Into the Spaceship: A Visit to the Old Burroughs Wellcome Building

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When the pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome chose to move its headquarters from suburban New York to North Carolina in 1969, it was a major turning point for the state’s growing Research Triangle Park (RTP). The park was founded in the late 1950s in a bid to attract higher-paying and more advanced industries (the word “high tech” was not common at the time) to a state that had traditionally been dependent on agriculture and low-wage industries such as textiles and furniture.  The pharma giant was one of RTP’s biggest gets after IBM, and the company  helped define the image of the park with the iconic building it commissioned by celebrated modernist architect Paul Rudolph.

I talk about the Burroughs Wellcome building — officially renamed the Elion-Hitchings building, after Nobel-prize-winning scientists Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings — in much greater depth in chapter four of my book-in-progress, Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Rise of the Creative City.  But I’d like to give readers a brief introduction to Elion-Hitchings, following a remarkable tour of the structure conducted as part of the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference, which was held last week in Durham, NC.

The building has changed hands over the years, as Burroughs-Wellcome merged with Glaxo and the biotech firm United Therapeutics (UT) ultimately purchased it in 2012.  Since then, UT has has moved to demolish parts of the structure while rehabilitating its most memorable and historic portions.  Some architectural critics and defenders of Rudolph’s legacy were unhappy with the company’s plans, but even maintaining such a mammoth structure (let alone remodeling it) is an understandably daunting and perhaps impossible task.  So far, UT has taken down about 400,000 square feet of space, though it argues that these facilities were mostly lab space added on to Rudolph’s original design — structures that George Smart, director of North Carolina Modernist Houses, suggests were “never particularly architecturally significant.”

In any case, the most recognizable portion of the building remains, albeit in lapsed condition after years of being unused and unoccupied.  UT plans to refurbish the remaining 160,000 square feet and install an exhibit dedicated to the history of the building and the scientists it is named after.  In the meantime, the company was generous enough to open up the building to members of VAF, an organization made up mostly of architects, historians, planners and preservationists.  Architecture geeks all, we were thrilled to get a rare peek into a piece of architectural and, indeed, cultural history.

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Geeks among the possum and pine

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From a distance, one can see the incongruity of the striking building and its bucolic surroundings.  Several friends independently offered similar reactions, all varying on the theme of “horrible postmodern Mayan temple.”

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Here we see the famous facade, with its segmented spaces stacked like futuristic building blocks.

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The rusting pylons of Rudolph’s jagged, angular design will benefit from a fresh coat of paint.

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Hunter College planning professor Matthew Lasner takes a photo amid the flaking metal and paint in front of the building.

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The University of Oregon’s Chris Bell enters the building, walking up steps of pink marble.  The floors of the building’s lobby were once covered in groovy orange and green carpet, lending warmth to the otherwise austere modernist aesthetic of the structure.

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The Elion-Hitchings building has been described in many ways over the years, as a spaceship, honeycomb, or beehive.

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The bottom floor looks out on to an area for relaxation and reflection, now overgrown with weeds.

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The building features a seemingly inscrutable and complex system for numbering offices, likened by one tour participant to the “star dates” in the captain’s log on Star Trek. For previous owners Glaxo, ordinary numbers simply would not to do.

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Rudolph’s design was meant to mirror the ridge of the building site, with chunks and plates cascading down either side of its overarching A-frame structure. This choice gives the building its strikingly lapidary or “stacked” visual aesthetic.

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Windows frame the forested and rural surrounding the building like a landscape painting, both highlighting its verdant environment and emphasizing the distinction between its high-tech, artificial internal environment and the natural world around.

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No longer supplied with power, the building becomes a dark warren of workspaces and hallways, occasionally illumined by natural light from outside. Undoubtedly Elion-Hitchings felt different when it was electrified and occupied, with the presence of people and the trappings of business, work, and research.  But the combination of small, confined workspaces and Rudolph’s motif of jutting angles throughout still must have resulted in a slightly claustrophobic feeling at times.  However, tour participant Cynthia de Miranda — an architectural historian whose father was a scientist at Burroughs-Wellcome — averred that the building always struck her as warm and pleasant during her visits as a child.

