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Could the future of Dix Park include a boutique hotel? An old hospital might be just the spot.

Dix Hospital’s central pavilion was demolished in 1951 and replaced by an outsized administrative complex, at the center of the hospital’s two long, narrow wings, one of which is pictured here. The hospital was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis on the brow of the park’s highest hill in 1856.
Dix Hospital’s central pavilion was demolished in 1951 and replaced by an outsized administrative complex, at the center of the hospital’s two long, narrow wings, one of which is pictured here. The hospital was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis on the brow of the park’s highest hill in 1856. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Could Dix Park have a boutique hotel?

That’s one of the more intriguing ideas raised by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm picked by Raleigh to design a revamped Dix Park southwest of downtown.

It would be housed in the 1856 hospital designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, on the brow of the park’s highest hill.

It’s not a new idea. Myrick Howard, Preservation North Carolina’s president, has been enamored with the concept for years.

When looking for inspiration, there are at least two recent examples of 19th-century-mental institutions successfully converted into boutique hotels.

One is the Hotel Henry in Buffalo, N.Y., where an 1870s insane asylum designed by Henry Hobson Richardson was recently redesigned and converted into a hotel by architect Deborah Berke. She’s the dean of the Yale School of Architecture who redesigned the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Durham.

The other is the Blackburn Inn in Staunton, Va. It was designed in 1828 by architect Thomas Blackburn, who worked under Thomas Jefferson on the Grounds at the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly, the material palette for the Western State Lunatic Asylum in Staunton was red brick with white columns, similar to U.Va’s. That redesigned mental hospital opened up as a 49-room boutique hotel in June.

But could a boutique hotel make sense for Dix Park? Yes – but physical, financial, emotional and political hurdles remain.

The hospital

Physically, the A.J. Davis hospital would be one of 40 surviving structures under Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ evolving master plan — out of 85. The others would be demolished. The hospital’s renovation is highly desirable. It would give Raleigh two restored Davis buildings, including the state Capitol. Few cities can claim that distinction.

Fortunately, Valkenburgh Associates found Davis’ original drawings for the hospital at the New York Historical Society.

“What’s beautiful is that one has his original garden plan,” says Kate Pearce, Raleigh’s senior planner for Dix Park. “We also have photographs of the pre-portico teardown and post-portico teardown.”

RAL_ Portico at Dix3
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates have suggested a reconstructed colonnade with an allee of trees behind it reminiscent of Dix Hospital’s Center Pavilion. MVVATravel

She’s referring to the hospital’s central pavilion, demolished in 1951 and replaced by a brutalist, outsized administrative complex at the center of the hospital’s two long, narrow wings. That complex needs to go away in any hospital renovation. It’s a hulking and irrelevant interloper to Davis’ elegant design.

Replacing it raises interesting questions. Howard said the original pavilion wouldn’t have to be restored, but the two existing wings would to qualify for historic preservation tax credits.

“Since the original center of the building is gone, you don’t have to rebuild it,” he says.

The design firm proposes another solution. Rather than an enclosed structure flanked by two wings, the landscape architecture firm wants to reconstruct the pavilion’s colonnade, with the remaining space forested.

“We want to bring back the portico, but do it in a new way – with an allée of trees behind it,” says Gullivar Shepard, principal in the firm. “It would be open space for public events, with the roof being the tree canopy.”

That opens up another concept for the two wings: Use their first floors as public space, and their second and third for hotel rooms.

“It would bring people to the park, and the first floor could be public and income-generating to support future operations,” Pearce said.

Generating income

The remaining stock of buildings at Dix Park, post-demolition, would be mostly around the hill where the hospital stands. The design firm has proposed two to three uses for each, and their potential as money-makers is significant.

“The buildings need to generate as much revenue as possible to keep Dix Park in good shape, so it doesn’t bleed other parks in the system,” Howard says. “It can’t even be perceived as taking revenue from other parks.”

How that’s done is another question. In Staunton, the 80 acres surrounding Blackburn Inn are dotted with former support structures. Some have been developed into condominium units selling from $375,000 to $550,000. An apartment complex is fully leased, and four single family residences are in historic properties.

The Dix mantra, though, is that park and public come first. And transitioning hospital to hotel would entail the city’s issuing a call for bids for private development. That’s why potential public spaces on the first floor are so important.

“A brewery, mixed with social services and artists’ studios would be exposing different types of people to different experiences,” Shepard said. “It would be a friendly-to-the-public space.”

That’s the approach that Berke took at Durham’s 21c. It’s a museum and restaurant on the first and second floors, and a hotel above.

“Here, there could be any number of uses on the first floor,” says Howard. “Then the hotel wouldn’t seem so obtrusive, and it would feel more open — more public than private.”

Emotional issues

Developing other structures in the park for residential use is up for debate.

“With city ownership, we probably won’t see condos,” Howard said. “But we could see long-term leases.”

But if housing is part of Dix Park, what kinds would be appropriate?

“It must be of all types,” said architect Erin Sterling Lewis, partner in Raleigh architecture firm, In Situ Studio. “I would advocate a mix, including affordable housing — a community with all sorts of people living together among a most amazing park. A bunch of single-family housing for wealthy people would not be a good use of space.”

Lewis does not support having a boutique hotel at Dix Park.

“There’s a lot of talk about Dix being a very inclusive development, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to do that,” she says. “A boutique hotel does not do that. As soon as you use the word ‘boutique,’ you draw a line between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ and that’s not a goal.”

Moreover, she says, Dix Park remains a place committed to healing and rehabilitation. After all, it was a hospital from 1856 to 2012. So why not amplify that history with a permanent hospital museum on the ground floor of the proposed hotel?

“What I react to is the story of the place, and I feel like the only way a hotel would be okay is if the story of the structure is told in the space or nearby, and that we really pay attention to that,” she says.

An October public meeting with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is slated to cover programming for the park, with the firm laying out all of the ideas it has collected from the public over the past year. Clearly, the hospital’s history is part of that.

“There could be a museum or exhibition or program to reconnect to the idea of healing,” Shepard says.

Political considerations

Still, money will be a consideration. Rates for a room at Buffalo’s Hotel Henry range from $130 to $200 a night. At Staunton’s Blackburn Inn, rates are $150 to $350.

Long-term leases on other buildings within Dix Park is another discussion point, and all of this is part of the master-planning process

The Dix Park executive committee and its advisory board are already in talks about the hospital’s renovation and its potential use, Pearce says. As for condos, apartments and single family residences, that will be taken up at another level.

“Retrofitting residences in some of the buildings that are slated to be saved — because of their significance — will have to be discussed by city council,” she says.

Everyone will have a better idea of Dix Park outcomes by February 2019. That’s when Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will present its final master plan to the city council for review.

But there’s plenty of time until then for people to make their opinions heard.

“From September until February 2019 — approximately 6 months — is a key time for public feedback and engagement,” says Adrienne Heflich, a Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates associate. “The MVVA team will respond to and revise proposed ideas over that period. The city is leading local engagement events throughout that time.”

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 mike@architectsandartisans.com.

Details

The next Dix Park programming meeting with the design firm is Oct. 4 at 6:30 p.m. To learn more, go to dixpark.org/event/fourth-public-community-meeting.

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