Renovate, Don't Demolish Raleigh Municipal Building
- Endangered Modern Architecture
"Renovate, Don't Demolish Raleigh Municipal Building"
by Elizabeth Sappenfield
The elegant Art Deco Hotel Carolina graced the northeast corner of Hargett and Dawson streets, until it was demolished in 1970 to make way for the current city hall. Only a few people objected. It was generally thought to be rundown, out of fashion and not worth saving. Now we wish we had a historic luxury hotel.
There was also the Park Hotel on McDowell Street, torn down in 1976 to make way for the News & Observer parking lot. Only the Professional Building on the corner of Hargett and McDowell Streets remains of the mix of commercial buildings and Victorian houses that once made Nash Square a fashionable place to see and be seen.
And now once again we are contemplating demolition in the heart of our city. In the debate over the Lightner Public Safety Center, not much has been said about saving and reusing the old Municipal Building. Before we bring out the wrecking ball, let's stop and think about what we're giving up.
Have we considered that the 1960 Municipal Building is part of Raleigh's history and identity? It was designed by Milton Small, one of a cadre of cutting edge Modernist architects that made NC State University's School of Design nationally known. Small worked with Mies van der Rohe in Chicago before being recruited to Raleigh, bringing the International Style with him. Only a handful of his commercial and institutional buildings survive. (Even NCSU is considering replacing its Small-designed bookstore with a new building of roughly the same square footage.)
The Municipal Building was our modern, statement building of its time. It consolidated several city government departments in one central location. The building was hotly debated. Cost was a major issue. Ultimately a blue ribbon panel of 25 citizens selected the site, chose the architect and came up with a way of paying for it. The building cost $1.42 million — or $14.31 per square foot.
It was solidly built to last. And like the First Federal Building, a mid-century landmark demolished last year, it will likely be tough to tear down — a costly endeavor adding tons more construction material to our landfill. It has been said before but bears repeating: the greenest building is the one that is already built. It takes about 50 years to recapture the embodied energy (the energy used in the materials and construction) in a typical older building, and the Municipal Building turns 50 this year. Let the city set a sustainable example by conserving resources and using what we have.
Raleigh's Modernist architecture, the physical legacy of our 20th-century history as a hub of technological innovation, is in danger of slipping through our fingers. We have one of best collections of Modernist architecture in country, and we are only just now coming to realize it. If the city leads the way in demolishing these structures, how can we expect our citizens to respect and cherish them?
The common refrain is that this building, like so many others, is out dated, in ill repair and not conducive to modern use. The simple fact is that it can and ought to be rehabbed and reused. Rehabilitation is consistently less expensive than new construction. The business model of rehabilitation and adaptive use has been proved time and again.
The building could be renovated into sleek, modern offices, like something out of Mad Men. The city is always short of office space, and this could be the coolest space in its portfolio. Imagine an outdoor café on the corner overlooking the square. The reactivation of Nash Square is part of the city's new Comprehensive Plan, and a day/night, pedestrian-friendly use on the corner would be a great start.
Downtown Raleigh's historic buildings are in high demand, occupied by some of our best restaurants and most creative businesses. These are the spaces and places that make Raleigh, Raleigh. It is by weaving the new with the old that we will create an excellent 21st-century city — truly one of the best places to live in the country.
If the city wants a new statement-making public safety center, then by all means it can build one — but not at the expense of a fine building we already have.
Elizabeth Sappenfield is the Urban Issues Director for Preservation North Carolina.