Durham News

Durham’s tobacco buildings go back to the future

Tammy Wells-Angerer leads a tour at the Imperial Warehouse during the Tobacco Heritage Tour on Sunday in Durham.
Tammy Wells-Angerer leads a tour at the Imperial Warehouse during the Tobacco Heritage Tour on Sunday in Durham. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Businesses in downtown Durham continue to find creative ways to transform buildings from the city’s heyday as the nation’s tobacco capital into bustling, 21st-century commercial enterprises.

One of the last tobacco buildings to be slated for conversion is the former R.J. Reynolds Prizery in the Warehouse District, which Tyler Huntington of the Tyler’s Taproom chain already has begun converting.

In case you’re wondering, a prizery was a room or a building where tobacco was sorted and stored before being shipped to the factory to be converted into cigarettes.

So, when the new Tyler’s Taproom Distillery opens, patrons enjoying the panoramic view of the Durham Athletic Park can toast the building’s mammoth windows – a legacy of the place’s tobacco roots. Prizery employees needed an abundance of light so they could distinguish between the 107 different varieties of tobacco that were brought to be sorted, dried and packed there.

“It may sound cheesy, but this part of Durham’s past is also what is making Durham’s future awesome,” said Steve Wachholz, a building contractor who lives in Durham.

Wachholz, 44, and his wife, Jackie, 41, an archivist at Duke University, were among those who took the Tobacco Heritage Tour on Saturday and Sunday. The tour, which provided insights into Durham’s past and how it is affecting the future, was sponsored by Preservation Durham, a nonprofit that advocates for retaining and renovating Durham’s historic structures.

Town built on tobacco

Among the stops on the tour were the American Tobacco Campus, a mixed-use complex that includes offices, residences, and a host of restaurants and encompasses more than 1 million square feet; the former Cobb Warehouse, now an apartment complex; and the former Imperial Tobacco factory, today used as storage space.

“Durham really was built around the tobacco industry,” said Durham resident Bill Fry, 53, a systems analyst who took the tour Sunday. “If you want to know the history of Durham, you need to know the history of tobacco here.”

Indeed, tobacco was to Durham as the automobile was to Detroit, said Wendy Hills, executive director of Preservation Durham.

“The fact that we have been able to adaptively reuse these buildings ... is a huge part of Durham’s unique character,” she said.

The depth of the intertwining of the tobacco industry and North Carolina’s history was highlighted during a tour of the Imperial Building.

‘Greatest Show on Dirt!’

Volunteer tour guide Tammy Wells-Angerer talked of the onetime domination of the tobacco industry by the Duke family’s American Tobacco and the founding of Duke Energy by James Buchanan “Buck” Duke. She also pointed out where scenes for the movie “Bull Durham” were filmed in the Imperial Building.

Yep, the locker room scenes were filmed in a portion of the building that was empty. And one of the building’s arches still features the slogan that was painted there for the movie: “The Greatest Show on Dirt!”

However, Wells-Angerer didn’t mention the signs posted near the Imperial Building’s first-floor elevators that ironically proclaim: “No Smoking!”

Not all of Durham’s remaining historic tobacco buildings are going to be reused. One of the buildings on the tour, the Liberty Warehouse on Rigsbee Street, is scheduled to be demolished to make way for apartments and retail space – although one brick wall will be retained.

The current building is so large that no one could ever find a cost-effective way to repurpose the building.

“The Liberty Warehouse is just a big shed,” said Preservation Durham’s Hills. “It was never meant to be a space that was heated and cooled.”