The Architecture that Defines a Community

BY Ashley Johnson

In 2008 New Hanover County voters approved a $164 million bond measure that would transform Cape Fear Community College and much of the north end of downtown Wilmington.

While the funding allowed the school to address several needs including equipment and technology to keep the necessary accreditation for students to transfer credits to a four-year school the most visible evidence is the construction of three new buildings.

The bond built the Wilson Humanities and Fine Arts Center which opened in October 2015 and Union Station and the Hanover Parking Deck/Wilma W. Daniels Gallery completed two years previously.

To remain true to the character that makes visiting going to school working or just getting a bite downtown so unique Wilmington architecture firm LS3P used creative touches to make the buildings stand out while at the same time remain in harmony with each other and the rest of the campus.

“The common thing was the use of materials ” says Danny Adams lead architect for the Wilson Center. “To reinforce the college’s identity and strengthen their brand we used the same palette of materials. The buildings have the same masonry and architectural precast concrete they have similar types of metal cladding similar glass.”

The buildings also highlight the town’s story. The red brick masonry present in the new construction ties in with other buildings on campus and echoes the brick of the historic downtown warehouses. The grounds even have a history of their own; Union Station is built where the old Atlantic Coast Line Railroad headquarters stood.

“Union Station echoes the original Union Train Station from about 1910 and forms the end of Wilmington’s historic downtown district ” says Charles Boney Jr. vice president and studio leader at LS3P. “From that point northward Wilmington becomes a more contemporary city. Our challenge on the north side is to keep the pedestrian-friendly notion of downtown while we design new buildings.”

The large amount of glass used in the Wilson Center Union Station and the Wilma W. Daniels Gallery however serves a purpose that exists in the present rather than the past. The walls of windows blur the lines between inside and out allowing what’s happening on the streets of downtown to become a part of what’s happening indoors while the cultural and educational components of what’s happening inside flood out for passersby to see.

These structures are evidence of how architecture can unite and even define a community.


To anyone walking by the corner of North Third and Hanover Streets on an event night the Wilson Humanities and Fine Arts Center is like a snow globe that’s been shaken. On the other side of the two-story wall of windows are flurries of well-dressed people moving about enjoying concessions and conversations. The contagious energy radiates from within begging onlookers to be a part of whatever is happening.

“It’s almost like looking in an aquarium ” Adams says. “The lobby is where you have a way to talk about the people and what’s happening here. That’s what gives the performance art venue a lot of its life.”

The glass at the front of the building along North Third Street is separated by architectural precast concrete. Even there the performance theme was not neglected. A large window is set within the concrete on the second level allowing those outside to look up and in.

“That big opening was very intentional ” Adams says. “That was a metaphor intended to be almost like a stage from the street. We created an exterior stage.”

Upon entering the theater the lines change from linear to graceful. Patrons’ eyes are carried from the sidewalls to the balconies by curves that weave in and out. Above the stage yellow-gold plaster acoustical reflectors seem to be floating like half moons hung in a night sky.

The theater is dramatic and aesthetically gratifying but Adams says a lot of the details are purely functional.

“What governs the volume and shape of the theater is the balance between spatially getting people where you want them to be the sightlines and the acoustics ” Adams says.

The concept of sightlines became the foundation that the theater was built on. After all if the audience doesn’t have a good view of the stage what’s the point?

The design team included Chapel Hill-based Theater Consultants Collaborative an international consulting firm specializing in performing arts facilities. The challenge was to get the seats close to the stage for an intimate experience while allowing room in the building for classrooms and other student spaces. The solution was to veer away from the shoebox (long and narrow) shape and squash the room front to back and build up with two balconies.

“We worked with LS3P to develop a decently sized 1 500-seat room while maintaining an intimate feel and close relationship from the audience to the stage (the furthest seat is about 100 feet from the stage) ” says Jason Pritchard project leader for Theatre Consultants Collaborative.

It’s not enough to see what is happening on stage. Patrons also have to hear everything clearly. David Greenberg with Creative Acoustics in Raleigh consulted on the design decisions based on enhancing the acoustics.

“It was amazing how much I learned from him on simple things about the shapes and angles of walls the difference of putting a hard surface in one location versus a soft in another and how that affects the sound of the room ” Adams says.

One creative solution for manipulating sound is a set of changeable drapery that remains hidden from the audience.

“It’s basically like the bass and treble on your car stereo ” Adams says. “You use them to tune the room.”

When there’s a performance with a lot of amplified music the curtains are employed to absorb some of the sound. For an unamplified performance like the symphony the curtains are lifted to expose as many of the solid surfaces as possible for reverberation.

