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

Café Helios: From Plebian to Posh

The workers inside the North Carolina Association for Plumbing Heating and Cooling Control building at 413 Glenwood Ave. most likely prepared coffee that was barely strong enough to defend itself.  Workers quaffed cup after cup of mediocre coffee and were just fine with it.  Years later, that very same building would house Café Helios, a coffee house on Glenwood South.

Until the late 1990’s it was hard to imagine anything aside from industrial businesses thriving on south Glenwood Avenue.  Before that, the street was mostly residential.  Glenwood was a homely strip of road, at best. It was littered with industrial buildings that brought to mind scenes from a David Lynch film.

All of that started to change when Pine State Creamery closed in 1996 and a few restaurants popped up in the older buildings.  The Rockford was one of the first, followed shortly by the Hibernian and Hard Times Cafe.  In 2001, Gray Medlin bought the old Plumbing and Heating building with the intention of using the second floor as offices for his investment banking firm.  After exploring several possible uses for the ground floor, he decided to open a small coffee shop. Gray wanted Helios to serve as a place where people could enjoy local coffee, art, and music.  Since its opening in June of 2002, Helios has continued to serve as a social hub for Raleigh’s coffee drinkers and night owls.

Glenwood South certainly has been softened and transformed by its new tenants.  The place that was once home to rough concrete and steel is now inhabited by sleek aluminum and decorative lighting schemes.  I’ve always been fascinated by the unique feel exhibited by utilitarian spaces that are converted into aesthetically pleasing monuments of the past.  Helios is a wonderful example of this. The terrazzo floors were undoubtedly intended to be strong and maintenance free, but when placed in a setting where functionality isn’t the foremost concern, they obtain a beauty that is often emulated but rarely convincing.  The naked ceilings exposing duct work and structural details give glimpses of the buildings prior life.  If you look closely on the left side of the building, you’ll notice a bricked up doorway that once led to a set of interior stairs, which incidentally now reside in Gray’s garden at his residence.  I find these architectural scars very appealing as they seem to display the presence of a soul.  However unassuming it may be, the building still has a soul, and that is more than many urban structures in Raleigh can claim.

The exterior of the building was extensively redesigned and boasts a massive cantilever overhang on the front of the building.  The patios in the front and rear of the building, the carefully placed cinder block walls, and the glass panels on the facade of the building present a rectangular grid motif.
Even considering the many changes the structure has undergone, preservation was very important to Gray.  That is perhaps the reason the building retains the unique feel of a structure that has been reclaimed.  The remodeling of the building, designed by Raleigh’s Clearscapes, has won several prestigious architectural awards including an Honor award from the American Institute of Architects.

Helios proudly serves Counter Culture coffee, a roastery out of Durham, and serves breakfast and lunch fare throughout the day.  Six beer taps boast an insightful selection of domestic beers including several local selections complimented by a healthy selection of coffee-related spirits and a competent wine list.

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