Durham News

June 3, 2014

DPD move jeopardizes ‘Mad Men’-era headquarters

City plans to move the police department imperils the current headquarters on Chapel Hill Street, an iconic example of mid-20th century Modernist architecture.

City plans to move the Police Department imperils the current headquarters on Chapel Hill Street, according to Preservation Durham and George Smart, founder of Triangle Modernist Houses preservation group.

One idea on the table is to demolish the existing 1950s building and build anew on the site; others are to sell it to help pay for a new police HQ elsewhere. A new owner might also tear it down, or make drastic changes to its appearance.

“I hope that don’t just throw it to the wind and see what happens,” Smart said.

“With all the interest in (the TV series) “Mad Men” and in mid-century that’s coming around right now this is just a great example of that kind of architecture. And it could be stunning,” Preservation Durham Executive Director Wendy Hillis said.

“That existing building was designed by Milton Small ... one of the most prominent Modernists in the area,” she said.

Small was a student of Modernist Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, “and he did some of the best examples of Modernist style architecture that we have here,” said Smart.

Durham bankers John Sprunt Hill and his son, George Watts Hill, commissioned Small in 1957 for a landmark headquarters for their Home Security Life Insurance Co. – the son’s taste for Modernism prevailing over his father’s preference for a more traditional design.

When the building opened in 1959, it was the subject of a 20-page special section in the Durham Morning Herald newspaper, hailing it as the beginning for a new day in style and downtown vitality.

Modernist buildings “were new and exciting, and it was going to be really great,” Smart said. “They anticipated there to be more of them on the way. but it just never came about and by the early ’70s Modernism had fallen out of favor.”

Police HQ is one of the few examples of Modernism in Durham, and Smart said the building is in good structurally and on the exterior.

“What I would encourage the city to do to be responsible with the site is simply to put a preservation easement on the building before sale,” Smart said.

“A preservation easement would basically say you could come in and alter the inside of the building but you basically keep the outside part of it the same or if you add onto it you add onto it consistent with the original design so that that iconic part of downtown Durham remains.”

Smart and Hillis have talked about the building’s preservation with City Manager Tom Bonfield, Smart said, “but he was very noncommittal.”

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