Can a new doctor’s office breathe life back into a dying town? A visiting professor in the College of Design and a group of NC State architecture students are trying to find out.
Published in NC State magazine, Summer 2004

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Around town hall in Seaboard, they’re calling it “the doctor business.” In a small town, the word “business” often has nothing to do with retail, of course. It’s just shorthand for the details of a story that everyone already knows, an asterisk for memories.

But this doctor business, this is something different altogether—at once familiar and unusual.

Last spring, 14 young people showed up at Seaboard’s door with nary a connection to the place, let alone to its stories. Their granddaddies weren’t born in Seaboard, their money wasn’t in the solitary bank and their families had never owned a single piece of farmland nearby. They had come all the way from Raleigh, driven 97 miles, just to listen to what the 695 residents of Seaboard—which is about 1 square mile in area—had to say about their hometown.

They wanted to know: What do you want more than anything else, for yourselves, for your children? What is your vision? They wanted to know: What will keep Seaboard from becoming an asterisk itself, a dot erased from the map of North Carolina’s endangered farming communities?

Now, just over from the abandoned Seaboard High School building, two doors down from the multifunctional town hall, those NC State architecture graduate students are adding a bit of new life to downtown. They’re building tiny Seaboard a doctor’s office.

Christopher Cleaton, who’s lived 75 years in Seaboard—about 15 miles southwest of Roanoke Rapids in Northampton County—occupies a front desk in town hall. He can’t say what his job is, exactly, because “you can’t specialize in a small town.” What he can say is that it has been 22 years since folks in Seaboard had a doctor—although to him, and many other residents, it feels much longer. Now, the nearest doctor’s office is a 30-minute drive away.

“Most people, I guess, go over to Roanoke Rapids to clinics over there,” he says. “There’s some go to Conway. I remember when Seaboard had two drugstores and two doctors. And when the last doctor died, we hadn’t had one since.”

Gene Varnadoe, Seaboard’s water-and-sewer superintendent, moved here 17 years ago from Tampa, Fla. He put things a bit more bluntly. “The town’s in the process of dying,” he says. “The stories I get told is that in and around Seaboard used to be a town of 4,500 people. They had seven or eight gas stations, a movie theater, four or five department stores. It was a thriving town. Now, everything’s as old as the dickens. Everything’s in a sad state of repair. Downtown, you look around, and there’s just nothing. With a town of 700 people, you can only do so much toward restoration and economic development.”

Seaboard was named after the now defunct southeastern railroad, which merged with Chessie System to form the CSX Corp. in 1980. In the early years of the 20th century, the town’s Seaboard Air Line Railway station drew businesses like a magnet, in turn creating a life of relative convenience for the cotton, soybean, peanut, corn and tobacco farmers who made up the bulk of Seaboard’s workforce, Cleaton says.

But in the early 1950s, times began to change. In Seaboard, as in so many small farming towns, businesses migrated to larger surrounding towns like Roanoke Rapids. Television emerged and the theater closed. Then, the five-and-dime, the grocery and drugstores all packed up and moved away.

Perhaps the final insult to Seaboard’s once proud identity, says Cleaton, came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when schools became more centralized. “There were no more high school football games to take pride in, and everybody who still lived here became less interested in being a part of the town,” he says. (Seaboard students now attend Northampton High-East in Conway, though an elementary school still operates in town.) “Within 10 years, there was almost complete decline from what we had.”

According to statistics kept by the Office of the Governor, Seaboard’s population declined by 12 percent from 1990 to 2000. A little more than half of its families were impoverished in 2000, based on national standards, as were 40 percent of its children under the age of 6—figures that often call out for the kind of attention to health care a local clinic could provide. But in Seaboard, there’s optimism, sparked by one man’s belief in the town where his father grew up, and fueled by the education of a group of architecture students who are getting a crash course in their future profession.

No, a single doctor’s office is not the answer to all the town’s problems. But it sure is a start.

A friend in need

Behind the counter of Seaboard Town Hall, Lillie Ray holds up an unopened envelope bearing an Andy Warhol stamp and a blue check, with a look indicating this piece of mail speaks for itself.

Still, she’s not above acting as its spokesperson.

“See that?” she asks. “That’s from Mr. William Ivey Long. West 20th Street, honey. That’s right off Broadway.”

