For decades, the skeleton of the once great American Tobacco Company sat vacant in downtown Durham, N.C., a nostalgic but sometimes painful reminder of the institution that was once the nucleus of a thriving southern city and the icon of a multibillion-dollar industry.
A "sleeping giant," the million square foot campus established in the 1800s would become home to the largest tobacco company in the world producing familiar and iconic brands such as Lucky Strike and Pall Mall. An institution so embedded in Durham, it was difficult to find someone who wasn't somehow connected to the American Tobacco empire, according to locals.
But by the 1980s the tobacco industry's star had faded. American Tobacco packed up and closed its sprawling Durham campus in August 1987, with thousands of jobs following close after, ushering in a period of economic malaise in the area.
"People attribute that [to] a lot of the downfall of downtown Durham," says Michael Goodmon, vice president of real estate at Raleigh, N.C.-based Capitol Broadcasting Company. "The banks started leaving, businesses left. Other than the SWAT team doing some training in there, it was vacant from  on."
Almost two decades passed as the brick monolith transformed from a vibrant hub into a crumbling shadow of its former greatness. Though it was considered an eyesore, Goodmon saw potential in the old American Tobacco campus. Past the broken windows and unruly grounds, he envisioned the re-emergence of a bustling center of commerce and the possibility for American Tobacco to once again be the nucleus of the surrounding community.
"We did American Tobacco because no one else would," Goodmon says. "We would see this huge factory next to the ballpark that had razor wire, the windows were blacked in—we just wanted to give it a go."
A National Trend
Goodmon isn't the only real estate developer who's seen the potential to give an old, rundown part of town a second life. Communities around the country with historical gems have launched efforts to revamp and rediscover a lost part of their town's identity. Some of these revivals are the product of unique partnerships between developers, local governments, and community organizers. Others are thanks to the efforts of history lovers and lifelong neighborhood residents. But the goals are the same: reestablish community centers, charge up the local economy, and preserve a defining piece of history.
"When the building went up for sale, people were like, 'Oh my god, we're not going to lose the sign, right?'" says Kevin Lykens, owner of Lykens Companies. Lykens and his team recently undertook a project renovating the old Wonder Bread factory in Columbus, Ohio's Italian Village neighborhood, a part of the city residents associated with the factory's bright red neon Wonder Bread sign.
And of course, the smell of freshly baked bread.
"We won't have that smell," Lykens concedes. "But knowing that the building is still there, the sign is still there—everyone is ecstatic the building is not going anywhere."
The heart of the project centers on maintaining key architectural and functional elements of the Wonder Bread factory while converting the 70,000 square foot space into 56 residential units, a restaurant, and a reception hall. Lykens hopes to unveil the new Wonder Bread factory in 2013.
"[Historical preservation] was a huge part of the project," Lykens says, adding that Wonder Bread used to be one of the main employers in the area. "Over the years the employment has gone down but it was one of the things that was just defining for this neighborhood."
Local residents are glad the old Wonder Bread factory is getting a second life, too. Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown, who lives in a nearby condominium with her husband, calls the building and its famed sign a landmark. After another redevelopment project intending to convert the space into lofts for artists fell through, Brown and others wondered what would become of the old Wonder Bread factory.