From Treasure to Trash: The Demolition of the Wake County Courthouse
When I was a teenager back in the mid-1960s, Raleigh was fast losing all too many of its architecturally significant buildings to the wrecker’s ball. These included most of the grand Victorian homes on Blount Street, the magnificently turreted Chateauesque style Mansion Park Hotel, (which I referred to then as The Castle), the Jacobean style Hugh Morson High School, Sullivanesque Wachovia Bank building, Italian Renaissance Olivia Raney Library and Wake County’s Beaux Arts courthouse. Downtown Raleigh back then was a veritable treasure trove of late 19th and early 20th century American architecture.
Luckily, I was able to capture these remarkable structures in black and white snapshots taken with my trusty Kodak Instamatic Camera. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had inadvertently documented these now long-gone buildings, which are today but a faded memory.
Raleigh’s Wake County Courthouse was an imposing structure. Sheathed in decorative cast white terra cotta, the massive building evoked an image of a giant wedding cake. Its design, by the renowned Atlanta architect, Philip Thornton Marye, was a modest take on the Beaux Arts Classicist style, popular for government and public buildings at the time.
Marye had already completed Raleigh’s City Hall and Auditorium (1911), which stood on the site of the present-day “Little Seagram Building” on Fayetteville Street, and Raleigh’s first “real” skyscraper, the Commercial National Bank (1912), a masterpiece in the Gothic Revival style. (That ten-story building proudly stood at the corner of Martin and Wilmington Streets, until First Citizens Bank, in an unfortunate fit of myopia, imploded this irreplaceable treasure in 1991.)
In 1913 the state of North Carolina commissioned Marye to design its Administration Building (now the Ruffin Building) on Capitol Square. And Wake County followed suit with its stylish new county courthouse in 1915.
By the mid-1960s, the county had decided to replace its classic “temple of justice” courthouse with a non-descript cast aggregate-stone office tower. Demolition of the doomed structure began in the spring of 1966. As with all the demolition projects going on in Raleigh back then, I was wildly fascinated! On my weekend forays downtown I studiously photographed the grand building’s demise over the course of the next several months. By midsummer 1967 it was gone.
Situated on the courthouse lawn, along with a couple of shade trees, were a modest granite monument to WWI veterans and a ten-foot bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty, which was elevated upon a stone pedestal. I remember reading the plaque on the statue’s base, but for the life of me, I can’t remember one word now. I don’t know what became of these two downtown landmarks, but I imagine they probably were unceremoniously scooped up by the bulldozers, dumped in with the rest of the courthouse rubble, and carted off to the county landfill. What a lamentable loss it all was — from treasure to trash.