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The Chinese Laundry [updated]

It appears Raleigh soon will be losing yet another of its historic commercial buildings. I am speaking of the former Bing Lee Chinese Hand Laundry, located at the corner of West and Jones Streets, across from the 42nd Street Oyster Bar. The 2-story brick structure has stood on that corner at least since the early 1930s.

The structure is a typical small-scale industrial building of its era. Oversized, industrial glazed windows originally allowed natural light to stream into the interior space. At some point, though, these were bricked up, and replaced with the present-day scaled-down versions. Its solid red brick walls have been painted over many times through the years. A rampart of red terra cotta tile delineates the second floor roofline, in what looks to be a nod to modest Mission style ornamentation.

Though not nearly as architecturally significant as the doomed Garland Jones building on Salisbury St., nor as historically significant as the 1870s storefronts on Wilmington St., the 2-story brick Chinese laundry yet retains its modest utilitarian charm, characteristic of so many of Raleigh’s early 20th century commercial structures. Now it, along with the little brick neighborhood grocery on the next corner, is slated to be demolished and replaced by another ubiquitous mega hotel, the Power House Plaza.

Various businesses have occupied the old building over the years, but the one I remember most vividly is the Chinese Hand Laundry. In the 1960s, my Dad’s office was downtown, and sometimes on the occasions when he gave me a ride home from school, it was not unusual for him to stop in at the original 42nd Street Oyster Bar for a PBR and a chat with his buddies. Through the cigarette smoke-stained window of the bar, I could see the big sign across the street that read “Lee’s Chinese Hand Laundry.” And through that smoky haze the red terra cotta tile roof evoked an image of an ancient Chinese pagoda. I would think to myself, not only did our little city have the Canton Café Chinese restaurant a couple blocks up the street, but a Chinese laundry as well–how exotic it all seemed!

I’m not sure when the Chinese laundry closed—probably 30 or more years ago, but nowadays when I drive by there I never fail to reminisce on the sad and forlorn building on the corner—the place I once imagined so long ago as Raleigh’s  “Little Chinatown”.


[UPDATE]

Although the Chinese laundry building will soon pass into memory, it will yet live on, sort of. Handling the demo is Global Earthworks, http://globalearthworks.com/ a company which specializes in deconstruction and reclaimation in compliance with L.E.E.D. Certification. They will be “recycling” the building, and are going to crush the masonry onsite into aggregate for use in permeable pavement. A foreman told me some of the aggregate will be used to “pave” a parking lot near the railroad tracks, just a few hundred feet to the north of the Chinese laundry building.


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