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American Tobacco Project: Turning over a new leaf

A century-old tobacco plant is turned into an attractive mixed-use development as part of a grand effort to revitalize downtown Durham, N.C.

October 01, 2006 |

As part of a major revitalization of downtown Durham, N.C., locally based Capitol Broadcasting Company decided to transform the American Tobacco Company's derelict 16-acre industrial plant, which symbolized the city for more than a century, into a lively and attractive mixed-use development.


Although tearing down and rebuilding the property would have made more economic sense, the greater goal of building up downtown Durham and preserving history prevailed. Consequently, the city's largest ever historic preservation project got under way with a major environmental cleanup of the area.

Now, instead of blight, the bright new development features residential, office, restaurant, entertainment, and retail.

To preserve the historic nature of the original American Tobacco plant, only building materials that were available during the plant's lifetime (1874-1987) were used. Where new concrete had to be poured next to existing concrete, it was stressed and stained to match. Similarly, specialty brick masons were brought in to reconstruct old brickwork and craft new brick elements with the same designs and patterns found in the original buildings.


One welcome feature is the incorporation of water throughout the project. Working with water feature consultant W.P. Law Inc., the Building Team, led by Atlanta architecture firm Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, designed a scenic river, starting at the north end of the site and running south along the old loading docks and train tracks. Toward the center of the campus, the river splits into a beautiful, multi-level pool as it runs through a sprawling, green park.

Ultimately, the waters descend into the Fowler Courtyard via a refreshing waterfall, varying in height from three feet to 15 feet. A hidden reservoir then utilizes three 75-hp pumps to send water a quarter mile upstream, back to its headwaters.

Only trees and plants common to the community during the tobacco plant's operation were chosen for the landscaping. So as not to obstruct the project's architectural and scenic features, fewer and larger trees were selected.

Water features are significant additions to the American Tobacco Company’s grounds. The river runs along the lawn and under a bridge, past “ruins” constructed of old concrete slabs (left). The river terminates at the Fowler Courtyard, where it’s pumped back upstream to its headwaters.


Another nature-friendly feature involved converting the old railroad tracks into bike trails for a “Rails to Trails” program.

Project guidelines stipulated that new buildings on the site had to conform to façade guidelines and could not obstruct views of the old buildings. The original water tower was preserved, while an amphitheater and stage were built below.

Local artists were commissioned to design art sculptures utilizing reclaimed machinery and materials from the old plant.

As is the case in many historic projects, no construction documents were found, so structural engineers from Morrison Engineers were on site to document existing structural conditions during demolition and reinforce structures as needed.

On the mechanical side, mechanical engineer Stantec Consulting largely kept the original plant's exposed mechanical and plumbing systems. The Building Team also went back in time to find ways to cool the buildings, utilizing the facility's extraordinarily thick walls and full basements to retain coolness.

At 1.5 million sf, the American Tobacco Project ranks as the largest redevelopment of a tobacco mill in North Carolina.

“It's a fantastic intervention in a decaying urban community,” said BD+C Renovation Awards judge Robert L. Selby, FAIA, Associate Director for Graduate Studies at the University of Illinois School of Architecture.

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