Places In Peril 2014

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S. Gregson Street Corridor

Why it’s important:

Initially nominated to Places in Peril in 2011, the nine parcels along the South Gregson Street corridor between the railroad overpass and West Chapel Hill Street remain a vastly underutilized land resource. Now that a new apartment complex has gone up south of Chapel Hill Street, this strip faces development pressure from both sides, especially as parking needs grow.

The most prominent building on the site is a mid-1950’s low slung modern commercial building with distinctive cantilevered canopies. Known as the Medical Arts Building, it has been vacant since the 1990s. Two older brick buildings sit up the hill, one vacant and the other an early example of mixed-use development: the primarily residential structure was designed by George Watts Carr, Sr. in 1928 for Dr. Baird N. Brooke, whose medical practice occupied one of the units in the detailed Colonial Revival building known as The Eloise.

The revitalization of this corridor will provide a vital link between West Chapel Hill Street and Brightleaf Square, and care should be taken to fill vacant lots with compatible structures, not parking areas, while retaining and renovating the existing structures.

What’s Needed:

The site presents a unique opportunity: a sound mid-century building and a substantial amount of vacant land in close proximity to Brightleaf Square, Peabody Place, West Village, and Chapel Hill Street. Preservation Durham supports a comprehensive redevelopment plan that preserves and renovates the Medical Arts Building and the other structures and adds new, appropriately-scaled mixed-use infill buildings to increase density. Investment in public infrastructure, including shade trees, improved lighting, and other streetscape improvements should be made to increase pedestrian connectivity and safety, and to spur private investment.

More Information on Open Durham:

Medical Arts Building – 306 S. Gregson Street

The Eloise – 602 W. Chapel Hill Street


Central Park District

Why it’s important:

The Central Park District just north of downtown has recently emerged as a hub for recreation in Durham, thanks entirely to home-grown businesses, bars, restaurants, and non-profits. The creation of Durham Central Park, a significant public/private partnership, spurred by citizens and made possible by the city, created an important anchor at one end of the district and the 2006 erection of a pavilion for the Durham Farmer’s Market brought people back to this area in droves.

At the north end of the district, businesses and non-profit arts organizations have located in the rehabilitated historic buildings, and a roughly seven-block area was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Foster and West Geer Streets Historic District. Local institutions such as the Durham Athletic Park, King’s Sandwich Shop, and Stone Bros. & Byrd have been joined in the past five years by Motorco and Cocoa Cinnamon. The area illustrates Durham’s post-World War II commercial and light-industrial growth and includes an architecturally significant collection of Streamline Moderne and Mid-Century Modern commercial buildings.

Why it’s imperiled:

Development pressure is intense in this area, given its location between downtown and popular residential neighborhoods to the north. Some key buildings are slated for demolition so that the land can be redeveloped with larger structures that could radically change the unique character of the district. New infill on vacant lots could steer the district away from its distinctive, industrial feel and toward a generic mediocrity.

What’s needed:

Historic structures that define the area should be preserved, using rehabilitation tax credits, with new development filling the numerous vacant lots. New structures need to respond to the character and architectural qualities of the neighborhood. The National Register district listing provides access to tax credit incentives that can help maintain the historic character of individual buildings, but it does not provide for a mechanism to review or control new design in the area. Preservation Durham intends to works with developers, property and business owners in the district, as well as local architects,  to discuss and share examples of contextual design that relates to and complements the area’s architectural character.

More Information on Open Durham:

Central Park Neighborhood


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 Miles 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.

What’s needed:

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:

Home Security Life Building – 505 W. Chapel Hill Street



Why they’re important:

One of the most distinctive features of Durham’s historic residential neighborhoods is also one of the most overlooked historic resources: the streetscape.  The granite curbs and the canopy of large oak trees lining the streets lend as much to the historic character of our early twentieth-century neighborhoods as the housing stock itself.  Unfortunately, due to the necessity for updates to the underground infrastructure and the need to keep overhead power lines clear of branches, our historic streetscapes are being gradually eroded.

Why they’re imperiled:

In the spring of 2014, the Durham Historic Preservation Commission heard a case for the removal of several sections of granite curb in the Trinity Heights Local Historic District. The first request of its kind, the review of the project was triggered by the specific mention of the granite curbs in the Trinity Heights Preservation Plan. The removal of the curbs was granted with the condition that the city first make all efforts to save and re-install the curbs.  Similarly, in early 2014, a section of granite curb on Glendale Avenue in the North Durham-Duke Park National Register Historic District was planned for removal as part of a water main replacement.  The threat of removal was met with resistance by the adjacent property owners and the Old North Durham Neighborhood Association, and the scope of the project ultimately allowed the curbs to remain in place by concentrating work near the center of the street instead.

