Ten years ago, I was a newcomer to Raleigh, standing on the front steps of the very grand Memorial Auditorium and peering a few blocks up Fayetteville Street to an even more impressive State Capitol.
What a clever and far-sighted exercise in 19th-century urban planning, I thought. At one end of this stretch stands the symbolic source of government, and at the other lies the centerpiece for Raleigh’s performing arts. In between rumbles the city’s messy vitality – the retailers, the restaurants, the offices, the cars and buses and the parking decks. They’re all enabled by government at one end – and through the taxes they pay, they fund cultural activities at the other.
As it turned out, I was right on one front and completely wrong on the other. These two buildings are indeed two of the grandest, if not the grandest, in Raleigh. But they were not part of any visionary master plan from the 1800s. In fact, they were built almost 100 years apart – the Capitol in 1840 and Memorial Auditorium in 1932. They’re actually part of an evolving downtown fabric – a shifting continuum that responds repeatedly to the winds of change that blow through political, economic and architectural thinking here.
The State Capitol
The Capitol sits atop the highest point downtown and enjoys, as architect Frank Harmon notes, both prospect (in terms of terrific views) and aspect (a very important look). It’s also central to William Christmas’s 1792 master plan for the city.
“It’s a perfectly wonderful Baroque, 18th-century plan with four access streets joining at the Capitol, and with four other squares,” says Catherine Bishir, author of the definitive North Carolina Architecture, published in 1990. “It’s formal and wonderful, but there was no terminating landmark at the end of Fayetteville Street.”
My theory of urban planning crushed, I began digging into the history of the two buildings. Five architects worked on the existing Capitol’s design – after William Nichols’ first statehouse (inspired by Benjamin Latrobe’s Capitol in Washington, D.C.) burned in 1831. In 1833, his son was hired by a group of commissioners, appointed by the legislature, to develop a set of plans similar to his father’s. His new building was cruciform in layout, with a three-story, domed rotunda. When his plans were finished, Nichols was terminated and New Yorkers Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis stepped in.
The cruciform plan with domed rotunda was already under construction, but the new team would bring neoclassical elements to the table. “Its plan is rooted in Palladian Renaissance, but its style is Greek Revival,” Bishir says of the building’s two precedents – one based on 16th-century Italian architecture and the other on that of ancient Athens.
David Paton arrives
Town recruited David Paton, a young Scotsman practicing architecture in New York, to assist with stone masonry for the new, fireproof structure. His choice could not have been more informed or influential.
Paton had learned his craft while working for his father in Edinburgh, but more importantly, he’d worked as an assistant in the London architecture office of John Soane, the premier neoclassicist of his time.
Paton soon advanced to lead architect on the project, delivering to the building some of the most striking, state-of-the art design elements imaginable. He moved Jackson’s proposed main stairway away from the rotunda to the west portico, and created a cantilevered, compressive ring of stone to support the second floor – opening up the rotunda to spaces above. A third-floor skylight allows the sun’s rays to slash 99 feet below, illuminating a marble statue of George Washington, seated at the center of the first level.
A visit to the Capitol never ceases to amaze. Paton’s sophisticated aesthetic – and that of Soane – is evident everywhere, from the Pantheon-like central space on the second level, to the winding, interlocking gneiss granite stairway between second and third floors, to the vestibules with skylights set in elliptical domes into the roof. Paton also delivers an eye-level, intimate look at exquisite capitals atop supporting columns, from third-floor views into Senate and House. It is a wondrous work to behold. A sensitive 21st-century observer will feel the architect’s guiding hand everywhere.
Paton totally surprises us on the third floor by stepping abruptly away from neoclassicism. In the library and the state geologist’s office, his finishes are all faux-painted wood and designed, like most trim on the second and third levels, to look like grained oak. But here, his angular woodwork announces a striking departure from anything Greek or Roman. “By 1840, he’s playing with Gothic Revival (a style based on medieval architecture), which is cutting-edge at the time,” Harmon says. “Greek Revival was finished.”
But not in 1932, when Memorial Auditorium was sited five blocks south of the Capitol on Fayetteville. Neoclassicism was all the rage again, and architects at Durham’s Atwood & Weeks were on it. They looked to the granite of the capitol for material in their new auditorium, adding limestone too. They designed it in the Greek Revival style with unadorned Doric columns. Most importantly, they demonstrated a firm understanding of urban planning – with something unforeseen by William Christmas in 1792.
“They used the Beaux Arts tradition to put a building there, one that wanted to be there,” Bishir says. “They created a duality. The original plan didn’t have that, but 140 years later, it made perfect sense.”
Et voila! This section of Fayetteville Street was now a highly successful exercise in place-making – two neoclassical bookends with five thriving blocks of commerce between them. Where Christmas had laid out a relatively open plan based on four squares surrounding the Capitol at Union Square, the Beaux Arts-influenced Atwood & Weeks established a new urban order by closing Fayetteville Street off.
Over time, the auditorium fell into disrepair, and Fayetteville Street lost its luster. The year 1977 proved momentous for both. Memorial Auditorium was renovated, but Fayetteville Street was paved over and turned into a pedestrian mall, a desperate response to suburban shopping centers. Worse, a new civic center was built in the middle of the street – blocking the exquisite vista between auditorium and Capitol.
A new era
None of that proved workable, and by 1988 Haskins Rice Savage and Pearce, now Clark Nexsen, was designing a renovation and expansion for Memorial Auditorium. Seeking to honor the building’s neoclassical roots, the modernist firm made the unusual gesture of traveling to Indiana for 14 limestone columns, carved in the Doric order. “We added to and expanded the lobby. It’s a traditional building on the front, with a modern glass box behind it,” says Irv Pearce, a principal in the firm at the time.
A decade later, PBC+L was designing more performance spaces to flank the auditorium, including Fletcher Opera Theater on the east and Meymandi Concert Hall on the west. It’s all done with a modern touch, but with respect for the neoclassical proportions preceding it. “The question was how to add on without it being part of it,” Pearce says. “The glass extending across to Meymandi and Fletcher is a blending of the two – and once inside, they’re clearly modern facilities.”
As the firm worked with the city, the question of a new convention center to replace the vista-blocking civic center came up. “We think we had some influence on it being moved to its current location,” Pearce says. “It brings back the Beaux Arts plan that makes Fayetteville Street a special place.”
So in July 2006, Fayetteville Street was reopened, the civic center was demolished and the grand views of the Beaux Arts plan were restored. That was three months before I stood on those steps of Memorial Hall, musing over Raleigh’s gift for 19th-century urban planning.
I may have gotten it wrong back then, but surely Raleigh got it right.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct name of the architecture firm that in 1988 renovated Memorial Auditorium. The firm was Haskins Rice Savage and Pearce; it changed its name to Pearce, Brinkley, Cease + Lee (PBC+L), in 1992. It has since merged into Clark Nexsen.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.