As Presented by Bob Ashley, Interim Executive Director of Preservation Durham
The Home Security Life Insurance building — most recently the Durham Police Department headquarters — is approaching a crossroads.
In the fall of 2018, the police department will move to a new headquarters now under construction on East Main Street. At that point, the city will no longer have a use for the old headquarters at 505 W. Chapel Hill St.
Preservation Durham appreciates the city’s efforts to solicit a wide range of opinions and to invest considerable staff time in studying the options for the West Chapel Hill Street building. We believe, along with the city’s Appearance Commission, that the site offers multiple opportunities as a gateway to our flourishing downtown.
We especially want to outline reasons why preserving the present building as part of the redevelopment of the entire four-acre site would be a significant public good, in keeping with the preservation projects that have so helped to define our historic downtown as it evolves into an exciting 21st-century urban center.
Architectural significance: Perhaps most important is the building’s architectural significance and its embodiment of the legacy of some of Durham’s most prominent citizens. The building’s designer, Raleigh’s George Milton Small Jr., “was the leading practitioner of modernist architecture in the Miesian mode in North Carolina, especially in the Triangle areas, in the 1950s and 1960s,” according to N.C. State University’s “N.C. Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary.”
Link to Durham’s mid-century heyday: When it was built in 1959, it was the headquarters of Home Security Life Insurance, founded four decades earlier by legendary Durham businessmen George Watts and his son-in-law, John Sprunt Hill (whose imposing home still stands just a few blocks away).
A gateway intersection with historical significance: The HSL building at the southwest corner of the Duke-W. Chapel Hill street intersection is joined by two other buildings with links to prominent leaders in Durham’s industrial and financial past. As historical consultant and Preservation Durham board member Cynthia de Miranda put it, “This area was adjacent to the industrial heart of the tobacco industry that made Durham. Duke Memorial Methodist Church on the northwest corner is closely linked to the Duke family and is architecturally significant. (The office of Bason Bayones, president of the company in 1959, overlooked the church “through large glass panels,” the Morning Herald observed.
On the southeast corner, the N. C. Mutual Life Insurance building, built just seven years after Home Security Life’s, was the imposing headquarters of what for many years was the largest African-American owned business in the country and which is a landmark to the days of Durham’s “black Wall Street.” Founders John Merrick and Dr. Aaron M. Moore and long-time general manager Charles C. Spaulding were among the city’s black business elite.
Today, and looking ahead: Decades of utilitarian service as a police headquarters and widely known frustration with the building’s incompatibility for that use have tended to obscure the earlier, much more striking, character of the building. As the city’s consulting firm, HR&A, noted in its Sept. 19 policy review memorandum, “Considered first example of Miesian skyscraper in NC, the building was honored with a NC-AIA Award in 1959.”
It’s opening in January of that year was hailed in a 20-page supplement in The Durham Morning Herald. The main headline enthused: “Functional, Environmentally, Aesthetically Ideal/Home Security Life Building — A New Symbol of Progress.
The story below that headline made clear the importance attached to the building:
“Situated on the highest point of land within the Durham downtown business district, Home Security Life Insurance Co.’s new home office building standard as a sentinel, attesting to its growth since 1916, it’s economic standing in Durham today, and its belief in the future of Durham and the South.”
“Brighter Leaves,” the 2008 history of the arts in Durham, noted that “height and lightness….were hallmarks of the Home Security Life Building, a T-shaped structure hailed as ‘a new symbol of progress’” in that supplement. “Enclosing 80,000 square feet of glass, the building used a steel and reinforced-concrete frame to support five floors or large, open work space organized by movable partitions and with a temperature kept between 70 and 78 degrees by a state-of-the-art heating and air-conditioning system.”
Interestingly, as “Brighter Leaves” notes, the building “was a victory for Home Security’s younger generation. The company’s founder, John Sprunt Hill, favored a traditional southern look, but his son and grandson, George Watts Hill Sr. and Jr., the firm’s chairman and president, liked modern architecture and managed to prevail in the family’s clash of tastes. The building was also a victory for the new generation of architects produced by institutions such as NCSU, whose Modernist, Internationalist and Contemporary thinking often ‘hit a brick wall’ in the real world of paying clients.”
As the city has conducted a commendably open and transparent process to determine the future of the building and its four-acre site, it has been clear that there are many approaches that would be fiscally sound and realize three important priorities: rehabilitation and re-use of the Small building, provision of a mixture of affordable and market-rate housing, and a fitting gateway to downtown from the west.
It is a sign of the interests in the building’s preservation that Perkins+Will Architects made the re-use of the site the subject last year of its annual Design Leadership Competition. The competition generated a number of innovative and exciting possibilities for redeveloping the site with the HSL building intact.
Durham would lose an architectural gem, with such an important link to downtown Durham’s first golden age in the early to mid-20th century, were the Home Security Life Insurance building to be razed (contributing tons of rubble to landfills). Recent years have not been kind to Milton Small’s commercial structures. The building at 3515 Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, built in the 1960s for Northwestern Insurance Co. and described by North Carolina Modernist Houses as “one of Raleigh’s finest” examples of Modernist architecture, fell to the wrecking ball in 2016. The city of Raleigh has put on hold plans to demolish the downtown building Small designed in 1960 for City Hall (and more recently used, as it happens, as a police headquarters).
Durham has the opportunity to be a far better steward than our Triangle neighbor of Small’s award-winning work, in keeping with our defining appreciation of historic buildings not just as iconic structures but as tangible reminders of and connections to our past.