Jim Wise: A sign of home

January 28, 2014 

It’s a fair bet that there are more than a few of us who, in our minds’ eyes, still see the big, old Chesterfield sign when we look up at the Liggett and Myers factory.

That sign’s been gone nigh on 30 years, but it’s still missed by those of us around here long enough to see it, in the human version of virtual reality, all lit up and shining against the night sky, assuring one that this was Durham, this was home.

Always meant to take a picture, never did, and now it’s like a long-gone relative you knew you ought to sit down with and tape-record before her take on life was gone, but somehow never got around too. So it goes.

What brings all this to mind, besides being on West Main Street pretty often, is word from Preservation Durham (nee Historical Preservation Society of Durham) Director Wendy Hillis that this spring’s historic homes tour is departing from the usual historic homes tour this spring, and touring inside the Liberty Warehouse and Chesterfield Building (nee Liggett and Myers New Factory) before they’re forever transformed.

Transformed beyond all recognition in the Liberty case, at least, and it’s another good bet that whatever is done inside the 1948 factory at Main and Duke streets won’t look anything like what was there back when, if you were short of funds at the end of the month, you could take one of the public tours and come out with a complementary pack of smokes.

As Hillis put it, “We have a very limited window” of opportunity to get those last looks, take the always-intended pictures and, if one is so moved, say goodbye. And use the experience as a nudge to collect your souvenirs of passing time when the opportunity is still there because these are no more the last hometown landmarks to leave or metamorphose than they are the first.

Durham’s Station, Prattsburg, the original Pinhook, Julian Carr’s and Washington Duke’s mansions, Union Station, the Jack Tar Hotel, Hayti – more and less recorded, but gone nevertheless, and while some of their passings inspired passions for local preservation, you can’t save everything.

Well, you could try and some do make a case that preservation for preservation’s sake has got a little out of hand – that there’s an attitude abroad that once anything turns 50 it needs and deserves protective covenants.

For those of us over 50 it’s not such a bad idea, but as far as buildings and landscapes are concerned it’s not practical or desirable. Carried to its illogical conclusion, uber-preservationism would turn our gritty, innovative, image-conscious City of the Bull into a look-don’t-touch museum village with not the brightest prospects for ticket sales.

Change, after all, is just as sure as death and taxes if not more so. It can come on like an aching back, telling you you’re not what you used to be, either. But if you pay attention as you’re passing through you can always say “We’ll always have Paris” or something to that effect.

Thinking that way, there’s still some place where the Ivy Room wall still advertises Chicken in the Rough and in the morning Amos ’n’ Andy’s will be cooking hot dogs and chili, and the Student Prince Haufbrau (sic) is still selling beer and of an evening you can look up from the porch of an old house on Albemarle Street known as “Shaky Heights” and the Chesterfield sign will be glowing to let you know home’s still here.

Wise: 919-641-5895

Durham News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service