The beautiful theater is the public-facing part of the building but it’s just one element of the facility. During the vision and planning meeting conducted exactly five years six months and 23 days before Liza Minnelli and the North Carolina Symphony inaugurated the venue on October 3 2015 CFCC staff made it clear that the primary purpose was to serve the students.

“This needed to be an education-first building as a whole ” Adams says. “Not just with the classrooms but they wanted to make sure the theater itself could accommodate the teaching aspects of drama lighting and performance arts.”

Classrooms fine art music and drama studios and faculty offices comprise about one-third of the 100 000-square-foot facility. It is essentially a humanities and fine arts campus within CFCC’s campus.

In some cases the design of the classrooms echoes the design of the theater. Two walls of windows surround the drama room allowing those outside to see what is happening inside.

In what Adams calls a “happy accident ” an attempt to make the sculpture and ceramics studios student-friendly also plays a role in contributing to the performance art aspect of the center.

“We thought ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could have it so they could open up the doors and then this space can become a functional courtyard?'” Adams says.

The result was a multi-use open-air garden speckled with student sculptures. During school hours classes spill out into the courtyard with workshop tables and students at work. During performance nights it becomes a place where attendees can take in some fresh air surrounded by artwork during intermission.

The directive to create a facility that would house a stunning elegant theater and functional classrooms might seem like a challenge but the team saw those two goals as harmonious.

“We didn’t dumb down a facility for educational purposes ” Adams says. “We said ‘We’re going to design the venue the way it should be and then the students get to learn in an actual working venue.'”

The theater includes costume shops huge amounts of storage a fly loft sound control room open-air sound board followspot booth green room with full kitchen and lounge a wing for dressing rooms a portable orchestra shell catwalks with a full range of theatrical lighting and two levels of opera boxes.

One of the essential educational components is a fully equipped scene shop — a huge carpentry workshop where students build scene components. Another is the black box theater a simple mini stage that seats about 100 people. It has a control room with lighting and a door that connects to the scene shop. The purpose of this space is to teach oration and stage setup for performing arts.

It’s possible to walk from one end of the Wilson Center to the other without stepping outside. But in effect the theater and classroom space function as two facilities divided by an amazingly complex “vibrational acoustic separation joint” that literally hides behind the walls all the way up and down all levels of the building. It creates a physical space between the buildings to keep sound pollution to a minimum.

“Sound and vibrations are the worst things in a venue that can wreck the experience ” Adams says.


Tony Carter is not just someone deeply involved in the new buildings as project manager with CFCC’s capital projects department. He’s also a page right out of Wilmington’s history book.

Carter’s father worked in passenger service and freight for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad and manned the caboose that now sits in front of the Wilmington Railroad Museum. When Carter was a little boy he would hop aboard the overnight train to Augusta Georgia with his father. They unloaded freight ate at an all-night diner and came back to the Port City.

The design team on the Union Station project had Wilmingtonians like Carter in mind when they planned the facility. They wanted to preserve some of the past for people who have fond memories of the railroad days.

The five-story 250 000-square-foot building at the corner of Front and Red Cross streets was erected where the six-story edifice that housed the Atlantic Coast Line offices stood. The railroad moved to Jacksonville Florida in 1960 and the old headquarters was demolished in the late ’60s.

If you hold photos of the Union Station buildings past and present side-by-side you can see an undeniable resemblance in the red brick fa�ade and the rounded shape of the front of the building.

“We wanted to pay homage to the building that had been here because it was such an important part of Wilmington history and this particular corner ” says LS3P principal Laura Miller lead architect on the Union Station project.

The former railroad provided some interesting obstacles. There was a significant grade change and an overgrown ditch between Union Station and the Hanover parking deck. This forgotten space was once the rail line where the tracks ran underneath what is now Second Street.

“We went through a lot of discussion about what to do here ” Miller says. “We thought about filling it in and making the ground one level but we decided to keep the space and use it as an amenity for the college.”

They created a park with terraced seating areas and benches. There is hardscape and greenscape that provides a peaceful space and a bridge that connects North Second Street to the Hanover parking deck.

The space included historic elements such as a stone retaining wall they had to be very careful not to disturb.

“The wall is really cool ” Miller says. “It has what looks like random stones though you can tell they have been thoughtfully placed years and years ago.”

An old railroad workshop built into the retaining wall also was preserved.

The rail theme continues in a sidewalk with a paving pattern meant to mimic tracks. To make it even more nostalgic the Wilmington Railroad Museum and Carter’s father’s caboose can be seen from the sidewalk.

