The beauty of The Dillon and Union Station is revealed when they’re viewed together

Now that retail, office and residential space is nearly brimming at The Dillon in Raleigh’s Warehouse District while across the street, Union Station shuffles 12 trains in and out of town daily, it’s time to cast a discerning eye on both buildings.

They’re harbingers of a bigger, more energized downtown Raleigh, with even more to come. So certain questions are in order: Architecturally speaking, how do they respond to their physical and historical context? How do they work together – and apart? What about their scale and materials?

But especially, do these two modern buildings raise the bar and set higher design standards for a growing downtown? This is, after all, a forward-looking place with a codified comprehensive plan that calls for 40-story, 20-story and 12-story structures over the next few decades.

In other words, do these two new buildings inspire investors, developers and designers to step up and take the necessary risks to create a beautiful – and profitable – urban environment for the future? Do they break new design ground, or do they simply emulate Raleigh’s status quo?

Answers to these questions should influence this city’s will to invent or import a new architecture – and build its own iconic skyline.

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Raleigh’s Union Station with The Dillon building in the background. Juli Leonard

The origins of Union Station

No two buildings could be more different in their response to site and history.

Union Station, at 510 W. Martin St., was designed to replace an inadequate terminal two blocks south. Its proposed new site was problematic – one that the state and city had decided on long before awarding the project to Raleigh-based design firm, Clearscapes.

On site was the 1960s-era Viaduct Building – a vast, open, three-to-four-story steel fabrication shop the architects were tasked with re-using. It’s located about a half-block west of South West Street, where existing train tracks prevented placing the station streetside. Clearscapes’ challenge was to deliver travelers to their new station in a renovated factory while integrating existing tracks into their planning.

It was no easy task.

“We had two choices – go over or under the rails,” says Steve Schuster, principal in Clearscapes.

Going over meant building a bridge 26 feet above; going under, tunneling 10 feet below. So Clearscapes elected to burrow beneath, open up a below-grade entry to the station, and raise pedestrians up inside via stairs, elevator and escalator. The result is a long, horizontal descent punctuated by a sharp and dramatic rise to a tantalizing vista above.

Notably absent from the state and city scheme was room for parking, save 40 spaces for drop-offs and the handicapped. That’s where developer John Kane and Duda/Paine Architects came in. Part of Kane’s commitment to the city when he agreed to develop The Dillon was that 350 of its 980 parking spaces would be available to the public.

The result is a nine-story parking podium with eight stories of offices atop and five floors of residences adjacent. The ground level is filled with restaurants and retailers like Urban Outfitters. It also retains remnants of brick walls from the original Dillon warehouse on site.

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Working together

While Union Station stretches out horizontally, The Dillon is decidedly vertical, overlooking the train station that made its 17 stories possible. Though The Dillon was developed with private funds and the train station with public money, they have a symbiotic relationship. They form a model public/private partnership: They serve the community, profit the developer and boost the city’s tax base.

The two work together, too, in spaces for public activities. Because Union Station sits back from West Street, Clearscapes created a public plaza that occupies half a city block. A recent visit there revealed a new vision of citizen activation. About 100 people were gathered around impromptu pop-ups and permanent seating, discussing a public meeting about Dix Park. Inside the terminal, arrangements for speakers, seating and refreshments were underway.

That’s just the beginning. Across the street at the corner of Hargett and West is an enclosed courtyard at The Dillon, perfect for performance art, wine tastings and dinners and special events. Close down West Street, and you’ve got a three-part harmony of plaza, courtyard and room for food trucks. Shut down Hargett a block north and you can reach up to CAM Raleigh, downtown Raleigh’s contemporary art museum, for an arts festival.

That brings up one shortcoming in The Dillon’s relationship to its neighbors. Sure, there’s a huge door where Urban Outfitters opens up to Hargett Street across from CAM’s grand canopy. But there’s no pedestrian walkway to approach CAM. A glance back at how well architects Michael Stevenson and Louis Cherry linked the once-proposed, now-disposed Lightner Building to Nash Square demonstrates how big a lost opportunity this is. As architect Frank Harmon notes, we’re all better off when thinking beyond the property line – and not just about the bottom line.

