For 40 years, the former plumbing company building on East Washington Street attracted no attention. It was another industrial building among many in the drab southeast corner of downtown.
Now, preservationists have embraced the old Crane Supply Co. building. They are demanding that the city abandon plans to demolish the building because of the planned $14 million city transportation center next door. The transportation center, where Amtrak trains and long-distance and city buses would arrive and depart, would be created in the old Southern Railway Passenger Station.Preservationists say the Crane building should become part of the transportation center, not a parking lot for the center, as the city proposes. They see the building as a combination welcome station-civic meeting place and new home for the farmer's market.
If the effort to save the building succeeds, it could further delay the already behind-schedule start of the transportation center. The city spent years jumping through various regulatory hoops to gain federal and state money for the project. It hopes to take bids in January for the center, with construction to start in March.
Preservationists support the transportation center but say it's not necessary to sacrifice yet another downtown building to make way for it.
``They are talking about a parking lot,' says Scott McKenzie, an antiques dealer and preservationist, referring to the city's plan to use the site as a parking lot for the transportation center. ``That would be a lot of asphalt that would have no aesthetic appeal to downtown.'
McKenzie, president of the Greater Glenwood Neighborhood Association, spoke repeatedly about the Crane building at a workshop, held Wednesday by the area chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The session brought architects and lay people together to seek ways to make downtown more inviting to pedestrians.
AIA Chapter President John Linn said Friday that because McKenzie and others spoke so forcefully, his board likely will consider taking a stand on the Crane building when it meets early next month.
``We would be negligent not to discuss it,' he says, adding that incorporating the building into the center makes sense to him.
But city planners and the Moser Mayer Phoenix Associates architectural firm, which drew the design for the transportation center, insist the Crane building must go.
To let it stand, city planner John Beaman says, would ``totally disrupt' the design. ``We would virtually have to start over,' he says. The parking the site would provide is essential, he says. Federal and state agencies previewing the project say even more parking is needed than the design calls for.
In addition, Beaman says, the Crane building would be expensive to rehabilitate because it contains asbestos and its basement floods.
Ken Mayer and Richard Kidd, both of Moser Mayer Phoenix, say letting the building stand would destroy the philosophy behind the center's design. The architects want train and bus travelers to have a panoramic view of the skyline when they arrive. This would create what Mayer calls a ``sense of place,' which he says is vital for a transportation center. If the Crane building remains, the downtown view would be blocked.
Kidd, who remembers when the Crane building was built in the '40s or 1950s, argues the structure lacks architectural and historical significance.
``It's very vanilla architecture,' he says. ``The president didn't sleep there, and it was never used in any significant way. ... It's basically a warehouse.'
Changing a design at the last minute has been done before, says architect Jerry Leimenstoll, who works and lives downtown.
He recalls that 10 years ago the city and its hired architect were adamantly against change when preservationists complained about the design of a new wing at the Greensboro Historical Museum. The wing would have covered the architecturally pleasing back wall of the museum's original building.
The city eventually agreed to make a change. The architect designed a curve into the facade of the wing that allowed the rear of the old building to remain visible. Both sides were pleased with the results.
As long as the Crane building stands, Leimenstoll says, it's not too late to save it.
Sidney Gray, a downtown property owner who has long lobbied for converting the Crane building into a farmer's market, says a market would bring hundreds of people to the 200 block of East Washington Street. The crowds at the market and at the transportation center would create a beehive of activity seldom seen downtown any more.
He dismisses Ken Mayer's desire to have a beautiful view awaiting travelers upon arrival.
``I don't think people who ride the bus care that much about the view,' he said, adding that these people are more concerned with their buses being on time.
He and others point out that turning the Crane building into parking would mean both sides of the block would be bordered by parking lots. A lot owned by the News & Record already exits on the north side of the block.
``There is nothing appealing about that,' McKenzie says.
Leimenstoll says other places to park cars at the center can be found. And a ``sense of place' can be achieved without tearing down the Crane building. He says the fact the building keeps popping up at community meetings indicates the city hasn't addressed the public's feeling on this matter.
The Crane building would have been gone already, but the city does not own it. Norfolk Southern Railroad still owns the structure, which it erected beside the passenger station years ago and rented to Crane, a plumbing supply company. The building has been empty for about 10 years.
The railroad has agreed to sell the building to the city, and the city hopes it will be a done deal by the end of the year.