Greensboro should save its modern architecture

By Edward Cone
News & Record

Burlington Industries building, Greensboro

The landmark Burlington Industries building on Friendly Avenue will soon be a landmark no more. "The building is definitely coming down," says Coolidge Porterfield, president of Starmount Co., which owns the steel-and-glass modern box.

As a symbol, though, the building is going strong.

It is a reminder of what Greensboro was a generation ago: a center of industry, a forward-looking city with cool architecture and big plans. And its destruction will mirror the implosion of the textile business that collapsed so quickly after underwriting many of Greensboro's dreams for almost a century.

The loss of the building will also symbolize Greensboro's inability to preserve its past. Love it or loathe it -- and I've been a fan since watching it go up as a kid -- the Odell and Associates design is a significant structure, one of the finest examples of corporate modern architecture in the Southeast.

It may well be that the Burlington building could not be saved. One logical use for its 400,000 square feet would be as a corporate headquarters, but those are an endangered species in Greensboro. The other possibility would be a call center, but Porterfield says Citigroup didn't like the layout when it was looking for a new Guilford County home for its card services operation. The economics of preservation seem daunting: operating costs are high, the cooling system needs to be replaced, and removing asbestos would cost a sizable fraction of the amount needed to just knock the whole thing down.

Even the state and federal tax breaks that accrue to buildings designated as historically significant might not have been enough to offset those liabilities, not even as part of a plan developed before the eleventh hour with the cooperation of owners, preservationists and the city...but we'll never know. There was no such concerted effort. Starmount seems to have made an honest attempt to save the building vacated by its bankrupt tenant, even consulting an architect about incorporating it into a redevelopment plan, but there was no public campaign to prolong its life.

In fact, there is no master plan in place for the preservation of Greensboro's architectural legacy. The relationship between preservationists and developers (although not Starmount in particular) is strained, says Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro. If we are going to keep any of the noteworthy buildings we still have, that needs to change.

"We would like to be trusted, pulled in early to the planning process for buildings that we recognize as important, to be used as a resource for government and private interests," says Briggs. "We can offer advice, and they can take it or not. But we need to be proactive, and we need to heal the rift with the business community."

Greensboro has managed to preserve some of its past glory, including Blandwood Mansion, Dudley High School, and the old Southern Railway Depot. Considerable attention is being paid to the future of Memorial Stadium. And other structures identified by Briggs as candidates for preservation, such as the Art Deco facade of the bottling plant by the Coliseum, seem likely to fit the public taste in period architecture.

But Greensboro's less-beloved modern architecture, including the long-vacant Wachovia tower on Elm Street and the Eduardo Catalano-designed Guilford County courthouse at the governmental plaza, is worth saving, too. "There is not much of an appreciation in Greensboro of the importance of modern architecture, so all of it is threatened with demolition without guilt," says Briggs. "But modern is part of the language of architecture. Tastes change -- some people think it is cool, something we have over other cities, and more will feel that way in the future. We can't just trash everything that has gone out of style."

One building Briggs has his eye on is the old public library at Greene and Friendly, designed by Greensboro's own Edward Loewenstein (full disclosure: he was a cousin of mine by marriage), which is under consideration as the home of Elon University's new law school. Briggs is eager to see the building used but hopes any user will preserve the original exterior and the big lobby with its sweeping staircase and trademark light fixture.

If preservationists like Briggs can get ahead of the curve and work with the city and property owners before the fate of historic buildings is sealed, Greensboro will be a better, richer place to live. If not, an era of architecture and our own history will follow the Burlington Industries building into oblivion.

Says Briggs, "We'll look back at that building some day and remember those external beams that represented the weaving of textiles, and we'll say, 'Now all we have is another Old Navy.'"

Edward Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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