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Raleigh’s Montague Building: An Historical Vacancy

Downtown Raleigh’s Montague Building offers a commanding presence over E. Hargett St. at Moore Square. Faced in buff-yellow pressed brick, the palazzo-like building is the most prominent in the 100 block, and in recent years has become a symbol of the renaissance of Hargett St. This substantial three-story masonry structure was built in 1912 by Raleigh attorney B.F. Montague.

Soon after its construction Montague rented the building to the US government as temporary space for Raleigh’s post office while the Fayetteville St. building was being enlarged and renovated. After the post office moved out three years later, only a few storefronts were subsequently rented out. Although Montague’s own law firm, Montague and Bonner, continued to occupy offices on the 2nd floor, the building remained largely vacant thereafter.

Around 1915 or so E. Hargett St. was beginning its transformation into Raleigh’s downtown African-American business district. The urban legend I’ve always heard is that Montague refused to rent to black professionals and that white professionals did not want to rent offices on a ‘black’ street — thus the building remained virtually empty for the next two and half decades, while Hargett St. itself burgeoned and flourished.

Although a few of the street level storefronts were at times occupied by various wholesale operators, maybe a ‘mom ‘n pop’ type business or two, and a meat market and later a grocery occupied the corner space, the second and third office floors remained vacant. In the late 1930s and early 1940s they were occupied by US government WPA programs. But the Montague Building never really realized its full potential as an office building.

As Raleigh’s “Black Main Street” era faded into history in the early 1960s, the forlorn Montague Building seemed destined for a similar fate.

The Delaney Building (1926) as seen from the 3rd floor of the Montague Building.

Looking up Blount St. from Montague toward the Marbles Kid’s Museum.

Prior to the first restoration effort in the mid-1980s, the Montague Building had sat vacant and abandoned for more than a decade. One or two small shops sometimes occupied the storefronts, but as I remember the building in the 1970s it was always vacant and boarded up. The derelict at that time seemed to me, locked in time. By the late 70s it had been condemned by the city and faced demolition. According to a 1986 Raleigh Times article, the Montague Building, then characterized as a ‘pigeon roost’ and ‘freeloader hotel,’ was gutted and underwent a $2 million rehabilitation.

The Times article reported an amusing incident that occurred during Montague’s rehab. A former seamstress, once employed in the building, approached the construction foreman and asked to enter the work site. When asked why, she replied “I left my sewing machine in there!” (“Renovation giving historic building new lease on life.” Raleigh Times, April 22, 1986)

Within a year or so, plans were underway to open a jazz club on the first floor, but as far as I can recall nothing ever came of that project. Although one or two street level storefronts were rented out at this time, the building lacked a major tenant until 1996 when Caffe Luna opened in the corner space. Among just a handful of downtown restaurants open at the time during the evening hours, Caffe Luna thrived. In a few short years the popular eatery occupied the entire first floor. During this time, however, the 2nd and 3rd floors of the Montague remained vacant.

In this century, tenancy in the Montague Building has fared much better than in previous years.  A public relations firm moved into a second floor space in 2005. Shortly thereafter, an engineering firm rented the still vacant 3rd floor, made some renovations, but apparently never fully occupied the space. The 3rd floor then remained vacant for the next two years. Enter attorney Kieran Shanahan. In 2007 he purchased the Montague Building and rehabbed the empty 3rd floor for his law firm. (Anybody else see some irony here?) Since then, several businesses have joined the PR firm on the 2nd floor, and the once-vacant basement floor is now home to a women’s center. The restaurant on the street level floor continues to thrive.

The history of the Montague Building has been a curious one, but it has weathered the hard times and is now a landmark of successful rehabilitation on a revitalized Hargett St.

Author’s note: Currently making their offices in the Montague Building are the Shanahan Law Group (3rd floor); blast! PR, Giant Head (three businesses operate out of this space), TriangleBlvd.TV (2nd floor); Caffe Luna (1st floor); and The Women’s Center (basement floor). Special thanks to Hollis Guerra for her valuable assistance with this article.

Historical footnote: Below is the former B.F. Montague home (built ca 1882) at 313 New Bern Ave. I took this Kodak Instamatic photo during its demolition in 1966.

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