DURHAM – Back in 1969, pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome commissioned famed modern architect Paul Rudolph to build its corporate headquarters in the heart of RTP.

Fast forward to today: the iconic complex, often referred to as the “spaceship building,” is largely abandoned and neglected in recent years — and its current owners, biotech company United Therapeutics, say they’ve had enough.

After buying it in 2012 and demolishing part of the original building, the company says it wants to remove what remains of the original 300,000-square-foot building. It received a demolition permit on September 4.

“The site’s current building and infrastructure limit the redevelopment opportunities for the property,” a spokesperson told WRAL TechWire on Monday. “It will be removed in the near future.”

However, those plans are facing some public backlash.

The B-w building in Feb. 2020. Photo by P.J. McDonnell via the Paul Rudolph Foundation archives

The Manhattan-based Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation has started a petition to save the site. It argues it is both an important part of Rudolph’s architectural legacy, as well as the only Rudolph-designed structure in North Carolina.

The S-shaped structure is an eccentrically loaded trapezoidal steel frame with columns inclined at 22.5 degrees. The sprawl includes 140 labs, a library, auditorium, cafeteria and support activity spaces for 400 workers.

Beyond its architectural importance, the foundation says it represents “several cultural and historically important events.”

Among them: the facility’s laboratories developed the antiretroviral drug AZT — first as a drug to fight cancer, and later as the first drug approved to treat HIV/AIDS in 1987.  It’s also named in honor of Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings — research chemists who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Sir James Black for work done in the building.

Last, but not least: the building’s interior and exterior were used as sets for the 1983 science fiction film ‘Brainstorm’ starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood. (The movie was Natalie Wood’s last film.)

Petition to save building

Back in 2016, after demolishing part of the original building, the foundation understood that United Therapeutics had planned to refurbish the remaining 160,000 square feet and install an exhibit dedicated to the history of the building and the scientists it is named after. But now it accuses the company of reneging on that promise.

It also says United Therapeutics proceeded with demolition plans “without consulting local or national preservation groups.”

“We must not let this happen,” the petition reads. “United Therapeutics claims they have studies showing that renovation is not an option, and many organizations would like to see evidence. This overlooks the environmental impact of releasing the building’s embodied carbon caused by demolition and new construction, and fails to respect the architectural, historical, cultural, and functional value of this important building.”

Access to the building has not been provided to allow independent studies that could develop other cost estimates for rehabilitation and make a proper comparison against the cost of demolition and new construction, ithe Foundation added.

“Once it’s demolished, there are no second chances,” it concludes.

In three days, the petition has already has accrued more than 960 signatures and counting.

The foundation said it plans to present it to chairwoman Martine Rothblatt and United Therapeutics’ board of trustees in the coming days.

United Therapeutics, meanwhile, says it doesn’t have a demolition timeline at this point.

“There’s aggressive asbestos remediation going on at the site that needs to be completed before moving forward,” the spokesperson said.