Politics & Government

McBryde building: Lost masterpiece or uninspired remake?

When it opened in 1856, the central building at Dorothea Dix hospital was a marvel.

The architect, Alexander Jackson Davis of New York, considered it more important than his other major piece of work in Raleigh -- the old state Capitol building.

The years have not been kind. The west wing was rebuilt after a fire in 1926. In 1951, the state demolished the central pavilion to make room for a bland new addition. Then, in 1975, it added a medical wing next door.

It's now generally referred to as the McBryde building, after a state senator who served on the board overseeing state institutions in the 1940s. Today, the building resembles a typical government complex.

But some think its former glory could be restored.

Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, thinks that the additions could be torn down and the building's original look restored. That would require some creative financing, because historic tax credits won't pay for new construction.

But others think that's the wrong approach.

A panel from the Urban Land Institute suggested tearing out the additions and putting in a modern atrium, the same old-meets-new impulse that reanimated Paris' Louvre with a glass pyramid.

And then there's the question of what should go inside.

Some plans call for a museum, perhaps a regional collection from the Smithsonian Institution. Others think the rooms could be converted to senior housing, apartments and condos or rental office space. The Urban Land Institute suggested a restaurant and shops.

For the near future, the state Department of Health and Human Services could use it.

But if the money isn't eventually found and private developers aren't interested, there's another option, which Howard considers tragic.

"The worst case scenario is to see it torn down," he said.

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