Midtown Raleigh News

Raleigh architecture fans work to save Glenwood Avenue modernist office building

With its wraparound porch and ceiling-high windows, the former Raleigh Orthopaedic Clinic building stands out amid the hulking brick office parks that dot Glenwood Avenue just inside the Beltline.

But within months, the 52-year-old building designed by Raleigh architect G. Milton Small could face the wrecking ball. Since the orthopedic practice moved out last summer, owner John Lyon Jr. hasn’t found a new tenant, and he has filed plans for a new building twice as large to capitalize on the prime location near Crabtree Valley Mall.

The group N.C. Modernist Houses launched a campaign this week to save the structure that The New York Times cited for its “taste and good design” in a 1965 review of small office buildings around the country.

“Its floor-to-ceiling windows all around and wide porch – you just don’t see that anymore,” said the group’s director, George Smart. “It matches that modernist ethic of bringing the outside in.”

Architect Frank Harmon, who has designed modernistic buildings such as the American Institute of Architect’s offices on Peace Street, agrees that the building is worth saving.

“If we lose this one, we will have lost a major piece of architectural history,” Harmon said.

Built in 1962 for Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co., 3515 Glenwood was similar to the company’s office in Chicago, which Small also designed. The Chicago twin has recently been demolished, Smart said.

The building remains vacant, and Lyon plans to build a three-story, 72,000-square-foot building in its place. Architectural renderings were filed this month, and a leasing website promises “unmatched Glenwood Avenue access.”

But Smart said the plans aren’t yet final, and he’s hoping to recruit a new tenant within the next three months. Smart is optimistic about the building’s potential.

“If you can visualize the patient cubicles being gone, you can imagine you’re in one of those ‘Mad Men’ skyscrapers,” he said. “We’ve got so many law firms that are growing ... so many tech firms that are springing up. That would fit many modest-sized companies.”

A lower floor opens out to a walled-in courtyard, and Smart sees potential for a restaurant, fitness center or artist studio. N.C. Modernist Houses has scheduled an open house to show off the building on May 7.

Still, Lyon hasn’t made any promises. He’s moving forward with plans for the new building, according to his leasing agent, Jimmy Barnes.

“Building a newer building gives us the opportunity to provide more square footage on the site and build all the newer things,” Barnes said, adding that there was “very little activity” from potential tenants of the original building.

“(Lyon) is absolutely willing to listen to any tenant or any lease on the existing building,” he said.

If Lyon doesn’t get a viable offer on the current building, Raleigh would lose another example of modernist architecture.

In 2011, a campaign to save N.C. State University’s bookstore – also designed by Small – failed as the university sought to make room for a bigger Talley Student Center. Several buildings on Oberlin Road designed by Leif Valland have been replaced by apartments. And a few blocks from the Glenwood building, the 1950 Paschal House was demolished a year ago after years on the market.

“Things are disappearing at a pretty fast rate,” Harmon said. “Buildings are at their greatest risk when they’re 50 to 60 years old.”