In the 1970s and and 1980s, a classic 1968 illustration of mid-century architecture in downtown Durham became affectionately known by locals as the “Jetsons” building, after the long-running, futuristic television cartoon-show.
Now three friends of mine here in Durham, where I live, are preparing to adapt that building which was originally the headquarters of the Home Savings & Loan and most recently Mutual Savings and Loan into a 54-room, full-service boutique hotel and adjoining restaurant.
The developers are following the well-proven formula devised in the mid-1980s by the late Bill Kimpton. Kimpton, whom I came to know, always included a separate-entrance soon-to-be acclaimed restaurant in his designs.
Ironically, according to the encyclopedic OpenDurham, the building is on the site of one of Durham’s first hotels, the circa-1907 Corcoran which later served as a hospital and a business school before being replaced by a theater and then eventually this building.
Predating McKinney’s move from Raleigh to downtown Durham by nearly 20 years, in 1985, a good friend, Don Pausback and his partner Bill West relocated their advertising practice from San Antonio, Texas to Durham and settled for a time in the “Jetsons” building while space was prepared for the firm in the newly-repurposed Brighteaf Square, the template for Durham’s now legendary adaptive-reuse of historic buildings.
By the time I was recruited to Durham in 1989 to jump-start the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), West, Pausback and Vaughn was headquartered once again on Chapel Hill Street, but this time in a converted remnant of the old Corcoran, which is sandwiched between the “Jetsons” building and the old post office and had served as the original headquarters of Home Savings & Loan before the building was erected that will soon be the boutique hotel.
Eventually Don went out on his own with Pausback Advertising and helped pioneer adaptive reuse of Main Street lofts in the mid-1990s. West and Vaughn is now part of Raleigh-based French, West and Vaughn. But The Republik, the agency headed by Robert Shaw West, Bill’s nephew, is located just around the corner from the proposed boutique giving new purpose to another repurposed building from the 1940s.
The Gentian Group’s boutique hotel/restaurant project is perfect for Durham and downtown. Chains have tried to copy Bill Kimpton, a Midwesterner and former IBM typewriter salesman turned very successful investment banker and then hotel innovator, but their attempts never quite work.
Kimpton first pioneered the boutique hotel/restaurant concept in San Francisco. He understood what my friends at Gentian do, that the concept clicks best when old buildings are converted to boutique hotels in neighborhoods with what Locopops founder and DCVB board member, Summer Bicknell calls “good bones.”
A central feature is always a good restaurant run by a good, soon-to-be great chef, always with a separate entrance and identity from the hotel.
Hotels harvest interest that is generated or spearheaded for Durham overall by DCVB community-destination marketing. But there is a sizable niche of travelers who will select the downtown City Center district specifically because of this property once it is developed.
It will also fill a niche for delegates drawn to meetings in the Durham Convention Center but who prefer the intimacy of a boutique as well as those who need just-off-site venues for quiet gatherings away from the large events in the Center.
The developers already have an operator and they plan to shape promotions that will persuade more of the attendees to Durham’s many festivals and theaters to extend day trips into overnights and business trips into weekends etc.
Durham will soon have nearly 9,000 guest rooms in more than 70 different properties, double the number that existed when community-destination marketing got underway and net those that closed along the way due to obsolescence.
Downtown will soon have 7 or 8 of these 70 properties and they will each have a unique character and appeal. And, perhaps more significantly, visitors will have helped five or six of these properties breathe new life into historic structures!