In Raleigh, a Smokestack Transformed

A masonry smokestack rising on the outskirts of Raleigh, 130 feet tall and 60 years old, is about to be symbolically reincarnated.

It’s to become a beacon of progress – for the North Carolina Museum of Art, for the City of Raleigh and for a regional system of parks and greenways.

It’s part of a landscape design funded by a $13 million, anonymous gift to the museum, and developed by Mark Johnson, founder of Denver-based landscape architecture firm Civitas.

The smokestack is one of the few remaining structures left over from a mid-century youth prison facility that once occupied the museum’s 164 acres. Its fate never in doubt, the vertical icon was always destined for artistic greatness.

“The only reason we wanted to save it from the wrecking ball when was that when the stars aligned, it would fulfill its function for place-making,” says Dan Gottlieb, the museum’s director of planning and design. “Now it’s landscape, sculpture, civil engineering, and architecture, all blurred together in a higher purpose.”

It’s also the terminus of a fantastic promenade that will begin at the front door of architect Tom Phifer’s minimalist 2010 West Building. The promenade will work its way uphill to a promontory where eventually another museum structure will reside.

Beyond that, a formal and informal interplay of landscapes – the result of much thought and study by Johnson and Civitas – will commence.

“It’s formal in the French 18th-century tradition, flat and planar,” he says. “Then it’s picaresque in the tradition of Capability Brown and the 19th-century British landscape.”

The informal landscape commences near the smokestack, which will eventually look less like a cylinder of bricks and more like a work of art – thanks to nationally known sculptor Jim Hodges, whom the museum has commissioned to transform it.

“It will become a beacon for us, and for the city of Raleigh, day and night,” Gottlieb says.

And a symbol of this city’s belief in forward thinking.

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