Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

Leaping Tall Buildings in a Single Bound: Raleigh’s Superman Building

The “Adventures of Superman” television program was a favorite of mine when it was released in syndication in the early 1960s. Who could forget that stirring opening narration: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! …Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” Well, it left an indelible impression on me, anyway.

For the show’s first season or two, the landmark Art Deco E.M. Wilson Building (1930) in Los Angeles was used to represent the Daily Planet Building.

The E.M. Wilson Building in Los Angeles — aka The Daily Planet

Young as I was, the image of The Daily Planet on our black and white TV reminded me of the Durham Life Insurance Building in downtown Raleigh. As a kid, I nicknamed a number of downtown landmarks which I imagined a certain kinship with. Thus, the (now gone) Meredith/Mansion Park building on Blount St. became “The Castle,” the former BB&T Bank on the corner of Fayetteville and Davie Streets became “The Little Seagram Building,” and across the street the Art Deco Durham Life Building became the “Superman Building.”

Art Deco as an architectural style was popular in the late 1920s and 1930s for all types of public buildings. It is characterized by bold geometric ornament, vertical composition, setback facades and smooth finishes. The Durham Life Building neatly fits that stylistic model. Designed by Northrup & O’Brien in the late 1930s, construction began in 1940. The towering, steel frame, 15-story, limestone-clad structure is topped by Art Deco-stylized parapets crowning the setbacks of the upper floors. From street level one enters through a soaring 3-story entryway framed with polished granite and into a sumptuous Art Deco lobby, ornamented with polished pink marble, patterned terrazzo flooring, and glistening brass fixtures and mirrors. From my perspective back then, it looked like the Grand Hall of the Wizard of Oz.

When finished in 1942 (a wing was added on the Salisbury St. side in 1947), not only did the Durham Life Building represent a significant break from the typical “classicist” Raleigh office buildings of the 1920s, but featured a brand new technology—central air conditioning. At the time it was built, it was Raleigh’s tallest building, dominating the skyline until 1965 when the International style BB&T Bank was erected across Fayetteville St.

Very few Art Deco style buildings were ever built in Raleigh.* Among the noteworthy survivors, other than the Durham Life Insurance Building, are the E.B. Bain water plant (1940) and the Caswell state office building (1939). But, for me, Raleigh’s majestic Superman Building is by far the superlative.

In this early view of the Durham Life Building the steel framework of the 1947 rear addition can be seen going up. To the right is Wake County’s 1915 beaux arts Court House. Below is the same view today.(Thanks to a reader for supplying me with this archival photo.)

*Only a handful of Art Deco-influenced buildings remain in downtown Raleigh. These include the former Firestone and Rubber Co. garage (1928) at 201 W. Martin and the former CP&L truck maintenance garage at 116 N. West. The Capital Club Building (1930) at the corner of Salisbury and Davie, while not technically Art Deco, does exhibit some elements of that style, such as its verticality and stylized ornamentation. The Raleigh Building on Fayetteville St. was remodeled in 1935 with an Art Deco influence in its lower three floors. As far as I know, that’s about it! Anybody out there know of additional Art Deco buildinings downtown?


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