The last of a legacy

Jul. 31, 2014 @ 07:00 PM

Don’t expect the wrecking balls to start swinging toward the Liberty Warehouse for another month, but the first stages of demolition have begun.

Bryson Powell, the warehoused project manager for Chapel Hill-based East West Partners, said many signs from the historic warehouse have already been removed and workers are making sure the Rigsbee Avenue wall has been properly braced before the next stages of demolition begin.

“We talked extensively about that Rigsbee wall, whether we were saving it or not,” Powell said. “We are in fact saving that historic façade.”

Along with the wall, Powell said East West also plans to create a “memorial” to the history of the tobacco industry in Durham – especially that of tobacco auctions. The memorial will stand on the inside portion of the Rigsbee wall, and will be a place for the public to come and see the history.

“We’re excited to try and tell it on the back side of that wall,” Powell said.

It’s that history that has Wendy Hillis sad to see the building go.

“This is the last tobacco auction warehouse in Durham,” Hillis, the executive director of Preservation Durham said. “In losing that we’ve lost a big piece of Durham’s past. And unfortunately, it’s a difficult building to get people to love.”

The building which over the years has gone into disrepair has been a point of contention in the community. In 2011 heavy rains collapsed portions of the warehouse’s roof. It was also once considered to be in a state of “demolition by neglect” by the Durham City-County Planning Department.

Hillis knows that the Liberty Warehouse can be a tough sell in the community, but it still is rich in history.

“We recognize that that building is difficult to find a new use for,” Hillis said. “It was a big shed that was never intended to be heated and cooled … turning it into something that was a finished building, is difficult.”

East West plans to replace the warehouse with a mixed-use project. The new building will include ground-level shops as well as apartments in the thriving area around Durham’s Central Park.

Hillis said the plan to include a memorial to the history of tobacco warehouses in the new site is important to help remember an industry that created the city.

“The reality is that a lot of people didn’t even know what the history of that building was,” she said. While Hillis doesn’t know if the Liberty Warehouse was the best or the biggest in town, she does know that the tobacco warehouses served an important purpose in the economy of the city – even if they only ran for about two months out of the year.

“(Tobacco auction season) was a very happy time, a very busy time, and it was definitely part of the cyclical things that happened in Durham,” Hillis said. “It was a big deal.”

To her and others at Preservation Durham, having the building closed off has already allowed it to lose some of its history, as East West moves forward with its preservation efforts of the Rigsbee Wall and other parts of the building.

“Yes (demolition) is a very kind of final nail in the coffin, but people haven’t been able to access that building for quite awhile,” Hillis said. “This is the very last one. That’s why it’s become such a big deal to some people.”

Powell said that there is still time before the “visible mass demolition” begins on the property. He said there could be between 30 to 45 days before wreckers start the process.

As that process begins, Powell acknowledged that the area is an “active, urban environment” and East West will do everything it can to help minimize any side-effects from the demolition.

“It’s not going to come down quietly,” Powell said. “As always you try to do that as efficiently as possible.”

He said the building will be taken down almost “piece by piece” as a lot of the structure is wood and brick. However, he said some hiccups could be experienced.

Powell said about the first of the year the major construction will begin on the new building, with the first apartments and shops to be opened in the spring of 2016.