Equally distinctive and even more noticeable, the trees that line the streets of our historic neighborhoods are also threatened by a number of factors.  The first is that the trees, many of them over one hundred years old, are nearing the end of their natural life cycle. The second is that many of the trees have been aggressively pruned by private power companies in order to ensure the necessary clearance for the power lines and to prevent downed power lines due to fallen branches.  The City of Durham has policies in place to replace street trees that are removed as part of public project, as well as programs through which neighborhood associations and other groups can obtain new street. However, the new trees that are planted are specifically chosen to remain small so as not to interfere with the power lines and thus do not create (or maintain in the long term) the tree canopy that is so distinctive to our historic neighborhoods.

Throughout North Carolina, residents have resisted aggressive pruning and other measures by the power companies. In 2013, Greensboro residents and elected officials developed a Utility Vegetation Management Ordinance aimed at blocking excessive pruning, but despite participation from Duke Energy, the ordinance failed to obtain support from the State Utility Commission.  In Charlotte, recent public outcry has temporarily halted Duke Energy’s injection of chemicals into the ground that stunt the growth of street trees, a program that was slated for implementation in Greensboro and Durham as well. While it is certainly important to balance the desire for street trees with the need for safe and reliable electricity, policies must be developed that protect and ensure the survival of the tree canopy in our historic residential neighborhoods.

What’s needed:

The City of Durham Public Works Department has expressed an interest in working with Preservation Durham to evaluate the life cycle costs and sustainability implications of removing granite curbs and replacing them with concrete.  Private grant funds will hopefully be secured in the near future to fund a study that will consider these issues and how they dovetail with the Department’s annual maintenance budget and policies.


Durham’s Historic Public Cemeteries

Why they’re important:

For more than 140 years, many of Durham’s citizens have laid family members to rest in one of the City’s two public cemeteries. Maplewood, the older and larger of the two, dates from the 1870s. Beechwood, a historically African American burial ground opened in the 1920s.

Maplewood Cemetery covered five acres at the corner of Kent Street and Morehead Avenue when it was established in 1872. Like many post-Civil War American cities, Durham responded to a period of death and sorrow by creating a public landscape filled with beauty and solitude. The oldest section of Maplewood, characterized by narrow gravel carriageways, large shade trees, and ornate Victorian monuments, is the final resting place of those who conceived of Durham and brought industry to the town after war: Duke, Mangum, Parrish, Wright, and Carr. Mayors, legislators, soldiers, and even the City’s namesake are buried here alongside many of our own family members.

Beechwood Cemetery was established by the City during the mid-1920s near the intersection of Fayetteville Street and Cornwallis Road. Meant to replace four overfilling and neglected African American cemeteries nearby, Beechwood was built in a minimalist, modern style.  The modest grave markers list the names of those who built Durham with their hands. Those who labored in the mills and tobacco factories and who fought in the great wars overseas lie alongside esteemed African American business leaders such as John Merrick, founding partner of North Carolina Mutual, and Dr. James Shepard, founder of North Carolina Central University.

Why they’re imperiled:

Both facilities are publicly owned and operated, and remain in active use. A small staff of 13 full-time employees assumes the almost impossible task of mowing, trimming, pruning, and raking nearly 145 acres of landscape encompassing both cemeteries. In addition, the staff repairs their own equipment; tends nearly 10,000 gravesites; and handles, on average, about one new burial each day. The annual operating budget for this work is $115,000.

Deferred maintenance has taken its toll on both cemeteries but is most evident in the oldest section of Maplewood. Here, a century old network of narrow gravel paths never intended for automobiles is rutted and cratered. Walls that support gravestites have crumbled away, and others tilt perilously into ruin. Many tombstones and monuments are also leaning or broken, and several of the larger  mausoleums have been vandalized and stripped of their stain glass windows and ornate bronze doors.

In February, the City published a study assessing both facilities and identifying priority-level repairs in the interest of public safety; estimating deferred maintenance costs at more than $4 million; and recommending basic system upgrades, building renovations, and site improvements estimated at another $2 million.

What’s needed:

Preservation Durham supports immediately and fully funding the identified critical improvements. We pledge to work with the cemetery administration and staff to raise awareness about these historic cultural resources, identify potential grants and alternative funding sources, and bring together volunteers willing to help reclaim and restore these historic properties.