Long, for the uninitiated, is a four-time Tony Award-winning costume designer for Broadway musicals such as The Producers and Hairspray and a dressmaker for Hollywood stars like Halle Berry. On any given day, you might dial the number to the home he still owns in Seaboard—the town he considers his official residence, despite property owned in New York—and hear his voice ring out on the other end. No assistant, no publicist, no handler. Just another member of the community. Here, in the hometown of his father, former Lost Colony technical director William Long, the younger Long is known for something more impressive than glamorous clothing. He helped start the five-member, nonprofit Eastern Seaboard Trust to revitalize the town that his parents and nine other generations of his family helped build.

College of Design alumnus and Manteo Mayor John Wilson (1975), a member of the trust, persuaded Long to get NC State involved in the nonprofit’s efforts. Wilson called the college’s Research, Extension and Engagement Office in 2002 and asked if it would be interested in drawing an urban-design plan for Seaboard, incorporating several pieces of land Long owns such as a downtown storefront and the old high school building.

“It was an appeal for community assistance,” says School of Architecture Director Tom Barrie. “And it’s part of the mission of a land-grant university. The way community design projects ideally work is that a community will come to us and say, ‘We need a plan. And we don’t have the funding to do it, and we don’t know what to do next. But we really need some help.’ There’s a long tradition of this at NC State, where student teams, led by the expertise of the faculty, can secure a minimal amount of funding and draw up a preliminary plan.”

Often, those student teams—participating in what are called design studios for academic credit—would break up once the suggestions for land use were finished. Clients would then hire professional builders to finish the job. But clients like Seaboard, says Barrie, are “communities of need” that lack the resources to finish the work.

A different option
Enter Bryan Bell, a visiting assistant professor of architecture, who is coordinating the student effort in Seaboard. With degrees from Yale and Princeton, Bell abandoned the high-profile, high-money work he did at the New York firm Steven Holl—where he worked with a team that designed a 7,500-square-foot private residence in Dallas. He chose instead a life of architecture was community service in 1991. That’s when he moved to Gettysburg, Pa., and opened a nonprofit architectural firm called Design Corps.

Bell and a team of interns and volunteers surveyed the needs of migrant farmworkers, who often are forced to accept subpar living conditions. Using their answers, Bell and his team built housing for the workers, using both government grants and funds from farmers who employed the migrant workers, eventually installing structures in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Bell moved Design Corps to Raleigh three years ago to continue building for farmworkers in the area. But his interests by then also had led him to education, through a community-service movement called “design-build.”

As the name implies, design-build means that college students don’t just draw plans for a new doctor’s clinic or new home; they provide the manpower to construct them. The approach is gaining steam at schools that teach architecture, including Pennsylvania State, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Auburn and Rice—where fading rural farming towns and failed urban housing projects abound nearby.

For Bell, who has completed 18 such studios at several universities, it seemed only natural to continue the work at NC State. Seaboard’s needs, then, became his third design-build project with College of Design students. (The others were a migrant workers’ bathhouse in Sampson County, constructed by undergraduate architecture students, and a shelter next to a community playground and soccer field in Clinton.) Officially, Bell’s designbuild studios count as a six-credit-hour course. But in reality, projects such as Seaboard can take 20 hours a week.

The long hours, Bell says, are well worth it for young architects in training.

“You can get a real view of the design process out here,” he says of Seaboard. “You can see all the challenges of design that you can’t see in the classroom.”

You also can sense Bell’s strongly held belief that architecture, in general, fails to reach everyone but those in the upper income levels. That the world of good design is closed off to most of the population, including 98 percent of all new home buyers.

“People should be able to participate in the decisions that shape their lives,” he writes as editor in Good Deeds, Good Designs, a new book of community design essays. “And the design of the built environment is one of these decisions.”

The built world, says Bell, has the power to shape the quality of lives, the way people live.

The design-build movement is tailor-made for academia and for NC State, says Barrie, who has had his share of experience with community service through architecture. He came to the school in July 2002 from Detroit, Mich.—a place he calls “an urban developer’s dream.” There, he ran The Detroit Studio, a nonprofit community design workshop, through Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich. He hopes to open a similar studio in Raleigh soon. Like Bell, Barrie believes architecture at its best can be a catalyst for social change, building access to basic needs—like a place to seek health care—one structure at a time.

“That’s the not-so-hidden agenda of this project,” Barrie says of the community designbuild studios. “[S]tudents really learn about the bigger context within which they’re working. Most of the architectural press is about high-profile buildings for privileged clients. But that’s not where a lot of the work is actually being done. And it’s certainly not where most of the need is. Some of these students, we hope, will go on to be leaders in areas where our country really needs it.”

