recognize the importance of protecting our cultural heritage and the resources that make Durham unique.

What’s Needed:
Durham’s local government should lead by example in the preservation of its historic buildings, as this plays an important role in shaping public support for other preservation efforts across Durham County. The maintenance and sensitive rehabilitation of publicly-owned historic buildings signals to residents and visitors alike the value that Durham’s leaders place on our built heritage in all sectors. In contrast, employing non-sensitive practices to rehabilitation work on public buildings sends the wrong message to the public – especially to those living in local historic districts – about the stewardship of older properties and how the citizenry should maintain its own historic properties.

Preservation Durham supports a proactive approach to ensuring that the rehabilitations of historic public properties – including park buildings – strive to emulate the private-sector development models that have made Durham a distinctive community. Several possible ways to pursue this include:

  • Requiring a minor Certificate of Appropriateness from the Durham Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) for all rehab work on publicly-owned historic buildings, regardless of whether or not they are located in a local historic district.
  • Encouraging training in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation for General Services staff charged with coordinating projects on historic properties, for City Council members and County Commissioners who set the agenda for public dollars, and for other public administrators involved with Durham’s historic property holdings.
  • Requiring local government to coordinate with General Services, the Durham HPC, Preservation Durham, the State Historic Preservation Office, and other preservation-minded community members to develop preservation plans for all publicly held historic properties, recognizing that this may include a process for selling off historic properties with conservation easements – as was done with the 5-Points building currently under construction by Re:Vamp Durham – that cannot be appropriately maintained.

Members of PD’s Advocacy committee met with DPR staff in August of 2012 to discuss ways in which we can work together towards better outcomes for the park buildings. During this meeting, it became clear that DPR as an agency tries to do the best it can within the parameters in which it must operate; unfortunately, whether because of budget constraints or development restrictions, this means that a preservation-oriented solution is not always possible.

Specific to some of the properties named in this Places in Peril listing, the Lavender House in Northgate Park sits squarely in the floodway, and the appraised value of the property is so low that it makes it almost impossible to reconcile the needed repairs with the allowable expenditures (due to the 50% rule – Durham UDO Section 14.4.1.B.6.). As for the Duke Park Bathhouse, this is something that DPR has been banging it’s head it against for several years, and the more-than $900,000 price tag to rehab it into a four-season building certainly qualifies as a budget constraint.

Despite not finding any solutions for these 2 buildings right away, we at PD are glad that DPR reached out to work with us, and DPR, Preservation Durham and others will continue to think about and work towards solutions for the problems that these and other buildings face.