Modernist N.C. State bookstore slated for demolition

Preservationists lament university's decision to raze 1960 building


The 1960 bookstore at North Carolina State University, designed by Milton Small, a student of Mies van der Rohe's, and celebrated for its distinctive poured-concrete canopies, will be demolished in June. The university intends to raze the building as part of a plan to renovate and expand the adjacent Talley Student Center. The site will become part of a landscaped lawn for student recreation.

John Morris, who runs Goodnight, Raleigh!, a blog focused on history, preservation, and architecture launched a grass-roots campaign to save the bookstore after hearing about the proposed demolition in December. "What will be lost is one of the most significant examples of modernist architecture on campus," he says. "That style of architecture is what propelled the university's architecture school to prominence."

Indeed, the N.C. State School of Design (now College of Design), under the leadership of Dean Henry Kamphoefner, emerged as a thriving center for modernist design in the 1950s, attracting prominent practitioners such as Milton Small and guest lecturers including Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. The school's faculty designed a rich collection of residences and public buildings in the region, but only a handful survive on university grounds.

The bookstore, one of only four freestanding modernist buildings on campus that have retained their integrity, is one of the university's major midcentury landmarks, says Ruth Little of Longleaf Historic Resources, a Raleigh-based consulting firm hired by the city in 2005 to conduct a survey of midcentury buildings. She placed the bookstore on the study list for the National Register of Historic Places, but no one has pursued designation for the site. "The bookstore is part of the legacy and heritage of North Carolina State," she says. "It's incredibly short-sighted for the administration to wipe out that legacy."

Lisa Johnson, a university architect, says that the expansion of the student center is essential because it no longer meets the needs of the institution's 33,800 students, more than double the enrollment when the center was built in 1972. The university did consider incorporating the bookstore into the project, she says. Ultimately, though, administrators concluded that the building couldn't be adapted efficiently for modern needs and that the cost of renovation was prohibitive, because of the structure's modest floor-to-ceiling heights and deteriorating condition. Now, after five years of planning, with demolition looming, she says the project is too far along to amend the design.

University officials did consider creating a kind of memorial to the building, and to Small, by saving the canopy in front of the bookstore and incorporating it into the green space as a shaded area. But they concluded that its location didn't fit into the master plan for the site and abandoned the idea, Johnson says. John Morris, who had hoped to persuade officials to save the canopy, can't help but lament what will be lost when demolition begins.

Midcentury buildings still have their share of detractors, but increasingly, he thinks, people will come to appreciate this period of architecture: "Thirty years from now, people are going to wish the bookstore was still there, that unique, funky building from the 1950s."

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