Personnel File - January 2008: architects
Belk Architecture, Durham
Where some see blight, Eddie Belk sees beauty. He has made a career of rehabilitating old buildings. The Rowan County native loves the North Carolina-ness of tobacco warehouses and textile mills — their bricks fired from local clay and the heart-pine planks that cover their floors — and how their functionality yields form. “You can’t economically build a building today to match these proud details and heritage materials,” he says. “The way you can get them is to recycle what was built by our grandfathers.”
Driving in downtown Durham, where Belk, 58, lives, is like paging through his portfolio. At Brightleaf Square, he took two tobacco warehouses and made a mall. Across the street at Morgan Imports, he re-created an old laundry as a home-furnishings store. Down the block, he turned a cluster of cigarette-company structures into apartments. A mile away, near Duke University, he resurrected two cotton mills as offices and apartments. Not far from all of those, he’s doing his biggest project yet — the million-square-foot American Tobacco Campus.
He did his first renovation in South Carolina. Recently graduated, he was toiling for a big Charlotte firm mostly on suburban offices. He and real-estate developer Van Weatherspoon got to talking about their love of old buildings, and Weatherspoon asked him to check out one he wanted to redo in Charleston. “His friends were telling him that he was nuts. It was on East Bay Street among six blocks of boarded-up warehouses.” Within six months — just in time for the city’s Spoleto arts festival — they had created a home for a 550-seat restaurant. Today, the space houses a microbrewery that’s one of the anchors of the city’s thriving restaurant district.
The more old buildings that he does, the more he respects their often anonymous designers. “In the mills, you get a fairly repetitive element, but you learn that it’s very adaptable. They were built with a pure simplicity. The window spacing and size and depth of the buildings were all to take advantage of what Mother Nature provided — the sunlight and the breezes.”