“The railroad valley is a hidden jewel in downtown’s landscape ” Boney says. “Our landscape architects were able to hint at the old railroad tracks with pavement patterns creating an urban oasis that few people outside of Cape Fear Community College students are aware of.We are very proud of that space.”

Union Station is LEED-certified meaning it is energy efficient. That was the goal from the beginning but the copious amounts of windows posed a problem.

“One of the challenges with having so much glass in a LEED-certified building is dealing with solar heating ” Miller says.

In order to counteract this they implemented what Miller calls “passive solar control elements.” The walls are recessed and the windows are set back away from the outside of the building. Sunshades filter the light and reduce the heat.

This recessed look also gives the building depth and character.

“It is a five-story building right next to the sidewalk so we didn’t want people to walk by and just feel like they’re next to this tall wall with no human interest ” Miller says.

Like the Wilson Center Union Station was built as a student-first facility.

One priority was to upgrade the facilities for the college’s well-regarded nursing school and to bring the students into one space.

The third and fourth floors are mostly nursing and allied health spaces. There are two mock surgical rooms with a prep sink pressurized air that simulates medical gas and even medical dummies that can move cough breathe and sometimes squirt blood.

The instructors sit behind a one-sided glass window where they can control the dummies monitor the students and record the entire virtual operation for review in the classroom.

There’s a simulated hospital ward with a nursing station running the same software used by New Hanover Regional Medical Center and rooms where students learn practical things like how to roll food trays into hospital rooms and correctly maneuver patients in and out of bathrooms.

The building also serves as a student union and a one-stop shop for students to do everything from register for classes and pay their tuition to visit veteran affairs financial aid or disability services. Amenities include Union Station Caf� a coffee shop operated by Port City Java located on the ground floor and a large space on the fourth floor with views of downtown.

“A lot of students commute in and there was really no place for them to go between class and study or hang out ” Miller says.

The facility also includes a conference center on the fifth floor that includes a 5 722-square-foot 400-seat multimedia equipped room. This venue which can be rented out for events or meetings includes a 2 200-square-foot balcony with a view of the Cape Fear River and downtown.


The five-story precast concrete parking deck located at the corner of North Third and Hanover serves both of the new buildings. Its 1 160 spaces are open to students during the school week and available for public parking on weekends and event nights.

Red brick veneer architectural precast panels and glass walls at the corners and on the ground floor provide cohesion with the other new buildings.

The jewel of the otherwise utilitarian structure came about because of city zoning requirements which say that freestanding parking garages in the central business district are required to have occupied space depth of 20 feet for a certain length of the building.

“We went back and forth with CFCC on what it should be ” Miller says. “Offices for athletics since it’s near the Schwartz Center student amenity space � finally we decided that since the next project was going to be the fine arts building an art gallery would be suitable.”

The Wilma W. Daniels Gallery showcases the work of regional and national artists as well as faculty and students. It also functions as an educational space serving as a hands-on classroom for teaching curatorial and gallery management practices.

The gallery parallels Hanover Street facing the Wilson Center. It too features a wall of windows. Just like the big facility across the street on opening nights for a new exhibit and for special events passersby can vicariously experience the excitement happening within.

“It’s turned out to be a great little space ” Miller says. “You can’t tell you’re in a parking deck.”

Like the other facilities the windows and architectural touches create human interest.

These buildings were not just constructed; they were thoughtfully incorporated into the bones of the city and carefully molded to the needs of the college and the larger Wilmington community.


Creating these Buildings of Distinction

Wilson Fine Arts Center





PLUMBING/MECHANICAL Cheatham And Associates PA

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Andrew Consulting Engineers

LANDSCAPE DESIGNER Landscape Architectural Construction Consultants

FIRE PROTECTION Robert E. Porterfield PE


THEATER CONSULTANT Theatre Consultants Collaborative LLC

LIGHTING CONSULTANT Lighting Design Collaborative LLC

Union Station



STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Andrew Consulting Engineers



MECHANICAL ENGINEER Cheatham and Associates PA

LANDSCAPE DESIGNER Landscape Architectural Construction Consultants

AV & ACOUSTICS Thorburn Associates Inc.

FOODSERVICE DESIGN Foodesign Associates

PLUMBING Kelly Plumbing Contractors Inc.

HVAC SPC Mechanical Corporation

Hanover Parking Deck/Wilma W. Daniels Gallery


BUILDING CONTRACTOR Monteith Construction & Rodgers Builders

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Andrew Consulting Engineers

MECHANICAL ENGINEER Cheatham And Associates PA


LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE Landscape Architectural Construction Consultants


PARKING CONSULTANT Kimley-Horn and Associates

HVAC Newcomb and Company


PLUMBING Anderson Plumbing Company