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With dreams of preserving the Dorothea Dix campus as a huge Central Park closer to reality, other big ideas for the site are starting to surface.
A classical music venue in the old All Faiths Chapel? A boutique hotel in the imposing main building that housed countless mental health patients? New residents in the 90-year-old staff cottages?
As they begin the master plan for the future park, Raleigh leaders first must decide the fate of more than 50 buildings on the 325-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital campus. On Wednesday, the Raleigh Historic Development Commission asked the city council first to hire a preservation expert to study the condition and historic value of the former hospital buildings.
“The Dix campus includes approximately 1.3 million square feet of buildings, many of which are designated as historic,” commission Chairman Fred Belledin wrote in a letter to the council. “We believe that careful consideration of the existing structures will be critical to the successful transformation of the campus into a park.”
Some of the Dix buildings date to the 1800s, and preservationists don’t want to see them demolished to make room for picnic shelters and soccer fields. They’d like to see the park modeled after the Presidio, a former military installation in San Francisco that’s now a national park. Historic buildings there have been restored as offices, homes, businesses and schools. Revenue from tenants pays for park amenities.
“I think we need to figure out how to combine public use and private use onto the (Dix) property,” said J. Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit based in Raleigh that aims to protect the state’s historic buildings and sites.
Howard points out that the hospital’s main building alone rivals the size of the 30-story Wells Fargo tower downtown. It was designed by A.J. Davis, the architect behind the State Capitol. And its smaller neighbors, built over time, represent nearly every architectural period of the past two centuries.
“You could almost teach an architectural history class off that property,” he said. “It’s really similar to a college campus in terms of the scale, the type of construction and the layout.”
Preservationists like Howard are already floating ideas for new uses. Some of the ideas for redevelopment surfaced years ago when state officials were debating whether to sell the land or preserve it as a park. Bringing in rent-paying businesses could make the park’s price tag more feasible.
“They could be paying money into the park fund, and that’s one less thing for the city to be paying for,” he said.
Not all of the campus qualifies as historic, though. Expect debates on how the city might best restore the main Dix building. It’s seen huge changes from Davis’ original design in the 1850s, with a portion torn down in the 1950s to make way for the multi-story section that anchors the building today.
Gov. Bev Perdue and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane signed the lease to turn the property over to the city last week – the final step in a decade-long effort to preserve the psychiatric hospital campus. The city will pay $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over the 75-year life of the lease.
On Wednesday, city council members voiced initial support for hiring a preservation expert. They also said the city needs to determine how it will engage residents, business leaders and officials at neighboring N.C. State University in the planning process.
“I can’t tell you how many people have said ‘I want to be involved in that,’ ” Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin said. “This isn’t just a parks project; it’s an economic development project for our city.”