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Another One Bites the Dust: 401 Oberlin to Fall

A few days ago, three houses were torn down on Clark Avenue, which are adjacent to 401 Oberlin Road. It won’t be long before this elegant mid-century gem is torn down as well in advance of a new mixed-use project.

Lobby for 401 Oberlin

Subtle Beauty

401 Oberlin was built in the same year (1957) as the iconic Chevy Bel-Air. Like that classic American car, this building makes use of chrome and reflective metal trim, interesting geometric shapes, well-proportioned elegant windows, as well as functional beauty.

It was designed by Leif Valand, who was commissioned to design most of Cameron Village’s buildings early on.

One of the best parts of this building is how it incorporates parking, unlike many of its mid-century modern peers. The building footprint overlooks a busy intersection from a high vantage point, and cars are relegated to the rear of the building. This creates an attractive visual landscape as well as provide office workers with a better exterior view.

No Future For Single Use

It’s easy to dismiss a 60 year old office building as outmoded and outdated in light of mixed-use development projects—such as the one replacing it. However, it’s important to remember that this office building existed in the context of what was once the largest mixed-use project in the South: Cameron Village.

Erasing Cameron Village Modernism

401 Oberlin was built on the outskirts of Cameron Village, on a block with similar-era and similarly designed buildings. Built of brick, with expansive glass, modest overhangs, and long flowing lines of these buildings created a gestalt that existed nowhere else in Raleigh.

410 and 400 Oberlin were razed last year, and with the destruction of 401, only the Post Office and a few smaller buildings will remain of this once intact block of beautiful modernist buildings.

Raleigh’s Defining Style

Cities are usually remembered by their appearance, and no other city in the South has the quantity of modern buildings and houses that Raleigh does. We continue to erase these culturally-defining structures with little debate or concern for the long term impact of removing our architectural heritage, much of which was defined by NC State University.

Negotiations Based on Height and Density, Not Appearance

The new project, an apartment building, has been touted by the developers as an example of unprecedented communication between the landowner and residents neighboring the property.

Unfortunately, the negotiations that took place over this project were related mostly to height and density. The height was scaled down to 5 stories and number of units reduced from 280 to 250. Additionally, a proposed tower to serve as a visual anchor was removed.

The Visual Landscape

If a noteworthy piece of Raleigh architecture is going to be erased, we should make the most of it and demand a visually interesting and functional building. Negotiating to make it shorter or have fewer apartments misses the point entirely.

We gauge our lives on the built landscape around us. It forms the fabric of our daily commutes and other travels. We should ask if what we are getting is an improvement over what we are losing. It’s hard to guess with this project, as the most recent site plans only show the overhead site footprint. You can get an idea of what it will probably look like by examining the architecture firm’s other projects.

All of the windows on the south side have tinted mirror glass. The dark screens have fallen off in some places, revealing the original appearance.

For More Information on Modernism At Risk

The looming demolition of 401 Oberlin coincides with a traveling exhibit at the AIA-NC Building June 1st through 8th, Modernism at Risk.

A project of the World Monuments Fund, Modernism at Risk consists of 27 large-scale photographs by noted photographer Andrew Moore representing five case studies exploring the role designers play in preserving Modern landmarks. Central to the exhibit is engaging a larger public to care about modern buildings and to demonstrate that these buildings can continue to be economically and functionally viable.

Exclusively for this exhibit, North Carolina State University has loaned six architectural models rarely if ever seen by the public.

For more information on this exhibit, please visit Triangle Modernist Houses.

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Further Information about 401 Oberlin Project

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