Urban Outfitters in The Dillon opens up to Hargett Street across from CAM’s grand canopy but there’s no interaction between the buildings, such as a pedestrian walkway to approach CAM. Juli Leonard

Scale and materials

That recent visit also revealed one of Union Station’s shortcomings when it comes to human scale. As I stood on the corner of Hargett and West streets, a single question arose from two strangers, one afoot and another driving. Their common query was: “How do I get in?” Yes, signs soon will go up, and I know the site was difficult, but architecture’s supposed to make way-finding easy. Entrances should announce themselves – and not necessarily with signage.

On the other hand, human scale at The Dillon is enhanced tremendously by retail at ground level. As architect Turan Duda says, storefronts provide variety, texture and individualized experience to the street. And movement from curbside to enclosed courtyard to elevator delivers a positive and non-intimidating psychological transition from sidewalk up to parking deck, office or apartment.

As for materials, both projects are executed in steel, glass and brick, though Union Station makes use of wood to warm its interiors, and The Dillon also implements aluminum outside. Duda/Paine chose to emphasize its building’s horizontality, rather than its tallness – at first proposing terracotta bands to match the brick base, then scaling back to red-painted metal panels to unify the exterior.

Materially, the two work together well, even though Union Station was conceived prior to The Dillon.

“I give full credit to Duda/Paine for that,” Schuster says. “The colors are different, but the palette is similar, so there’s a conversation between the two buildings.”

The view of Union Station from the top of its stairs conveys a space that is wide open for hundreds of feet, and the eye’s drawn across it toward a huge white clock atop ticket windows. Juli Leonard

Design Standards

Taken separately, the exteriors of these two buildings don’t necessarily disappoint, but they’re no source of great excitement, either. Their beauty isn’t revealed until they’re viewed together – looking back toward The Dillon from the drop-off point at Union Station. There, they collaborate visually on a near-breathtaking level.

The Dillon’s inspiration – a 1978 book by theoretician Colin Rowe called “Collage City” – has been explored in this column previously. It’s a layered look, with upper levels gently sloping back and a four-level “sky window” inserted into its south-facing elevation. My biggest problem is that it doesn’t soar as one hopes a tower would, but that’s precisely the architects’ point. Instead of reaching for the clouds, it’s massed instead to deal with life on earth.

As does Union Station. It’s designed to move people, after all. Clearscapes has done an admirable job of transforming an opaque industrial cathedral into a transparent, glass-and-steel public structure. My problem here, though, is that its exterior doesn’t inspire us to anticipate a luxurious train ride, the way John Russell Pope did with Richmond’s early 20th-century Broad Street Station or Daniel Burnham did with Washington’s 1907 Union Station. [Correction: A previous version of this story said early 19th century.]

The views from The Dillon inspire - it’s not unusual to find 50 yoga practitioners taking in downtown’s sunrise on its landscaped, ninth-floor sky deck. Juli Leonard

But then again, train travel is no longer our travel choice du jour. It’s more like third or fourth in line.

The enduring beauty of these two lies not in their exteriors, but inside instead. The initial view of Union Station from the top of its stairs is a stunner. The space is wide open for hundreds of feet, and the eye is drawn across it toward a huge white clock atop ticket windows. And as you exit, you’ll see Raleigh’s skyline laid out before you through tall windows, like poet T.S. Eliot’s proverbial patient upon a table.

The views from inside The Dillon inspire as well. It’s not unusual to find 50 yoga practitioners taking in downtown’s sunrise on its landscaped, ninth-floor sky deck. Or to see apartment residents, coolers and picnic baskets in tow, headed for the sunset in the same space.

These are successful buildings, to be sure. But there are lessons for the future to be learned here. So let’s review them, using the standards set by Vitruvius, that Roman architect from the first-century B.C.:

Firmness? Check.

Commodity? Check.

Delight? Let’s just say there’s room to explore Raleigh’s skyline further.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design and edits a digital design magazine at He can be reached at
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