Classic downtown Raleigh building emerging from behind modern, stucco shell

in downtown Raleigh, a classic building emerges

rstradling@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 2012 

— The office building at the corner of Salisbury and Hargett streets downtown had fallen out of fashion, with a bunker-like exterior of white stucco, dark marble and tinted windows that dated to the 1970s.

But unknown to nearly everyone, that stucco skin concealed an early 20th-century brick building with a wide cornice along its roof and tall windows capped in stone.

Now, workers are pulling down that skin, revealing what developer James A. Goodnight hopes will become a striking historic piece of Raleigh’s revitalizing downtown.

“I don’t know why they did this to this building,” says project coordinator Chris Surrett, as workers cut pieces of the steel frame that was bolted to the building to hold up the stucco. “We’re going to take it back to where it’s pretty again.”

The building at 200 S. Salisbury St., and its smaller, adjoining neighbor at 105 W. Hargett, are the latest old buildings in downtown Raleigh to re-emerge from behind modern facades.

By the 1960s, their brick and stone faces had become dated, but the bones of the buildings were still good. So rather than tear them down, their owners simply covered them up with slabs of stucco or sheets of metal.

Goodnight’s building was done in a heavy, blockish style known as Brutalism, a term coined from the French for “raw concrete.” He knew it as one of the ugliest buildings in town. It had been on the market for months, he said, before someone suggested he take a look at it, because it wasn’t what it appeared.

Goodnight, son of SAS software company founder and CEO Jim Goodnight, has bought a handful of old buildings in and around downtown and rehabbed some of them. He would have been guessing what was under the stucco if it weren’t for the building’s hidden third floor, which was covered up during the 1970s renovation. From inside, he could stick his head out the old windows and see that the original masonry and the cornice survived under the stucco skin.

He bought the two adjoining buildings through Paper Clip Properties LLC in July for $700,000 and hopes to turn the ground floor into a restaurant and lease the upper floors for offices.

County property records indicate the larger building was completed in 1920, but it’s older than that, says Karl Larson, an amateur historian who edits the website Goodnight Raleigh, www.goodnightraleigh.com.

Larson used old fire insurance maps and city directories to piece together the building’s history, which he says begins about 1906 as the home of the H.J. Brown Co., funeral directors and embalmers. The building’s third floor was used for embalming, he said.

The funeral home, now Brown-Wynne, moved out in 1927. Two years later the first in a succession of banks, Mechanics Savings Bank, moved in, Larson said. The last of the banks, The Fidelity Bank, applied the building’s modern skin in 1972.

Larson, a retired graphic designer from N.C. State University, watched as it was put on and has a picture he took as the scaffold went up. He never thought he’d see the old building again.

“And so many people, I would tell them what was underneath those panels, and they were shocked,” he said.

Vault in the basement

Vestiges of the building’s time as a bank remain, including the night deposit slot on the corner and a large vault in the basement. “It would be a shame if we couldn’t show off that vault,” Goodnight said. “It’s one of my favorite features.”

The modern offices, most recently used by a law firm, have been removed from the first two floors, as have the three drop ceilings that knocked 4 feet off the height of the building’s 131/2-foot ceilings. The third floor, sealed up with the 1970s renovation, saw daylight for the first time in 40 years last week.

Much of the brick and stone work on the exterior survives, as do the window openings on the upper floors.

“They did not destroy a whole lot,” said Brian Wallace, a broker for York Properties who is trying to lease the building. “If they didn’t have to touch it, they didn’t. They built around it.”

But some of the building’s architectural flourishes, seen in old photos, were altered when the stucco went on. The cornice was shortened, and the stone shield over the front door was sheared off.

Goodnight and his team will re-create some of what’s been lost, with guidance from the federal advisers who will determine what they need to do to qualify for historic preservation tax credits. In any event, the completed building won’t be an exact replica of the original, said David Mauer, the architect on the project.

“It’s not about trying to restore it,” Mauer said. “It’s trying to design something that’s in keeping with the style of the building.”

A dream project

Mauer has lived in Raleigh since 1984 and done historic preservation work in the city for 20 years. Like most people, he had no idea that one of the ugliest buildings in town had a secret hidden under its stucco exterior.

“This is one of those projects that you dream about getting, to discover something like that that’s been covered and mostly forgotten,” Mauer said.

The public won’t get a clear view of the old building for a while, as the scaffolding erected to remove the stucco remains in place during construction, probably another six months, Goodnight says. But through the mesh, the brick and stone building hidden for 40 years has begun to emerge.

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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