Katie Wakeford, a master’s student on the Seaboard initiative, says she plans to go into community-design work after she finishes at NC State—a direct result of the project with Bell.

“I feel strongly, and I think most of us here do, that good design shouldn’t be reserved for only the top 1 or 2 percent of Americans,” she says. “It has something to offer everybody, and it should be accessible to everyone. When I started architecture school, I was only somewhat knowledgeable about [community design]. Now that I’ve been part of this, I feel like it makes the work so much more satisfying.”

Getting started
Armed with a grant from the Rural Center, a nonprofit that provides research and relief to North Carolina’s 85 rural counties, Wakeford and her classmates visited Seaboard in the spring semester of 2003 to research the town’s needs. Wakeford and Bell, in particular, worked with schoolchildren, developing coloring books of local scenes into which they could draw themselves as a way of getting their take on their hometown. They also threw a birthday party commemorating Seaboard’s founding, so the children could celebrate the town while learning about its history.

But the main events were the charettes—an architectural word for community input workshops—in which Bell and the students brought together the “grown-up” residents to discuss where they wanted Seaboard to go. The graduate students then translated those responses into an urban-design plan for the town that reflected their concerns, which were many. Residents wanted a reinforced downtown that would be obvious to drivers, who might stop to visit and maybe even fall in love with the place. They wanted a drop in the vacancy rate of storefronts, and new businesses and community activities that would improve the quality of life and spur people to move to the town. Almost every student drew a specific proposal for a building, including a canopied farmers’ market and a community theater. In all, 18 buildings were proposed, but the college could take on only one.

In the end, it was the doctor’s office that the residents wanted most.

“It really bothered all the residents—regardless of age—that they had to drive [so far] to the nearest doctor,” Bell says. “It caused a certain amount of insecurity and fear that I think anyone could understand.”

In November, after settling on a design and securing the documentation necessary to start building, Bell’s students broke ground on the storefront property owned by William Ivey Long, who also loans his Seaboard home to students while they’re at work on the clinic.

“We’re out here trying to learn real-world skills,” Wakeford says. She points to the rods that will reinforce the concrete coming next week. “This steel we’re putting in the bottom of the trenches is something that architects have to design all the time. But very few architects have actually put it in the trench themselves and realized, ‘If that doesn’t work quite the way I thought it did.’

“It’s really very eye-opening to have to do it yourself and discover the things you don’t realize when you’re just looking at it on paper,” she continues.

“When I might have to design a footing in the future, I’ll have this in my mind’s eye. I’ll remember things that I learned here that I won’t have to look up in a book, but I’ll also just appreciate that it’s really hard to work in that trench, and how can I design it so that it will be more easily applied?”

It takes a village
Thumb-twiddling isn’t common on the building site, which is easily the most bustling 2,400 square feet in town on the Wednesdays and Fridays that the students come to work. Tape measures stretch across the ditches that will hold the concrete foundations. There are consultations with Bell regarding dimensions for the ambulance entrance at the back and wheelbarrows chugging dirt across narrow pieces of plywood. An electrician comes and goes. Above the soundtrack of hammers and shovels, Marni Vinton (2003 MARCH) and Ashley Henkel (2003 MARCH) reflect on the experience that involves sociology as much as design knowledge.

“We really worked as a group to come up with the floor plan,” Vinton says, noting that everyone in the class drew up proposals for the clinic design. From there, they combined the best elements of the most appropriate designs for the final product. “So everybody really does have ideas here. It makes everyone feel like they have ownership of it. It was very much a team effort.

“Which was frustrating at times,” Vinton adds with a smile and a small step backward, “because when 14 people design something this small … .”

“I think as students of architecture, there’s a lot of ego involved,” Henkel says. “And you have to put that aside when you’re going to design something like this.”

One thing the students clashed over was windows. The wall of the clinic that will support the three exam rooms faces west—not optimal sunlight for the large windows the students had planned. “It really becomes like a microwave oven when you’re sitting in there,” says Henkel of the not-yet-existent rooms. “It’s heat gain, completely.”

At the same time, Vinton points out, “You need some big, operable windows there, because it’s a doctor’s of.ce. You need good ventilation in a place where infections will be walking around.” So they struck a compromise: big windows with shading devices combined with exam rooms that jut through the concrete side wall to lessen the western light and bring in slivers of sun from the south and the north.

