Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh’s landmark Nehi bottling building will get makeover

James A. Goodnight walks through the old Nehi Bottling Co. building on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh Sept. 17. He is restoring the building and hopes to make it into offices.
James A. Goodnight walks through the old Nehi Bottling Co. building on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh Sept. 17. He is restoring the building and hopes to make it into offices. cseward@newsobserver.com

When it was completed in 1938, the Raleigh Nehi Bottling Co. building on Hillsborough Street demanded attention, with its unusual, austere design and the big Royal Crown Cola sign painted on the side.

Now the building’s new owner plans to restore it to its original appearance in hopes of snagging a 21st century tech company looking for a cool place to do business.

James A. Goodnight bought the building in June for $590,000 and plans extensive renovations to get it ready for a tenant’s finishing touches in early 2014. Goodnight hopes to work with surviving elements of the old bottling company, including the drive-thru where trucks pulled into the front of the building to load up on soda.

From old photos and other records, Goodnight knows that syrup for the soft drinks was stored in stainless steel vats on the second floor, before being mixed and bottled on the first floor. The process was visible from Hillsborough Street through large metal casement windows.

“It was just like Krispy Kreme – you could stand out front and see it all happen,” Goodnight said. “In some of the old pictures, you could see guys filling bottles and smoking cigarettes.”

The Nehi building isn’t much to look at now. The signs are long gone, and many of the windows have either been bricked up or broken and plugged with plywood. There’s no fancy brickwork or other ornamentation that you might expect on a 75-year-old building.

That plainness made it unusual in Raleigh at the time. The International style of architecture, which stripped buildings of decoration to stress their function, would later flourish in the city with the rise of the School of Design at N.C. State University, but the Nehi design was still new in a city of fewer than 50,000 residents.

The building became a city landmark in 2010, both for its architecture and for the architect, William Henley Deitrick.

Deitrick left several landmark buildings in and around Raleigh during more than three decades of work in the city. They include Broughton High School and Dorton Arena at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, which he finished after the death of the original designer, Matthew Nowicki. At about the time he was designing the Nehi building, Deitrick turned the city’s old brick water tower downtown into offices and moved his practice there.

Run down, boarded up

Goodnight says the Nehi building’s significance was long lost on him.

“I’ve walked my dog past here many times and never thought anything of it,” he said. “It was always run down and boarded up.”

That changed early this year, when Goodnight read about the building and saw old photos of the bottling plant on the website GoodnightRaleigh.com. The piece about the building ended with these words: “Today it sits vacant, in dire need of restoration.”

Soon, Goodnight was talking to the owners, a construction company that used the building for storage and for some assembly work.

Goodnight, son of SAS software company founder and CEO Jim Goodnight, has bought and rehabbed a handful of old buildings in Raleigh. His most recent project was the restoration of a pair of early 20th century buildings at South Salisbury and West Hargett streets downtown that had been obscured behind a bunker-like exterior of white stucco, dark marble and tinted windows since the 1970s.

Restaurateur Ashley Christensen is leasing the buildings for a restaurant and bar she plans to call Death & Taxes and for private event space.

With that project, Goodnight and his architect, David Mauer, set out to restore the buildings based on only two old photos and what they could find behind modern drop ceilings and stuccoed walls. With the Nehi building, though, the team has a full set of the original architectural drawings as well as numerous photographs from the State Archives.

One inspiration for the project is Lulu, the online publisher that renovated the former N.C. Equipment Co. just down the street, said Brian Wallace, a broker for York Properties that is trying to lease the Nehi building. Lulu kept the equipment company’s iconic yellow tractor on the roof, and Wallace said they hope a restored soda bottling plant will appeal to a similar tenant.

“There is not a whole lot of creative space on the market right now,” he said.