Hotel Developer Likely to Demolish McPherson Hospital

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I've heard from three independent sources now that Concord, the national hotel developer that controls the former Watts Hospital / McPherson Hospital / NC Eye and Ear Hospital site, is moving down a path towards demolition of the remaining original, 1926 portion of the Milburn and Heister designed hospital building.

Folks that have been here more than a year or two will remember the controversy surrounding the development of the site facing West Main St., on which the hospital building stands, and the surface parking lot across Watts St., which formerly served the hospital.

The developments, originally under single ownership, bifurcated with the sale of the hospital site to Concord Hotel Group. The neighborhood and various groups seemed to focus most of their ire and concern on the development of the surface parking lot site, a concern I never particularly agreed with / thought was misplaced. In my opinion, a residential development with decent-enough architecture on a former surface parking lot has to struggle to not be an improvement over a surface parking lot. But the seven-story height of a portion of that building inflamed the neighborhood enough to have them rally to deny that building a special-use permit to move forward.

The hotel site never raised as much public concern, although, to me, it was far more concerning, posing far more of a threat to the architecture of Durham, the neighborhood, and the experience in the public realm. There are few more prominent sites as one drives into downtown from Duke, 9th Street, and other points west. The initial plans for the site showed a shoehorning of a fat 'Suburban Classical' hotel onto the site, wrapping around the original McPherson building.

Concord demolished the 1968-9 addition and the 1940s western addition to the hospital building in 2008, but the site has sat idle since that time.


10.03.09


10.03.09

The historic structure has sat open to the elements for two years now - whether this is the classic old-building-in-my-way policy of letting a building deteriorate until you can claim that you have no choice but to demolish it, because it is so deteriorated and would cost too much to renovate, or simply a lack of cash in recessionary times, I don't know.

Regardless, it seems from multiple sources that the hotel concern has decided the time is right to make its move against the old hospital building. Because there are no protective overlays in Trinity Park or along this stretch of West Main St. (i.e. Neighborhood Protection or Local Historic) the developer can demolish the building without impediment. The downtown overlay implemented earlier this year has changed the zoning on this site (and, FYI, the parking lot site, TP Height Haters) and Concord is likely (pure speculation) to maximize the use of the form-based code to maximize its development potential (as measured in rooms.)

I suspect that the building is not long for this world. It's hard to imagine our elected officials taking proactive action to, say, make this building a local landmark - particularly given their antagonism towards the local landmark program. I'm not sure the city or county has taken a proactive historic preservation action since the 1980s, relying on citizenry to designate their own districts and buildings. And given Trinity Park, or at least a substantial portion thereof's, stubborn antagonism to a local historic district, it's still easy to demolish-at-will in TP.

I understand the developer's point of view in this; keeping the building is likely an expensive option as one tries to resurrect a pro forma put together during the go-go days of 2006-7. I'm sure that there is significant pressure from whoever's money is sunk in this land to get something done, and as cheaply as possible is the only way to make the numbers work. I think they are shooting themselves in the foot regarding the rates they could get for a 'boutique' hotel with historic elements, but I get it. They are next to Duke, the volume of visitors is significant and cares more about access to Duke than anything else. I hope the developers would place a high importance on the responsibility they took on when they bought this historic building, but that only goes so far (i.e. not below the return on equity expectations) with a national concern.

Really, though, it's Durham's responsibility to protect our heritage - and I've seen no evidence that there is an elected official who is willing to take concrete action to make Durham's architecture a more protected resource; rather, the political forays into the preservation realm of late have been efforts to gut the local landmark tax abatement - which is the primary offset / carrot for situations like these, where the cost of retaining the building may be higher than demolishing it.

I don't think I need to reiterate the importance of this building to Durham's architectural heritage - both its tie to the original Watts Hospital, which sat on this site, and as one of Durham's excellent collection of Milburn and Heister designed structures. It is a landmark, whether that is the opinion of the current owners or not. Its loss will be a major blow to Durham's architectural heritage and its meager remaining inventory of buildings that served important functions in early-20th century Durham.

Comments

And all this time I thought there was just very slow work going on as I kept seeing small changes.

This makes me sad.

I have to wonder why it wasn't demolished two years ago with the rest of the structure? I like your theory that its been intentionally allowed to deteriorate, but if that's true it seems to me a major tactical error by Concord. If there was no fight to save it in 2008, allowing it to stand beautifully for 2 years (without the unsightly 60's additions) seems as if they are simply begging for protest today...

I don't think they intended to tear it down two years ago. I think in the intervening economic misery, it has become more appealing to build something that doesn't require integrating a 1926 hospital into the mix.

I echo Jennska's thought; I, too, was under the impression that work was ongoing, albeit very slowly. I love this building and never knew exactly what it's story was. if it is to be destroyed, I am grateful to you, Gary, for capturing some of its history here.