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So many angles, so little time

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The gilded fixtures of the executive bathroom (which even included a shower) would probably not pass muster with today’s C-suite elite.

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The building retains its mix of geometry-fetishism and glorious 1970s chintz.

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We leave through the empty, dust-covered lobby, anxious to get to our next tour stop on time.

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The “executive entrance emergency telephone” — in a time before cell phones, some executive emergencies just couldn’t wait.

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In the end, numerous tour participants could not escape the sense that, in its current form, Elion-Hitchings evokes a distinctly postapocalyptic vibe — like a remnant of a dead and forgotten civilization, overgrown as nature retakes the towering proof of human hubris.  One could imagine aliens coming to Earth and finding the structure well after humans have succeeded in wiping themselves out as a species.

As scholars and lovers of architecture, we look forward to the day when the building’s remainder is restored to its former greatness, an emblem of the wild aesthetic ambitions of modernism in its late heyday and the information economy at the moment of its emergence.  Love it or hate it, Rudolph’s design remains an impressively audacious creative gesture and an important part of the history of both architecture and Research Triangle Park.  The fact that it will be preserved is a heartening one in a culture that is all too often hasty to forget even the recent past, and Elion-Hitchings is definitely unforgettable.

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Afterwards, VAF members yuk it up at the National Humanities Center in RTP

 

Comments

  1. Simply amazing, I worked in this building for many years, very fond memories of it. Wish I could tour it again one day.

  2. So sad that the building is in such disrepair – I remember when I first entered that building for my first job interview with BWCo (Burroughs Wellcome Company) … I was so lost! Even when I worked there for a couple of years, I remember following color-coded carpet to get to several labs! BTW, I retired after 20 years with that company (GSK) …

  3. David H Schroeder says:

    I never found it claustrophobic during my 25 years. The building was alive with interesting people.

  4. I would love an opportunity to tour this building again some day! The memories these pictures brings back…….I didn’t realize how blessed I was for this to be my first job out of college!!! I was so spoiled!! Worked there 11 years.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Hi! Thanks so much for reading my piece. I would love to interview you about your experiences working in RTP for the book I’m working on. (I’m a history professor at Georgia State.) Would you be interested in having a chat? You could reply to this comment or reach me at alexcummings@gsu.edu. Thanks again!

  5. D Bruce Cohen says:

    I interviewed for my 1st job out of collage there in 1972. Everything was so different, my hotel was where the parking deck is now located at RDU. I remember being driven on two lane roads through pine trees until this futuristic building rose up to greet me for my interview. The next day we flew to Greenville for my interview with folks at the production site. I would have been the first PKG Eng at Greenville. I took another position with another company. Eventually, I was hired at Glaxo in August 1983. In 1995 it came full circle with the merger of BW & Glaxo. I was back in the main building & the Greenville site. Great memories from both companies.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Mr. Cohen – thanks for reading and sharing! I would love to interview you about your experiences for my book on RTP. Would that be possible? You can reach me here (naturally) or at alexcummings@gsu.edu

  6. We moved to Durham 30 yrs ago when my husband was hired on as a research scientist with BW. He survived several mergers but “retired” in 2009 (not by choice). He worked for 23 years in the Elion-Hitchings building. Seeing the photos brings up so many memories….. Burroughs Wellcome was not just a company – it was a family, prior to all the mergers. Seeing the building in it’s current state – is sad but it’s good to hear they are refurbishing it. Many thanks to United Therapeutics for saving it!

  7. Linda Cook Cocchetto says:

    Thank you for the beautiful pictures! I will never forget the first time I drove up and saw this “out of this world spaceship/!” I spent many good years there, and was fortunate to be employed in such an incredible building, with incredible people. I still feel honored to have been part of the Burroughs Wellcome family!