“It’s a lot of discovery as you go,” says Vinton. “You really have to become an expert in whatever field you’re building for. It makes architects pretty well-rounded.” To find out what Seaboard’s clinic needed, students first had to tour the clinic in Conway that residents now frequent—and talk with Dr. Frank Turner, a Seaboard native who has agreed to split time between the two towns once the new clinic is ready to operate.

“It was more than just figuring out what [residents and the doctor] said they wanted,” second-year graduate student Matthew Szymanski (2003 MARCH) says. “There were some things at the Conway clinic that weren’t working well, from a design perspective, that they didn’t even realize weren’t working. When we spoke with [the nurses and doctors], their focus was on what patients needed when visiting the clinic. We were there to focus on what would make it easier for the doctor and nurses to focus on the patients.”

For example, Szymanski and his classmates saw nurses working between stations or areas that ideally would be adjacent, but were not. When the students designed the new clinic, they made sure efficiency of movement wasn’t an issue for health-care workers.

Old is new
To be sure, the new clinic won’t look like it has just dropped in from the 1930s, as the rest of Seaboard currently does. The front will be in lockstep with the town’s older facades, as requested by Long; but the side wall will appear more modern. That’s both a reflection of necessity—to take advantage of improvements in design since the town was originally built—and of the sheer pleasure in creating something different.

“You want to have respect for the context,” Bell says. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to do all this work and have the result look the same as the rest of the town. You want to know something has changed when you look at the building. The result is to balance the new and the old.”

The students also have become adept scavengers. Various building companies donated much of the material they are using—the students spent two weeks cleaning up Raleigh-based contractor Precision Walls’ warehouse, collecting aluminum scraps—while other materials came straight from the ingenuity of the students themselves.

“It just so happens,” says Henkel, “that a lot of us live in the Cameron Village area …”

“… And it just so happens,” says Vinton, “that they recently decided to remodel.”

“We were like, ‘Oh, you’re getting rid of all those awnings? We gotta have them!’” Henkel says, laughing. So the shopping center’s old blue-and-white arches and Plexiglas will be refashioned into interior partitions for Seaboard’s clinic. Bell says he probably will need to raise about $70,000 in donations to complete the clinic, not including donated building materials and labor.

Vinton and Henkel joined the studio in the fall semester, whereas about half of the class has been with it since the beginning talks with townspeople last spring. A project like Seaboard’s can take 18 months to finish because it must be coordinated with other academic schedules. Vinton, along with Henkel, who graduated in December, won’t be around to see the last nail hammered into the clinic—probably sometime in summer. That’s disappointing for them, but Henkel says the experience has taught her how to work as a team—something that she says she’ll likely encounter in the commercial world, working with five or six other architects at a time.

Vinton agrees. “I’ve been telling myself, ‘If I can get through this, 14 people working on this small a building, I can get through anything and anybody,’” she says. “You’re never going to work on a project this small with this many people. Fourteen or 15 people would be building a 2 million-square-foot structure. More like a high school or a convention center.”

A tough sell
Neither Vinton nor Henkel plans to continue in community design after this project. Nonprofit design work can be a hard sell when there are loans to pay back. (Bell recently introduced a one-year fellowship for graduates through Design Corps to lessen the financial sting.) In that sense, the young architectural community servants have much in common with others their age who hail from towns in need.

“We have lost all of our young people,” says Seaboard’s mayor, Melvin Broadnax. “When they finish school, they have their bags packed. They’ve got to find jobs.”

In fact, on Wednesdays and Fridays, the clinic building site is probably the largest concentration of people in their 20s and early 30s in Seaboard. He can’t blame the younger generation for leaving—after all, his parents were tenant farmers, and nine of their 10 children got college degrees, opening worlds to them beyond the tiny limits of Seaboard. There are bigger things waiting in the wings.

Broadnax just hopes that, one day, the children of Seaboard will remember those coloring books they worked on, and think of the town as something more than a place to run from. Perhaps when they return to Seaboard, they’ll find a peanuts- and cotton-farming community transformed into a bustling town, a place they’d like to raise their own children. Maybe it’ll turn out to be true that old towns never die; they just come back to life with donated objects and found materials, the kindness of friends and a bit of luck—and the dedication of a few plucky college students.

This doctor business? Who knows. It could be quite the franchise.

Copyright 2004 NC State Alumni Association