Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

By: Jason Frye

January 9, 2014

American Tobacco

Exploring the USA’s urban South doesn’t usually include stunning examples of Adaptive Reuse Architecture, a practice built on the reuse and repurposing of a building or site while retaining a large portion of the original look and feel, but Durham, North Carolina, stands as an example of how a city can honour its industrial past while retaining the energy and vibrancy of a younger city.

Where other towns have dried up and allowed riverside textile mills or urban warehouses and factories to sit disused and dishevelled, in Durham, more and more often, businesses, homeowners, designers and architects are retaining interior and exterior elements original to the spaces they inhabit.

In Durham, many of the buildings that are seeing a second life are former tobacco mills, cigarette factories and tobacco warehouses, all of which tie directly back to the history of this city. In the 1860s, just after the American Civil War, Washington Duke began to develop North Carolina’s tobacco business. Being a savvy businessman, he soon recognized the need to enter cigarette manufacturing, before expanding his empire by combining with several other cigarette companies under the American Tobacco Company banner. At one time, the company controlled 90 percent of the worldwide cigarette business.


Kress Tobacco | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

Kress Tobacco building © Jason Frye

Most of Durham’s former tobacco houses date back to the turn of the 20th century, and as the cigarette industry began to decline in the 1980s, Durham architect G. Edwin Belk was called upon to help rehabilitate the twin buildings that once belonged to Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. His job was to help create Brightleaf Square, a space filled with high-end retail shops, restaurants, and offices


“Durham has around 4 million square feet of architectural heritage to give rebirth to, projects like Brightleaf [Square], West Village Apartments and the American Tobacco Campus all started as industrial buildings, but look at them now,” says Belk.


Brightleaf Square | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

Renovated Brightleaf Square © Jason Frye

When Belk was working on Brightleaf Square, Liggett & Meyers were still producing cigarettes across the street and the area around was less than savoury. “People thought [the developer and I] were crazy to take on a project like this in that part of town, but we turned it into something lasting.”


Part of Belk’s vision was one for all of Durham, one where other spaces would be rehabilitated as tobacco companies sold off costly real estate. A few years after Brightleaf Square opened, Liggett & Meyers sold another set of buildings a couple of blocks away and Belk was once more called on to be the architect. The plan was to build West Village Apartments, a multi-building complex of lofts built inside the existing warehouses.


West Village Cornerstone | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

Liggett & Meyers historic West Village corner stone © Jason Frye

Very little changed to the exterior of the warehouses and factories that became West Village, and their solid, industrial look is part of the charm they exude. The other part is the interior work. There, Belk incorporated existing building structures – from posts to flywheels that once ran freight elevators – and kept as much of the original flooring as possible.


“So many people tell us they love West Village because it allows you to both appreciate and use Durham’s historic structures,” says Maureen McDivitt, Community Manager at West Village.


When West Village was completed and the apartments began to fill, Belk said he knew this corner of Durham would be the “capstone on the rebirth of this town.” He was right, to a point, the true capstone – the American Tobacco Historic District – would come later and showcase adaptive reuse architecture on a grander scale.


American Tobacco | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

American Tobacco Campus © Jason Frye

The American Tobacco Campus makes no bones about being a former centre for cigarette production. In addition to the industrial look and feel of the buildings, the water tower and smokestack are emblazoned with the famous Lucky Strike name and logo. Today, American Tobacco has become a centre for entertainment in downtown Durham. A number of restaurants call American Tobacco home and across the street the Durham Bulls play minor-league baseball, drawing in thousands of visitors for each game.


American Tobacco goes beyond entertainment, though. A number of high-profile design and marketing firms call the campus home, and then there’s American Underground, a hotbed of entrepreneurial growth and development.


Mateo Tapas | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

Enjoying drinks & tapas at Mateo bar de Tapas © Jason Frye

The adaptive reuse philosophy has spread beyond Belk’s keystone projects and has found a foothold across the city. Pompieri Pizza has opened in the former Durham #1 Fire House, and their reuse of the space includes recreating the original tin ceiling tiles to use throughout the restaurant. Mateo bar de Tapas, a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Restaurant Southeast in 2013, did the same with their ceiling tiles, but also reused some of their century-old flooring to make stools and other furniture and decorative fixtures.


Full Frame Theatre | Durham Tobacco Houses Reimagined

Full Frame Theater © Jason Frye

Next time Durham calls, take in the food and arts, but take a moment to look around and see how this city kept itself relevant by reinventing itself and its spaces, keeping the past preserved, but ushering in the future.


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Have you seen Durham’s reimagined tobacco houses for yourself? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Jason Frye


Jason Frye

Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.

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