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A new bronze casting facility in Durham links the downtown neighborhood of artists to the city's elite roots

Central casting 

A new bronze casting facility in Durham links the downtown neighborhood of artists to the city's elite roots

Anyone who's recently driven through downtown Durham may have noticed a new addition to the slowly evolving Durham Central Park neighborhood. Beneath the red and white magnolia mural, against the red brick wall of the Liberty Warehouse on Foster Street, there is now a rounded pavilion of elaborately cut steel, painted green to look like bronze. Rising up through the center of the green roof is an industrial-looking, rectangular metal shaft.

Inside, the pavilion sticks to the building's industrial roots. The steel panels and two steel gates leave the interior open to outside air and natural light. Two furnaces sit under a crane, waiting to be put into action to make large-scale bronze sculptures. The pavilion connects through an open archway to an adjacent studio inside the warehouse. The concrete floors, high, wood-beamed ceiling and exposed brick walls make the space feel like a blank canvas.

As a marble plaque on the exterior wall explains, The George Watts Hill Pavilion for the Arts was named for the late president and chairman of Central Carolina Bank. The pavilion was dedicated last month with a gala party honoring its namesake and its many philanthropic contributors. What's buzzing around the pavilion--artists and businesses and volunteer gardeners--tells the rest of the story. As downtown Durham evolves, the pavilion is a high-profile connecting point between old Durham and new Durham, a meeting place for the suits and the welding smocks.

"I'm really trying to do some different things in this building to help the center of Durham," says Walker Stone, the owner of the warehouse, during a party following the dedication ceremony. "A lot of good things are happening right here in this area and I think there are better things to come." Stone, a big man with an avuncular Southern accent, isn't an artist himself, but helped launch Liberty Arts, a not-for-profit organization that built the pavilion and will run its programs. "I think that's the secret to our survival downtown, is the arts," Stone says. "That's why I've been so involved in getting this thing started, and I'm proud of it."

Liberty Warehouse is one of the largest former tobacco warehouses in Durham; the wood-frame brick building takes up most of a city block. The Scrap Exchange and the Durham Arts Council's pottery studio are two of Stone's more recognizable tenants. Metalsmith Jim Alexander has rented studio space in the warehouse for five years. "He's helped us out quite a bit," Alexander says of his landlord. Besides charging cheap rent and accommodating the necessary renovations that metal working requires--putting up fire-rated drywall, for instance--Stone also hires his own tenants to take care of the building, which means a little extra cashflow for the artists.

Alexander says he's watched Liberty Warehouse evolve from an industrial pocket in the middle of an overgrown field to a growing core of artistic enterprises. "Used to be you'd have to just fight your way through the briars and the woods just to get up through here." With the park fields cleaned up and a continuous sidewalk put in, there's even been foot traffic. "In the building itself there's more artists and sculptors in here than there ever were. We're starting to get people that walk by and say, 'What are ya'll doing here?'"

Vega Metals, the Hunt Street studio that created the pavilion's metal panels and one of its gates, often refers clients to other metalsmiths in the area. "Everybody helps out everybody else. We're trying to create a little neighborhood atmosphere," Alexander says.

The need for the facility was what got the ball rolling. It started out as an informal effort by Durham Central Park board members who wanted to create an artists' workspace adjacent to the park. Liberty Arts was formed, and its vice president, architect Frank DePasquale drew in corporate sponsorship from CCB, which put the project on a fast track. CCB has so far invested $300,000 in equipment and construction to make the facility operational, and commission its first work.

The pavilion itself represents a very physical partnership. The bank paid for the pavilion space and gave it to the City of Durham, and Stone owns the half inside the warehouse. Liberty Arts temporarily leases both for $1 a year.

Jack Preiss, a former Durham City Council member who's president of Liberty Arts, shows off the facility. His son, Andrew Preiss, created one of the pavilion's two steel gates and shares a warehouse workspace with Alexander. The elder Preiss points to the enormous furnace that can hold up to 250 pounds of molten bronze.

"What we're hoping is, people will have pieces and do them all over the state and the region, and they'll come here to do the casting," says Preiss. "That's how we hope to make money and run the place."

The first thing that will be made here is a life-sized bronze bull, commissioned by CCB to be placed up the hill along the soon-to-be realigned Corcoran Street square, across from the bank's art deco office building. Five-by-nine feet, the bull will weigh over a ton. Its young sculptors, Michael Waller and Leah Foushee, were at the dedication ceremony, unofficially representing yet another link between the city's old and new.

At the Oct. 24 ceremony, CCB executives shared a stage with Durham Mayor Bill Bell. Members of the Hill family sat nearby wearing corsages. DePasquale, who worked with Hill for 40 years designing CCB buildings, was honored for his design of the pavilion.

Standing among the town elite were a few people who exist a little closer to the ground. Alex Kostelnik, a recent transplant from Seattle, leaned against the metal framework for a while. A young man with scruffy facial hair, he listened and clapped as contributors' names were announced. Then he walked up the street to the Scrap Exchange, where he works as artistic director.

Also in the crowd were Timothy Werrell and his apprentice, Renee Oliverio, sculptors who work in the space next door. After the ceremony they returned to their studio, where they changed out of wool blazers and put their work clothes back on. Inside the warehouse it was chilly--there's no insulation, and metalworkers must keep the doors open to allow air to circulate.

If the pavilion is a blank slate, their studio is a construction zone, full of work benches, torches and extension chords, anvils and hammers, and dozens of what Werrell calls "metal sketches" on shelves and tables. Werrell was finishing up some macquettes, or models, for a 20-foot stainless steel sculpture that's been commissioned by a public library in Mecklenberg County. Oliverio was getting her hands dirty modeling in clay, in spite of her mentor's advice that she start with the torch.

Kate Dobbs Ariail, an officer with Liberty Arts (and former Indy art columnist) dropped by after the party to offer the neighbors leftover pastries. Many credit Ariail as being a bridge between the worlds of corporate philanthropy and creative work.

Efforts to create Durham Central Park and revitalize downtown have generated and necessitated much cooperation. Not all of these efforts have been in harmony. Some local artists were ticked off by the installation of bull-shaped metal bike racks special-ordered by Durham Central Park from a company out of state, rather than commissioned to any of the dozens of local metalsmiths.

But if the pavilion dedication is any indication, the larger collaboration is so far successful. "The spirit of it was really in the room," says Kostelnik after the party, as he sits in the office of the Scrap Exchange. "People felt comfortable. They felt generous. And I think it was that space. It's the sign of a well done project," he continues. "There wasn't that greedy feeling of ownership or people feeling like they don't belong there." EndBlock

The George Watts Hill Pavilion for the Arts will be open during the Durham Artwalk, the evening of Nov. 15.

  • A new bronze casting facility in Durham links the downtown neighborhood of artists to the city's elite roots

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