Commentary

Christensen: McCrory finds state government buildings ‘ugly as the dickens’

rchristensen@newsobserver.comDecember 28, 2013 

Pat McCrory, architecture critic. I didn’t see that one coming.

But it’s hard to argue with the governor who – when he looks out the front door of his 19th century gingerbread mansion – stares into the big white blank wall of the State Records Center. It would provide an excellent defensive position if the legislature ever decides to attempt a coup d’etat.

“It’s almost as though we built our government buildings as if they were bunkers in World War II,” McCrory told Raleigh business leaders this month. “They look like they were built at Dunkirk, or on D-Day in Normandy.

“To me that’s not appealing. We have a responsibility to brighten up that place.”

McCrory is not the first person to note that the state government complex is – as he put it – “ugly as the dickens.”

It is hard to love the State Records Center. It is just a white box with no windows on the side facing the governor’s mansion and no redeeming charm. The architects just plopped down this ugly white box in the middle of a neighborhood of Victorian homes with no sensibility to its surroundings.

Political targets

Most of the state government complex is not much better. The entire mall is a collection of sterile boxes, built apart from Raleigh’s downtown business district, away from shops and stores or any semblance of city life.

When the government mall was first announced in the early 1970s, The News & Observer described its location as “midtown” as opposed to downtown because it was outside the central business district.

Because there is a parking garage underneath the mall, no trees can be planted to soften the landscape. The harsh lines give it a certain Stalinesque, Eastern European look. McCrory talks about making state government more customer friendly. The state government mall seems to shout: Fear your government!

Any effort to brighten it up, of course, creates a political target. The Department of Education building, which includes a few human touches, such as quotes of famous people engraved on the side of the building, were made a campaign issue by Republican Jim Gardner, who called it “the pink palace” when he was running for lieutenant governor in the 1980s

That theme was picked up again by House Speaker Thom Tillis in 2011, when he told the state GOP convention in Wilmington that he intended to cut a third of the staff in the “pink palace.”

“To be fair, it’s a beautiful building,” Tillis said. “It is pink granite. We think condo complexes or something else if you need office space.”

Capitol wouldn’t get nod today

By far the most attractive state government buildings are the older ones.

The Capitol, completed in 1840, is the gem, regarded as one of the finest and best preserved examples of a major civic building in the Greek Revival style of architecture. Skilled Scottish artisans were brought in to help build the structure with ornamental ironwork, plasterwork, chandeliers, hardware and marble mantels brought in from Philadelphia.

The total cost of the building was $532,682, or more than three times the annual general revenue of the state at the time. If the legislature tried to erect a first-rate building like the Capitol today, it would likely precipitate a taxpayer revolt.

When McCrory tried to make basic fixes on the governor’s mansion recently, he was immediately attacked.

It is difficult to get decent buildings in a democracy. It is perhaps one of the reasons the interior walls of the Legislative Building are made of masonry blocks. Can’t get much more basic than that.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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