Durham News

August 8, 2014

Jim Wise: Big deals, sic transit

For some reason or another, the expression “sic transit” keeps coming to mind here lately.

For some reason or another, the expression “sic transit” keeps coming to mind here lately. In case you’ve lost your high-school Latin, “sic transit” is short for “sic transit gloria mundi,” which the sainted Miss Pullen would have translated as “thus passes the glory of the world.”

To be more blunt about it, you might just say “here today, gone tomorrow.” It’s the sort of expression you might associate with a fallen star like Lehman Brothers or Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Or, for that matter, the tobacco business in Durham.

The other day we went to hear some people discussing the Liberty Warehouse. For one who knew it first hand it was fun to hear former owner Walker Stone and some others talk about the way it was, and good to hear that filmmaker Carol Thompson is making a documentary about the place, but all in all the affair just amounted to a eulogy.

The Liberty is coming down, its place to be taken by apartments and nightspots and a parking deck with some tokens of remembrance like some wall sections left standing and old signs preserved but stripped of context; just going to show that what some may call preserving can turn out more like parody.

The Liberty was the last of 13 auction houses in what once was Durham’s Tobacco Row, and the poignance of its passing is sort of a reminder you don’t want to be the last to leave the party or you might leave a legacy that’s no more than quaint decor.

Sic transit. On another hand, there’s the old Holiday Inn on Chapel Hill Street, which is no more and for which fact we must be glad, for its days ended as the Urban Merchant Center, an eyesore flea market that local boosters giving downtown tours would take pains to avoid.

In its day, the ’60s, it was a fashionable address for civic functions, its Festa Room sort-of-Italian restaurant a place to impress a date and its rooms affording temporary quarters for many of the Ricers – typically rich folks who came to lose weight on the then-famed Duke Rice Diet. (It was said that dropping poundage correlated with rising libido, such that the motel had occasional need to replace its overworked bedding.)

Sic transit. In its place, the EdR company of Memphis (oddly enough, the birthplace of Holiday Inn as well) has built the 605 West apartments, a massive edifice with 340 plush, thoroughly modern units positioned for the grad-student sector. Rents start at $999 a month. For a studio. Unfurnished. Time was, “grad student” was a synonym for “broke,” so one must conclude that teaching assistantships pay a whole lot better than they used to. Sic transit, sorta.

Last week, 605 West had its grand opening, with ceremony like that of its predecessor to welcome new days in Dur’m. And for it, too, there will be a time “sic transit” is the apt thing to say – an expression used for centuries, BTW, in papal coronations to keep the incoming pontiff humble amid all the pomp and reverence.

In a couple of years, we expect, there will be similar ceremonies for City Center, the 26-story retail-office-living space tower at Corcoran and Main. Where it’s going up once stood the Geer Building, a five-story landmark in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace raised up 99 years ago.

In its day, the Geer Building was a fashionable place to have your office, and its ground floor was always anchored by a bank – Wachovia, in the end, which tore the building down in the early ’70s because it wasn’t up-to-date any more and built a new one catty-corner across the street. The lot’s been vacant ever since but, according to the late Durham historical authority George Pyne, a bit of its financial past is still there – the vault, which was too big and troublesome to move and so remains, underground (presumably empty), covered in protective Cosmoline in case it should ever be deemed of use again.

Perhaps excavations for the City Center will bring the vault to light again, and perhaps it can have a place of honor, or curiosity at least – a revered artifact to invoke the place’s past, but, again, a relic taken out of context (notwithstanding that City Center stands to be plenty profitable) that invokes the future, too, in that sic transit way of things.

Honoring the past is all well and good, and some may be better put behind us, but however its notice is taken that notice makes the point that, in the long run, nothing is quite as big a deal as it may seem at the moment. Of the world, thus passes every thing.

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