I've heard from three independent sources now that Concord, the national hotel developer that controls the former Watts Hospital / McPherson Hospital / NC Eye and Ear Hospital site, is moving down a path towards demolition of the remaining original, 1926 portion of the Milburn and Heister designed hospital building.
Folks that have been here more than a year or two will remember the controversy surrounding the development of the site facing West Main St., on which the hospital building stands, and the surface parking lot across Watts St., which formerly served the hospital.
The developments, originally under single ownership, bifurcated with the sale of the hospital site to Concord Hotel Group. The neighborhood and various groups seemed to focus most of their ire and concern on the development of the surface parking lot site, a concern I never particularly agreed with / thought was misplaced. In my opinion, a residential development with decent-enough architecture on a former surface parking lot has to struggle to not be an improvement over a surface parking lot. But the seven-story height of a portion of that building inflamed the neighborhood enough to have them rally to deny that building a special-use permit to move forward.
The hotel site never raised as much public concern, although, to me, it was far more concerning, posing far more of a threat to the architecture of Durham, the neighborhood, and the experience in the public realm. There are few more prominent sites as one drives into downtown from Duke, 9th Street, and other points west. The initial plans for the site showed a shoehorning of a fat 'Suburban Classical' hotel onto the site, wrapping around the original McPherson building.
Concord demolished the 1968-9 addition and the 1940s western addition to the hospital building in 2008, but the site has sat idle since that time.
The historic structure has sat open to the elements for two years now - whether this is the classic old-building-in-my-way policy of letting a building deteriorate until you can claim that you have no choice but to demolish it, because it is so deteriorated and would cost too much to renovate, or simply a lack of cash in recessionary times, I don't know.
Regardless, it seems from multiple sources that the hotel concern has decided the time is right to make its move against the old hospital building. Because there are no protective overlays in Trinity Park or along this stretch of West Main St. (i.e. Neighborhood Protection or Local Historic) the developer can demolish the building without impediment. The downtown overlay implemented earlier this year has changed the zoning on this site (and, FYI, the parking lot site, TP Height Haters) and Concord is likely (pure speculation) to maximize the use of the form-based code to maximize its development potential (as measured in rooms.)
I suspect that the building is not long for this world. It's hard to imagine our elected officials taking proactive action to, say, make this building a local landmark - particularly given their antagonism towards the local landmark program. I'm not sure the city or county has taken a proactive historic preservation action since the 1980s, relying on citizenry to designate their own districts and buildings. And given Trinity Park, or at least a substantial portion thereof's, stubborn antagonism to a local historic district, it's still easy to demolish-at-will in TP.
I understand the developer's point of view in this; keeping the building is likely an expensive option as one tries to resurrect a pro forma put together during the go-go days of 2006-7. I'm sure that there is significant pressure from whoever's money is sunk in this land to get something done, and as cheaply as possible is the only way to make the numbers work. I think they are shooting themselves in the foot regarding the rates they could get for a 'boutique' hotel with historic elements, but I get it. They are next to Duke, the volume of visitors is significant and cares more about access to Duke than anything else. I hope the developers would place a high importance on the responsibility they took on when they bought this historic building, but that only goes so far (i.e. not below the return on equity expectations) with a national concern.
Really, though, it's Durham's responsibility to protect our heritage - and I've seen no evidence that there is an elected official who is willing to take concrete action to make Durham's architecture a more protected resource; rather, the political forays into the preservation realm of late have been efforts to gut the local landmark tax abatement - which is the primary offset / carrot for situations like these, where the cost of retaining the building may be higher than demolishing it.
I don't think I need to reiterate the importance of this building to Durham's architectural heritage - both its tie to the original Watts Hospital, which sat on this site, and as one of Durham's excellent collection of Milburn and Heister designed structures. It is a landmark, whether that is the opinion of the current owners or not. Its loss will be a major blow to Durham's architectural heritage and its meager remaining inventory of buildings that served important functions in early-20th century Durham.