Fans of modernist architecture say they’re on “death watch” as plans move forward to raze architect Milton Small’s Glenwood Avenue office building.
N.C. Modernist Houses has been working for months to save the former home of Raleigh Orthopaedics just inside the Beltline. But the potential tenants that came forward couldn’t meet the requirements of property owner John Lyon Jr., who intends to build a three-story brick building in its place.
“Unfortunately, there’s really nothing that we can do,” Modernist Houses director George Smart said. “The owner appears determined to build something newer and larger. We’re just on death watch to see when they file a permit for demolition.”
Smart said the open house his group held in May yielded interest from a number of potential tenants, but none agreed to Lyon’s terms, which required them to rent the entire building.
Approvals for the new 72,000-square-foot replacement hit a snag last week when three city planning commission members voted no. The majority of the commissioners voted to approve the plans, but the narrow vote sends the application to the Raleigh City Council for a final hearing.
Even the planning commissioners who voted yes – they said Lyon met the city’s minimum requirements – voiced concerns about the plan.
“While I understand there’s an economic reality, I think it’s certainly disappointing that this project is taking down what I feel is a very important mid-century modern building,” said commission chairman Steve Schuster, who’s an architect.
Schuster was also critical of the new building, which faces a rear parking lot and doesn’t have a pedestrian-friendly entrance from the Glenwood Avenue side.
“It seems to be a 50-year-old suburban solution rather than creating the walkable community we’re trying to create,” he said, noting that the developer ignored many of the Raleigh Appearance Commission’s recommendations.
The commission asked the developer to move the dumpster site away from neighboring residential properties and create a better walkway from Glenwood to the building entrance.
But planning commission member Mitch Fluhrer pointed out that the existing building has its main entry from behind.
“I think the developer’s hands are tied with that site topography,” he said. “I think they’ve done the best they can.”
Built in 1962 for Northwestern Mutual Insurance Co., 3515 Glenwood was similar to the company’s office in Chicago, which Small also designed. Its wraparound porch and ceiling-high windows make it stand out from large brick office parks along the same block.
In 1965, The New York Times lauded its “taste and good design” in an architecture review.
If the City Council approves the new building plans and demolition begins, Raleigh would lose another example of modernist architecture.
In 2011, N.C. State University’s bookstore – also designed by Small – was razed, and several buildings on Oberlin Road designed by Leif Valland have recently been replaced by apartments.
“While we may be forced into an approval of this case, I do think it’s a step backwards,” planning commission member Erin Sterling Lewis said.