The unique buildings and public spaces you'll find in Durham are a result of local efforts to preserve and reuse historic buildings. Gary Kueber is one of many people responsible for those efforts. After leaving a career in medicine, he founded Open Durham, a community archive for information about Durham's buildings, and is now the CEO of Scientific Properties, a real estate development firm responsible for the Golden Belt Arts Complex, among other projects.
How did you end up working in Durham real estate?
I grew up in New Orleans, and I came up here originally to go to Duke for undergrad. I went back to New Orleans to go to medical school, and then I came back up here in '97 to do my residency at UNC in internal medicine, and bought the house that I live in still, right on the very edge of downtown on Yancey Street.
It's a very odd little spot, and really how I got interested initially in Durham history and architecture was that I just couldn't figure out how it ended up this way. That was the initial impetus for me to start trying to figure out Durham's history and development course and how things have come together.
What made you want to stay in Durham and work with its buildings?
I did residency for three years, and I practiced in Durham for four years doing primary care. I got more and more intrigued by architecture in cities. The more I followed that initial kernel, the more fascinated I became with it. Concurrently with that, there was this fairly new research in the late '90s and early 2000s around urban environments and physical activity and public health. That was this lightbulb that was like, "Oh, wow, I can meld these things."
Tell us a little about your website, Open Durham, and your work with Scientific Properties.
I started writing what was initially called Endangered Durham in 2006, because I'd been doing advocacy work around preservation. I got involved in Preservation Durham, and ran a committee called the Endangered Properties Committee, and we were trying to get options on houses – mostly that were threatened with demolition.
I was frustrated that we weren't changing the culture of preservation in Durham, and I started writing the website [which was later renamed Open Durham] initially thinking I would write for maybe a month. I would do this top 30 list of, "Here are the buildings that are really threatened." Then I said, "I want to write about the buildings that might be torn down, not just the ones that are about to be torn down, because they are the ones that people can really do something about."
Anyway, before long, I was writing every day for years. It became this massive compulsive thing. Andy Rothschild, who started Scientific Properties, liked my website, and I had reached out to him at some point in the past, just because he was another physician who had left medicine and was doing architecture-related stuff.
I started [at Scientific Properties] in October of 2007. I started out just being helpful, and I started taking over management of different projects, and then in 2010, I became CEO.
Is there one historic preservation project you're especially proud of?
Golden Belt, because it has always been the most challenging. It was the most crazy, outside-the-box project to do.
We're still a little outside of the core of downtown, and this is six years after we opened our doors. Coming in and taking this old industrial property that's empty and converting it into, not just like, some straightforward easy thing, but converting it into retail and offices and a bunch of art studios and apartments.
I remain most proud of this simply because it's weird and funky and people are like, "How many different things are in it? You have apartments, and there are studios? What?" They can't put what it is in a simple box, which I like. It was a big white elephant of a project before we took it on – this hulking mass of buildings past the edge of acceptability. It's no generic new apartment building.
Anytime you have any kind of development that's in a weird spot, with a bunch of weird stuff in it, and not easily defined – and not just talking about us, but anytime you see that – it has required a leap of faith on several entities' parts. It's required a leap of faith on the developer's part and on a bank's part and on some investor's part.
Are there any ongoing projects that you think visitors should really be excited about?
I think the small scale stuff is interesting. Dashi, the noodle bar, that's really cool. To me, that's different. You've got an end-user doing a small-scale preservation project for their business, which is an eclectic addition to the scene downtown.
It's not a historic preservation project, but I think the Durham Co-Op Market, by Self-Help over on West Chapel Hill Street, is really cool. It will be neat to have an alternative grocery, any grocery downtown, but also one that does healthy stuff. That's a great community development project.
Can you talk about some times when Durham has successfully preserved its historic character?
I think American Tobacco is amazing. That was a gutsy project. Really, gutsier than Golden Belt, just given the context at the time. Anyway, it was a huge leap of faith to take that on, and they preserved really an entire tobacco complex. Not just like, "Oh, here's a building that was associated with tobacco," but every piece of that, and how it grew and changed over the course of 70, 80 years.
But I think it is amazing and representative of how a really huge abandoned, long-term abandoned complex of buildings that is just ... people looked at it repeatedly, and it was just too much. It was just too big, too abandoned, too, "What were you going to fill all this with?" I can't even say how far they exceeded probably everybody's, including their own, expectations. I think that's on a big project level. It remains one of Durham's most impressive things.
On the other end of that spectrum, and I think the majority of what has made Durham interesting to people and cool is not so much that, but the small-scale creative things that people have done, like everything that's happened in the Central Park District – again, the revitalization of that district just came out of left field.
Kueber selected a list of five under-appreciated buildings that he thinks deserve more attention. Check them out in the slideshow below, and click the i at the bottom of the slideshow to see more information, or click on the photo itself to see the corresponding page on Open Durham.