Landmark Boylan-Pearce building and sign return to Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street

rstradling@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2014 

  • Who were Boylan and Pearce?

    James Boylan and J. Burrell Pearce opened a department store on Fayetteville Street in the heart of Raleigh’s retail district in 1899. Boylan died a short time later, but the store kept the name of its founders through a succession of owners. Boylan-Pearce aimed for the cosmopolitan shopper, at one time employing buyers in New York, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Prague. The store remained on Fayetteville Street until 1955, when it moved to Cameron Village, both for more space and to follow the shoppers. After moving to North Raleigh in the 1980s, the store closed for good in 1990.

— The neon sign for Boylan-Pearce, the department store that helped bring high fashion to a small Southern capital city a century ago, once again hangs over Fayetteville Street.

Businessman Dean Debnam had the 47-foot-tall sign made as part of a $10 million effort to restore and expand the three-story Boylan-Pearce building. Debnam plans to live in the building’s third floor and a fourth floor he wants to add, and is looking for one or more tenants for the lower floors.

The first phase of the project is to make the front of the building look like it did in the first half of the 20th century, when Fayetteville Street was the region’s main shopping district and Boylan-Pearce was the place to find what ladies and gentlemen were wearing in New York or Paris.

In addition to the sign – a replica of one that went up in the 1930s – Debnam has rebuilt the recessed doorway, the iron and glass canopy, the decorative tile floor and the facade medallions with BP logos that all date to the building’s completion in 1911.

Not only does Debnam like working with old buildings, but restoring the facade will help him qualify for a 20 percent federal tax credit. It’s also good marketing for whatever eventually goes into the building.

“The sign has drawn a lot of attention to the building already,” Debnam said. “People won’t be confused about where I live.”

At one time, it seemed Boylan-Pearce would be one of the first downtown buildings to be restored to its former glory. In 2000, six years before Fayetteville Street was reopened to traffic, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation bought the empty building and planned to bring it back to life, as it did with the 1874 Briggs Hardware building next door.

The Fletcher Foundation started by removing the slab of white stucco that covered the building’s classic beaux-arts facade of stone, concrete and terra cotta. It began to market the building as a rediscovered gem – a poured-concrete structure with soaring uninterrupted spaces that extended more than 200 feet from Fayetteville Street through the block to Salisbury.

But the building proved a hard sell, and while downtown enjoyed a renaissance that has filled storefronts and sidewalks, Boylan-Pearce remained empty.

Despite the new facade, the inside looks much like it did when Fletcher bought the building 14 years ago. The second floor walls are still lined with wooden cases where Boylan-Pearce shoppers browsed for dresses before the store moved to Cameron Village in 1955.

“We really, really hope we can reuse them,” said Brandy Thompson, an architect with Clearscapes who is overseeing the project. “They’re so cool, and that they’re still here is pretty amazing. It would be a shame to lose them.”

Debnam owns several businesses, including Public Policy Polling and Workplace Options, a human resources company. He says he’s looking for a spa operator who would be willing to partner with him on the first and second floors and cater to people who live and work downtown.

Clearscapes will soon begin designing the building’s interior, but Debnam already knows he wants to rebuild the grand staircase that connected the first and second floors. He also wants to restore one of three skylights that brought sunlight as far down as the first floor.

Debnam hopes to move into his new home by early 2016. He still needs permits to build the fourth floor, which would be set back from the edge of the building to make it invisible from both Fayetteville and Salisbury streets.

The configuration of Debnam’s home isn’t set yet, but it will by necessity be long and narrow – about 30 by 210 feet. And it will have a close-up view of the neon-lit B of the Boylan-Pearce sign.

“It has the potential to be the coolest residence in town,” Thompson said.

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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