I am sorry to hear that the building may be torn down. The trinity park fringe group that held up the hotel and condo is ultimately also responsible for the project failure. If it had been built earlier, it may have actually used the old hospital. Unfortunately, their loud squacks made everything impossible. I hope that they will be pleased with the final outcome- but then again nothing could please that group....

Not True. It is due to the involvement of Trinity Park neighbors that the building was preserved in the first place. It is sad if it will be torn down. It is really a landmark for that corner.

This is a sad tale, and one that I think speaks volumes about Durham's lack of political will relative to historic preservation. I've written about it before in the blogosphere. Durham needs its citizens to become more aware of the importance of historic preservation, the green aspect to it, and understand how positively incorporating more historic preservation could drive a brighter future. Devoid of it, we have ordinary, uninteresting, environmentally irresponsible Durham. The local preservation non profit's ability to shape dialogue and create that political will is challenged at best. Until we can find more citizens, council members, and city agencies to help to that end, we will see more McPherson hospitals become parking lots or the next "Downtowner" motel. How far behind do you think the Chesterfield building is to the same fate at McPherson?

Myers Sugg

Truly sad to hear. I had figured that the longer the parcel sat undeveloped, the worse the old hospital building's chances for survival became, but I'm kind of surprised to hear they're moving ahead with demolition now. I had thought the whole thing was on hold until the economy showed more signs of life. Also sadly ironic given your recent post on Milburn & Heister.

However if, as Anonymous #3 stated, Trinity Park neighbors protested the building's demolition initially, is there no chance of them (and others) making their voices heard again? Regardless of TP residents' feelings about overly tall residential development next door or local historic district status, one would think that putting up a high-density, architecturally undistinguished hotel project that no longer even gives a nod to the surrounding historic cityscape would be seen as a Bad Thing (and, over time if not immediately, detrimental to the property values of its immediate neighbors).

I'm under the impression that this building is on the National Register. If so, how can 40% (20% Federal & 20% State of NC) in tax credits on the costs of adaptive reuse/rehab still not make this a viable project. Tearing it down, and building new will, in the end, cost less? I'm having a hard time visualizing that. Perhaps we have some developers who want the perceived "easy way out."

Myers

It is too bad that such a structure would be demolished. I would have thought that 'the economy' would have postponed any new large-scale developments like a hotel. Hopefully, the building won't be demolished and then they can't get the money together to develop the property... like what happens a lot of the time. It'll likely become a parking lot...

Durham seems to survive despite itself; the city government takes a lot of the credit, but if it wasn't for the spirit of individuals and organized groups of individuals, Durham would still be crap, thanks to its governmental (elected and hired) leaders.

I read about this on the Bull City Rising site & am reiterating my comments here:

I worked at the old McPherson/Eye & Ear hospital many years back and I bet with the right kind of adaptive re-use it would have a very fun & funky feel as a small hotel. Just thinking about the old elevator, with its "pull it across the door" metal grate makes me smile. They managed to keep the same kind of impossibly small & antiquated things at the Grove Park Inn (albeit on a vastly different scale) and appeal to those who love the historic & old-timey part of the hotel, and snare guests who like an up-to-date ambiance with the addition of two modern wings. I'd like to think the Concord folks could pull off the same kind of dualistic approach.

Many of the physicians group who sold the original structure are still working in town at the NC Specialty Hospital. Maybe they could be contacted about supporting the originally stated use of the property? How about the McPherson family? I know they have no legal standing but they did sell the property with the understanding that it would be used in a certain way.....just a thought.

Boutique hotel?

It looks more like the kind of place where they'd strap you to a gurney and hook you up to an electroshock machine.

"Cosy" it ain't.

Typically one would renovate the building before considering it a boutique hotel, just as I presume they'd construct a new building rather than asking you to reserve a space to sleep on the ground. Hard to say much about how "cosy" the interiors of either new construction or renovation will feel at the moment.

GK

Oh, I would really hate to see this building go! I had surgery there twice, spent untold hours at the Dr there(admittedly in the newer part), but still!

The cafeteria there was outstanding. About 20 years ago one of the cooks at McPherson gave my wife their recipe for Mexican cornbread - written on a scrap of paper. We still have it. Each piece weighed about a pound, and boy was it good.

The City of Durham should purchase this property and turn it into a museum. One floor could be the history of medicine (particularly McPherson and Watts hospitals); another floor could be dedicated to "Endangered Durham" and display all the info that Gary has dug up over the past few years. Still another floor could be dedicated to the architecture of Durham, of which the building itself is a fine example. All the area around it should be a park with some parking, so that the building itself stands proud! What a great museum that would be! Hey Durham City Council, here is your opportunity to step up to the plate and prove you support Durham historic preservation.

I would be VERY sad to see this building demolished. I like others above me truly thought something was going on at this site, albeit slowly.
Thank you for bringing me up to speed on its history.

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