  8. It was shocking to see the building in such disrepair. I missed the final tour opportunity. It was sad to see the once majestic building with rusting columns and peeling paint and so overgrown. I almost didn’t want my memories of the building tainted, but all of us who recall the vibrancy of this building are probably showing signs of aging and maybe neglect [you know what I mean–not enough exercise, too much stress and poor food choices over many years-🙂 ] After 17 years in Medical, I left on my own steam before the mergers, following a marriage now in its 30th year. In spite of the challenges–there were several cultures existing, not always with ease, within those asymmetrical walls–I count myself very fortunate to have worked there. It was an amazing structure. We were young, and life was full of hope and promise. We were all witnesses, if not direct contributors, to amazing scientific discoveries and their promotion, during an exciting time for medical research. Remember when “generic” was a bad word. 🙂 I still avoid them.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      Dr. Anderson – thanks for commenting! I would love to interview you for the book I’m writing about the history of RTP. I am an associate professor of History at Georgia State University (http://history.gsu.edu/profile/alexander-cummings-3/). If you’d be interested in discussing your experiences working at BW and living in the Triangle, it would be great to have the opportunity to learn from you. Naturally you could reply to this comment, or reach me at alexcummings@gsu,edu.

  9. I worked in Chemistry in the building ’76-’86, then they moved all the chemists across the street to BW-North. It was exciting to work on the many projects coming through the pipeline during that era. I remember seeing George Hitchings & Trudy Elion in the hallways on a frequent basis; their Nobel prize announcement was an exhilarating moment in time. BW was not publicly traded when I started; the job recruiter bragged that their motto was “Research is our only stockholder”. Per the tour guides, the front of the building (facing Durham Freeway) was meant to mimic the front veranda of a southern main house, with the shaded porch area and columns. The architectural model actually had a statue of a unicorn where the flag pole was located. For those of you who don’t know, the BW logo was a unicorn; it represented (from medieval times) purity and its horn was supposed to be a panacea. BW sponsored an annual picnic on the grounds for employees & family members; it was a comfortable company to work for.

  10. Douglas Graf says:

    Great article. Thank you! I recently learned from a former colleague that portions of the Main Building had been demolished. I was saddened to see the aerial views on Google, which reflect the demolition of the 110,000 SF Expansion Building, which was my first construction project when I joined BWCo,, as well as the demolition of the North Building, much of which was remodeled on another of my projects. As an engineer, you hope that the things you build will last a long time. The poorly designed and/or constructed reflecting pool was gone before I left. Now most of the rest of the projects I completed during my 14 years in RTP are also gone.

  11. David Yeowell says:

    I spent 32years with BWCo until the Glaxo merger (read takeover) and helped work on the layout of the labs to fit the 22.5 degree sloping walls of bright orange and blue. At that time, if any space was conceived to bring out the creative, inspirational, thoughts – this was it, in my opinion. I loved working there. We invented and developed more pharmaceutical products in those years before Glaxo than any other company in the world. We were “family” but more to the point we were colleagues who were allowed to trust the expertise of each other. Unfortunately, our altruistic nature for “helping sick people” rather than just making a profit left us vulnerable to being taken over and “the family” dispersed. I counted Elion and Hitchings as friends and am saddened to see how the building has been left to deteriorate.

  12. Have pictures been pulled from any archive that show the giant reflection ponds that were to the right hand side of the building between the parking lots. No one mentioned the films (Natalie Wood’s last film ‘BrainStorm’) and recent TV shows that were filmed there. What about where the flag pole is outside originally was suppose to have a giant unicorn standing there.

Trackbacks

  1. […] to the sharing of our piece about the old Burroughs-Wellcome building among former employees, that photo essay has circulated a great deal in the last few weeks.  Rachel Grace Newman’s essay about […]

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