Surprise demo permit for Paul Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome causes outcry


Michele Racioppi


Docomomo US staff


Endangered, Threatened, Advocacy, Paul Rudolph, North Carolina
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Update January 21, 2021

Despite an outpouring of support from the architectural and preservation communities, United Therapeutics went through with its plans to demolish Burroughs Wellcome, arguably one of Paul Rudolph's most significant projects that was still intact. Devastating photos circulated on Twitter of the building's exposed cross section. Despite the company's argument that asbestos mitigation would make the building too difficult to restore, there appeared to be little to no concern or care taken for this during demolition. In a recent piece from The News & Observer, United Therapeutics claims they will "memorialize the legacies of Elion, Hitchings and Rudolph in whatever new building goes on the site... The new building also will be named for Elion and Hitchings, and there will be a Paul Rudolph Foyer inside."

Docomomo US Executive Director Liz Waytkus explained to The Architect's Newspaper that the building was lost in part "because people thought it was a landmark when in reality it had no protection and sat vacant for years." Advocates did not find out about the demolition permit until after its approval, at which point there is usually little that can be done. The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation issued a rallying cry for lessons learned and ways people as individuals and groups can make a difference in future efforts to preserve modern sites.

In this spirit, Docomomo US has launched The Advocacy Fund. Gifts to the fund will go directly to critical advocacy efforts and will support local and national work. With your support Docomomo US can provide assistance to local advocates and campaigns, participate in local and national preservation review meetings including the Section 106 process, and to continue to speak out on the issues that concern you the most. 


Planned as an "M.I.T. of North Carolina," the Burroughs Wellcome Corporation Headquarters in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina was designed by Paul Rudolph starting in 1969 and completed by the Daniels Construction Company in 1972. First owned by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, the ownership changed as the company went through mergers over the years and most recently in 2012 was purchased by United Therapeutics. Featuring a dynamic and expressive design, rhythm and space are achieved through the use of strong external forms arranged in a contemporary "ziggurat fashion." Lighting within the interior spaces effectively adds to the building's design. The interaction of bold forms with the rolling hillside is intriguing as well as harmonious. In her book A Field Guide to Landmarks of Modern Architecture, Miriam Stimpson described it as "one of its kind in the nation."

In addition to its architectural features and pedigree, it is also has a significant social and cultural history. The facility's laboratories developed the antiretroviral drug AZT which became the first drug approved to treat HIV/AIDS in 1987. Scientists Gertrude Elion and George Hitching won a Nobel Prize for work they did in the building, and it was later renamed the Elion Hitching Building in their honor. The building was even used as a shooting location for the movie 'Brainstorm' starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood (Wood's last film). 

Current Threat

United Therapeutics demolished a portion of the structure in 2014 but maintained that they would restore and reuse the remaining portion. However, earlier this month the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation received a tip that construction fencing had gone up. Upon investigation, they discovered a demolition permit was secured on September 4. In January 2021, demolition of the building began.

What you can do

The news spread quickly and Docomomo US and many others spoke out in support of preserving on of Rudolph's most significant projects. A petition was started which has quickly gathered over 3,000 signatures.