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Art Deco Architecture: Raleigh’s Style in Short Supply

Durham Life Building

Architecturally speaking, Raleigh is known for its modernist buildings, specifically of the mid-century era. What we have far less of is Art Deco, which was popular in the 1920s to 1940s. This style combined a minimalist and sleek design with use of icons and patterns, sometimes from other cultures.

The Durham Life Insurance Building is easily Raleigh’s most prominent example. It was built in the early 1940s, and expanded a few years later. It was the first Raleigh skyscraper to feature air conditioning.

The Creamery

The Creamery on Glenwood Avenue is often overlooked as an architectural gem. It’s not only an Art Deco beauty, but has significant historical value as well, once being home to Pine State Creamery. Pine State was a dairy supplier for much of the area from the early part of the 20th century until the late 1990s.

Built in 1928 (and expanded in later decades), it was renovated by Clearscapes for commercial use in 1998. The building is now adorned with a churn and milk bottle sculpture, resting atop the tower. Although the churn and milk bottle sculpture didn’t originally exist on the building, it was in the original plans. The sculpture wasn’t included in the late 20s due to budget concerns. The tower sculpture from the 1998 renovation looks great, and was created by my favorite light sculptor, Matt McConnell while working for Clearscapes.

Some could argue this building is more Art Moderne than Art Deco, but I think the tower decidedly places it in the latter category.

Former CP&L Garage

The 1925 CP&L truck garage is a unique structure in that it is distinct Art Deco, yet it makes expansive use of glass. This was out of necessity, in order to make the most of natural light. It is also Raleigh’s first curtain wall structure.

Kress painted logo

SH Kress & Co.

Barely visible in the photo above is the word KRESS, which was the name of a chain of five and dime retail stores across the country. Many of the Kress buildings were extravagant and full of Art Deco flair, such as the one in Asheville.

View of former Kress store from Salisbury Street

According to Wake County tax records, the building was built for SH Kress company in 1953. Although Kress stores were known for flair and highly visible decorative elements, it appears Raleigh got a rather vanilla version of the store. The unique window structure and horizontal lines are the subtle features distinguishing this in the style.

View of former SH Kress store from Fayetteville Street

1953 was an inopportune time to locate a retail establishment in Downtown Raleigh, or most places in America. Cameron Village had been built a few years before, and downtown was rapidly becoming an unfashionable place to be. This Kress location didn’t last long– it became the Olivia Raney Library in 1961.

The Capital Club

The 1930 Capital Club Building straddles the line between the Art Deco and Classicist styles. It was built in 1930 for the Capital Club, a prominent men’s social organization.

The Capital Club is kind of like an Art Deco sandwich. The base and top levels are in the style, but the midsection is of classical form.

The lower floor is home to the excellent restaurant Capital Club 16. The upper floor remains a ballroom in the Art Deco style.

Firestone Garage

The 1928 Firestone Garage on West Martin near Berkeley Cafe is another modest example of Art Deco.

It is now home to White Horse Private Transportation.

The Rialto

The Rialto was built in 1942 and is the last of a dying breed: the (near) downtown theater. The interior has  the lighting and stage with a distinctly vintage feel, retaining much of its original Art Deco charm.

E. B. Bain Water Treatment Plant, photo courtesy of Ian F.G. Dunn

Another Building With Swagger: E. B. Bain Water Treatment Plant

Funded in part by public works money and driven by a local enthusiasm for growth, in the 1930s Raleigh built the water treatment plant. It contains a surprising amount of sophistication and detail. The building has been opened up a tiny handful of times for art installations by its current owner, Empire Properties.

Can There Be New Art Deco?

I’m not sure if there is an Art Deco revivalism, or if anything created recently can be called that. But if new construction could be considered in that style, the new Wake County Justice Building comes awfully close:

Do you think the new Wake County building is in the Art Deco style? Are there any other examples in Raleigh of this unique style of building?

If you’re looking to go on an architectural vacation, a visit to Asheville is well worth the trip. It has one of the best preserved and most beautiful collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States.

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