Past Lives: Rehabbing an Abandoned, 1M-Square-Foot Tobacco Plant


Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 1.29.30 PM.pngPhoto by American Tobacco/Flickr

In the 20th century, Durham, North Carolina, a city whose economy is now steered largely by Duke University and an IBM software lab, was once home to the world’;s largest tobacco company, a conglomerate responsible at the time for producing roughly 90 percent of the nation’;s cigarettes.

By 2000, tobacco manufacturing had ceased in Durham, leaving not only an economic void, but also a physical one. That’;s when developers, as they are wont to do, got creative. The boom and bust of the post-Civil War tobacco industry left Durham a city of warehouses and industrial complexes, many of which have now been co-opted by tech companies and start-ups ultimately creating a community of innovators—and a hotspot of fascinating examples of adaptive reuse.

e064.jpgPhoto courtesy of The North Carolina Collection of the Durham County Library

At the center of that tobacco boom was the W.T. Blackwell Building, Durham’;s first large, brick tobacco factory, built in 1874. The historic Blackwell building, now known as “Old Bull,” is currently being converted into 68 studio, one-bedroom and 2-bedroom apartments. It’;s the main residential component of American Tobacco Campus, a huge, multi-use redevelopment project that led the way for downtown Durham’;s revival.

N.76.6.83 Bull Durham trademark.jpgWhen Old Bull first went up, however, it stood alone. In Restoration-era North Carolina, the tobacco industry was just taking hold, and Durham wasn’;t much more than a railroad station. Still, its location made it a strategic place for companies to set up shop. J.R. Green and William Blackwell ran one of the most popular early brands, Bull Durham tobacco, which peddled products mostly to Civil War soldiers and veterans (the story goes that they borrowed the iconic bull mascot from a brand of mustard). When Green died, Blackwell took over and put up the factory building, which would have eclipsed any other structure in town at the time.

Blackwell, however, met his match in Washington Duke, who moved to town the same year Old Bull went up. The Duke family embraced the machine-rolled cigarette, and as such became industry leaders in the area. Sweeping conglomeration followed, leading to the massive American Tobacco company (later busted up into 4 chunks by antitrust laws). The campus ballooned to more than 1,000,0000-square-foot fortress-like cluster of buildings, churning out Lucky Strikes and Pall Malls well into the 20th century.

It also is something of an architectural icon in the area. The Italianate building is made up of an original L-shaped section and 2 extensions that form a courtyard. The top 2 floors of the original portion were removed around 1930.

b008.jpgPhoto courtesy of The North Carolina Collection of the Durham County Library

By 1987, the campus was a vacant eyesore. The industry’;s steady decline was punctuated by the departure of American Tobacco, leaving the campus empty for nearly 20 years, aside from the occasional SWAT team drill or teen vandal.

In the early 2000s, Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting decided to take it on as a development project, a risky move at the time. The only way it got off the ground was with a major tax credit, city backing (Durham will have invested $ 30M in the project by 2017), and the promise 4 large tenants moving into the buildings. At the time they were time pigeon-infested, with trees growing out of the roofs. The renovation wasn’;t always smooth, but since 2004 the campus has grown to become an important part of the city.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 1.29.48 PM.pngPhoto by American Tobacco/Flickr

The renovation of Old Bull for housing is ongoing, as 28 new units are currently being added and common areas being revamped. Interiors boast wood floors, quartz countertops, exposed beams and columns. The building’;s got a courtyard, herb gardens, a fireplace, and bocce court with oyster-shell surface. Rents start around $ 1,200 a month.

But probably the most valuable aspect of living in Old Bull is its surroundings. The greater American Tobacco Campus has a variety of tenants, including a hub of nonprofits called The Mission Post, a startup community called American Underground, and Durham industry stars like Burt’;s Bees. The campus has an artificial water feature running through it, and an outdoor pavilion that hosts live music. The former power plant has been converted into an art gallery and theater, and “The Cage,” once used for coal storage, is now a basketball court. A few more photos, below:

Screen%20Shot%202015-01-16%20at%201.28.20%20PM.pngPhoto by American Tobacco/Flickr

durhamnow.jpgPhotos via American Tobacco

durhamafter.jpgPhotos by American Tobacco/Flickr

· All Past Lives coverage [Curbed National]


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