Preservation board OKs 21c hotel project

Jul. 03, 2013 @ 10:12 AM

A downtown hotel project cleared another regulatory hurdle Tuesday morning when the Historic Preservation Commission approved plans for the renovation of its proposed home, the SunTrust tower.

The 7-0 vote followed a discussion that saw a member or two question the 21c hotel chain’s plan to give the tower what amounts to about a 20-foot haircut, by removing the SunTrust billboards that cap it.

Eliminating the sign will restore the tower to its pre-1964 appearance, keeping with the belief that “the community would prefer not to have a colossal sign” atop it, renovation architect Alan Weiskopf told the commission.

But members noted that the rooftop billboard, installed in 1964 by Central Carolina Bank, had been called out as “a landmark in its own right” in some of the documentation that formalized the tower’s status as a local historic landmark.

“My suspicion is that as a community, those of us who’ve been here long enough will notice something missing,” commission member David Neill said. “But we’ll get used to it.”

Neill’s colleagues likewise agreed that there’d be no basis to ask 21c to retain the SunTrust billboard nor any point, without it, in keeping the metal supporting structure that sits atop the tower’s roof.

The tower proper is 206 feet, 6 inches tall, from the street to its rooftop parapet. The billboard framing boosts its overall height to 226 feet, according to the blueprints Weiskopf’s firm submitted.

The most unease about removing the rooftop sign came from commission member Joe Fitzsimons, who said it had become over the years a “distinctive” part of the building.

Distinctive features on a historic structure ordinarily merit some sort of protection, but members agreed that in this case it would be impractical.

“We can’t require them to install another sign up there,” commission Chairwoman Heather Wagner said.

The rooftop sign prompted the most discussion during Tuesday’s review but was only one point members discussed.

Also receiving attention was 21c’s plan to move an electrical transformer to free up space inside the building. The company proposed sacrificing one of the curbside parking spaces on the Parrish Street side of the tower, next to CCB Plaza.

Commission members weren’t bothered by losing the parking space, but signaled they didn’t like architects’ original idea of screening the relocated transformer with plants.

After some back-and-forth, they agreed to ask 21c to disguise the transformer as a piece of public art, with special fencing or attachments that hide its true purpose.

Representatives of 21c were fine with that, as the Kentucky firm is carving out a niche by building “museum hotels” that combine art displays with high-end lodging.

The renovation of the SunTrust tower is a priority for local officials because of the building’s historic significance – it’s a 1937 structure credited to the same architects who designed New York City’s Empire State Building – and for the possibility of adding to downtown Durham’s stock of hotel rooms.

City and county officials last year pledged $7.7 million in business incentives to the renovation. They think it will end up costing 21c about $48.5 million. Preliminary work at the site is already under way.

The tower was one of three downtown projects on the Historic Preservation Commissioner’s agenda Tuesday.

Members also approved plans to add a SunTrust bank to the Rogers Alley complex, next to Dos Perros Restaurant, and for modifications of the façade of a building that links Main and Parrish streets next to Gurley’s Pharmacy.