James Goodnight's plan to revive Raleigh history | Wake County | Indy Week
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James Goodnight's plan to revive Raleigh history 

Raleigh artists Luke Buchanan 
(left) and Ollie Wagner put the 
finishing touches on the mural on 
the side of the historic Nehi Bottling Plant.

Photo by Aaron Lake Smith

Raleigh artists Luke Buchanan (left) and Ollie Wagner put the finishing touches on the mural on the side of the historic Nehi Bottling Plant.

James Goodnight, son of the billionaire SAS founder Jim Goodnight, bought his first building the week that Lehmann Brothers collapsed.

It was a crumbling warehouse in downtown Raleigh that has since become Flanders Gallery. He was working in finance at the time, for his dad's company. "As everyone else got out of real estate, I got in," he said, laughing.

Five years later, now 32 years old, Goodnight has left finance; restoring Raleigh's historic structures according to their original specifications has become his full-time job. He is poised to become a leader in Raleigh redevelopment as three more of his buildings, each around 10,000 square feet, are scheduled to be finished this spring and summer.

"We're fortunate that we still have a lot of historic buildings," City Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin said. "If you look at our downtown, a lot of what we have is gone in other cities."

"The beauty of these kind of projects is you have to find a balance of preservation and restoration," Goodnight's chief architect, David Mauer, said. "You have to be sensitive about what you try to save."

The most architecturally significant of these undertakings is the legendary Nehi Bottling Plant at 3210 Hillsborough St. This 1937 building features a reflective black Carrera glass front and rounded canopy. It was a Bauhaus-inspired modernist experiment by prolific Raleigh architect William Henley Dietrick.

Dietrick's hand can be seen all over Raleigh, from Broughton High School to the News & Observer building to Raleigh Little Theatre, but Nehi is arguably his most distinctive and personal endeavor.

Originally built to house Nehi Bottling Co. (which later became RC Cola), the building was home to an engraving company and was used for construction storage before eventually falling into disrepair. Goodnight bought the neglected historic landmark for $500,000 a year ago and is working with Mauer and the state historic preservation office to prepare it for occupancy this spring. Replacement black Carrera glass is being imported from Asheville and England; Goodnight hired Raleigh artist Luke Buchanan to re-create the original RC Cola mural on the side of the building beside India Mahal.

While a tenant hasn't been found yet, Goodnight suspects the large, open office space will be best suited for a technology or creative company. With Internet self-publishing endeavor Lulu in the tractor-topped N.C. Equipment building across the street, the west end of Hillsborough Street is completing its transition from industrial economy to tech corridor.

Across town near Capital Boulevard and Wake Forest, Goodnight is finishing the 13,000-square-foot industrial space that, by this summer, will be Ashley Christensen's commissary kitchen AUX. According to Goodnight, Christensen will do catering and prep food there to truck out to her restaurants. The brick complex on Brookside Drive was home to the 81-year-old Fisher-Rex prepackaged sandwich company before it was put out of business by a meat recall in 2009.

But Goodnight's most substantial and visible contribution to Raleigh this year is his restoration of two buildings on West Hargett Street in the heart of downtown Raleigh The Brutalist, federal-prison-looking office spaces were considered to be some of the ugliest in town when they went on sale in 2012.

"They sat unsold for eight months," Goodnight said, until Derrick Minor of Downtown Raleigh Alliance showed him archival photographs of the buildings that revealed a gorgeous turn-of-the-century brownstone beneath the newer stucco facades. "That was back when modernism was trying to cover up historic details and make things simple," Mauer said.

Goodnight bought the former funeral home and bank buildings for $750,000 in the summer of 2012. The renovation has been lengthy—the top floor was accessible only by elevator and the windows had been bricked off. It took nine months to chip away and reveal the original cornices and detail.

This summer the first floor of the four-story space will become the restaurant Death & Taxes, the latest in the Christensen empire, with the upper floors used as her Bridge Club, a private catering and event space to stanch the flow of requests she gets to rent out Poole's. Death & Taxes will seat 55 people and another 80 for sidewalk dining. The basement will be home to a full bar. Wine will be stored in an ornate, steampunk-looking 1800s bank vault. Goodnight says there will be a demo kitchen on the second floor for cooking classes.

From the roof deck, it's just a couple of buildings to the brick Raleigh Water Tower—William Henley Dietrick's old office and Raleigh's first preservation project. Before Dietrick died, he bequeathed the 1887 structure to the American Institute of Architects. "You see hawks nesting up there sometimes," Goodnight said with a smile, looking at the rooftops of the city.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Saving private spaces."

  • Developer James Goodnight, restoring the city's historic properties

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