This article was originally posted almost exactly one year ago, on February 15, 2008. Since then, there has been little fight to save the building and in the last few weeks before its demolition, a handful of sources are starting to identify with the historical aspects of the building. In only 2 more years it would be eligible for nomination to Historic Registers but sadly it will make way for a massive Justice Center that could have been built around it. Clearscapes Architect Jon Zellweger, who wrote the original article, has been quoted in the News and Observer recently regarding the building and will be on WUNC’s The State of Things on Friday. It is with all the influx of new information that we present to you the original article in its full glory.
In Downtown Raleigh at the corner of Salisbury and Martin Streets resides the remarkable structure formerly known as the First Federal Bank Building. Renamed the Garland Jones Office Building, it houses Wake County’s Register of Deeds. The American Institute of Architects has identified it as one of the 88 most important 20th Century structures in Raleigh. The building has also been identified as a contributing structure in a study to designate the Fayetteville Street District as a Federal Historic District. Most remarkable is the fact that it is the last remaining example of High Modern Architecture in the downtown core. A myriad of other structures still populate the area—so much so that Raleigh resident George Smart has found no end in cataloging just the residential structures worthy of note. But after Wake County demolished its Social Services Building in 1998 it left the First Federal Building as the only well-dressed representative of that time.
The history of the making of the building remains elusive. While the drawings are presently archived with the State of North Carolina, little knowledge exists about its Architect, Howard Musick. What we do know is that the firm he worked for, the Bank Building Corporation in St. Louis, offered services to meet the needs of the client in whatever particular style the bank required. Musick would have likely been conversant in many styles and, given the rarity of the BBC’s client base requesting a Modern building, this may be his only extant structure built in this style.
Its rarity not forsaken, the First Federal Building has garnered great appeal as evidenced in various public outlets. Is there some architectural connoisseurship at play here? Some abstract, elitist appreciation of a building from a time we can no longer relate to? Or perhaps it is as simple as for the way it has become a part of our downtown: an iconic landmark and a good neighbor. Its modest scale relates more to historic Raleigh structures like the Briggs Hardware Building or the adjacent Lawyer’s Building. Its windows also recall historic proportions without superficially copying them. A lively dance of colored panels is more painterly and mural-like than a stolid building wall. It should be noted that the new Convention Center will have a high tech, kinetic version of these panels when it opens later this year. Really just a glorified ventilation louver, it calls upon our desire to create something energetic and unique to make our places special. As a counterpoint to the blue panels, white marble adorns the Salisbury street façade which originally provided a lavish backdrop for the First Federal’s dramatic, razor-like sign. Softened by the stone’s veining, the panels are at the same time sensual and commanding. They defy one’s intuition that heavy stone must be supported by terra firma. It floats, as if weightless, above a narrow band of windows, freeing the building from the ground, opening it up to light and air.
The building’s entry is set directly on the street: intimate and approachable. It is protected by the building’s low, broad canopy which wraps the corner and shelters all passersby. Its effect is to create an outdoor room along Salisbury Street. The canopy is so low one can easily jump and hang off of it. It is so deep that it provides respite from the sun or rain. In good weather, citizens are found sitting and conversing adding humanity to an otherwise vacant stretch of sidewalk. In rain, the canopy is a gracious umbrella, offering shelter from the storm regardless of one’s intentions to do business within. The room becomes equal parts lobby, break room and a box seat for an unfolding sidewalk drama. The internal drama of couples getting marriage licenses or parcels being registered is revealed through the broad expanse of glass, letting natural light pour in with the view. Conversely the buildings occupants look out to connect with life on the street. Everyone is in on the act and nobody is left out.
Its most iconic feature is a whimsical civic gift, common to bank buildings. This digital version proclaims the local time and temperature. In an age where Weather.com’s local average temperature at RDU Airport is “good enough”, it’s a reminder that being here and now—at the corner of Salisbury and Martin Streets—will always be more real than virtual.
Within a year of its construction, JFK would ask citizens to consider what they could contribute to the country rather than the reverse. Likewise, the First Federal Building asks one to seek meaning within its simple details rather than treating us like children waiting to be tucked in with a fairytale bedtime story. A standard complaint of Modern Architecture is that it is cold and unfeeling. Yet, in its unwillingness to adorn itself with recognizable patterns from the past, it remains forever open to possibility—never exclusively Greek or Roman, Gothic or Baroque—and always waiting to be interpreted. Given the ever increasing diversity of our citizenry, the First Federal Building offers a universal voice that is perhaps more relevant to this time than ever before.
The implication here is that we all possess a deeper understanding of Architecture’s power beyond the superficialities of appearance. This is what ultimately makes this building remarkable and gives it substance. Put another way, beyond how a building may appear, Architecture serves man’s desires to create meaningful places that enrich our lives. In this case, enrichment comes with a little bit of work, but ultimately it is much more rewarding.
All photos courtesy of New Raleigh, except night photos by Goodnight, Raleigh!
Construction Drawing courtesy of the NC State Archives