To Live is to Leave Traces: Learning from Adaptive Reuse
To Live is to Leave Traces: Learning from Adaptive Reuse

To Live is to Leave Traces: Learning from Adaptive Reuse

Learning from Adaptive Reuse

 adapted and abridged from:

 Adaptive Reuse and Community History and Archiving

 A White Paper


Final Report for:

“Rocky Mount Mills: From Adaptive Reuse to Public Engagement,” a project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and Data Administration, Project #DP100110.

September 30, 2019

Robert C. Allen[1]

Principal Investigator

James Logan Godfrey Professor of American Studies

Co-Director, Community Histories Workshop


To live is to leave traces.

–Walter Benjamin

The functional recycling of buildings, sites, and architectural features is a practice as old as architecture itself.  This in part because, as Sally Stone notes in her recently book, Undoing Buildings: Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Memory,[2] structures have a way of outliving specific functions.  The practice has also long been a way of negotiating continuity and change: new functional wine in old structural bottles.

The use and reuse of buildings over long periods of time entail multiple practices and purposes.  Some buildings are intended to or develop a special cultural, ideological, or social status. Thus, societies attempt to maintain them and prevent their demolition or falling into disuse.  In some cases buildings have retained a cultural role and function across time and despite social and political changes: pagan temples are converted into Christian churches; churches are converted into mosques.  In some cases only elements of a pre-existing architectural structure have been preserved and incorporated into a new structure—its prior use obscured or erased.  There is the modern impulse to attempt to return a venerable building to the way it looked at the time of its erection or some other notable moment of its architectural past, which can mean removing evidence of change made at some subsequent point in its history.

The meanings of these practices exceed their narrow definitions in building design and engineering.  Rather they propagate multiple terms resonating across a range of disciplines and practices, which, as Liliane Wong notes in her 2016 book, Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings[3] (Basil: Birkhäuser) “exist in multiplicity, with nuanced and, at times, disparate definitions (and opinionated viewpoints) for the same word.” (p. 8).

Indeed Wong provides a sixteen-page historical glossary of terms related to but not substitutes for “adaptive reuse,” including: adaptation, addition, alteration, conservation, conversion, extension, maintenance, modernization, preservation, reconstruction, refurbishment, rehabilitation, relocation, remodeling, renewal, renovation, repair, replication, restoring, retrofitting (pp. 13-29)

Stone engages with and responds to this lexicon, but she also provides a succinct but capacious working definition of adaptive reuse, which will serve as the terminological starting point for our purposes.  Adaptive reuse “implies a change a function of a building whose previous use is now obsolete. And therefore it’s changed to accommodate a new function, with new occupiers with different needs and priorities. This could be the conversion of a consecrated church into apartments, or an industrial warehouse into a museum. (p. 4).

Stone’s definition can be further parsed into its contributing components.


Adaptive reuse responds to a disruption, a discontinuity, a transformation that fundamentally alters the meanings of a building within the contexts of its intended and/or conventional purposes, users, and value.  Adaptive reuse is not a smooth process of transition from one use to another.  It responds to a violent and ineluctable wrenching apart of space and function.  It might literally arise as the result of a cascade of technological transformation (the proverbial buggy-whip factory), but, as was the case of the textile industry in the American South, also the evacuation of the spaces of traditional manufacture and its apparently permanent geographic and economic relocation to other places in the world.


Prior Function

Adaptive reuse responds to a profound disconnection between the space of a building and the use/s that space was designed or evolved to make possible and sustain (see “Obsolescence” below)



Stone locates the “unit” of adaptive reuse at the level of the building, which is conceptually useful in several respects.  Later in her book, Stone reminds us that each building is different, and thus each adaptive reuse project is different.  Also, as she puts it, “the circumstance of that difference means that each [building] has an individual tale to tell, something that describes the narrative of its existence.” (p. 4)   Each building also has a particular “rapport” with its environment,  which is not fixed but changes in relation to the building’s  history, that of the people who occupy it, and the surrounding community.

Wong uses the metaphor of the hermit crab to talk about buildings as “hosts” for particular occupants and functions.  A building defines spaces through which different “guests” circulate. (p. 104) The aggregate interior space of a building establishes perimeters and boundaries between itself and the physical and social world beyond its doors and gates.

Building also defines the level at which adaptive reuse developers, architects, and designers operate.  It represents the stubborn persistence of structure and physical precedence that condition the architect’s imagination.  It is that which must be owned or “controlled” in order for the adaptive reuse development enterprise to commence.  It establishes how in square feet its value will be measured.  Its unique historicity is what is at stake in the designation of official landmark status, which, in turn, can be monetized as federal, state, and local tax credits.

Buildings are uniquely marked by their histories and by the people who made them.  Stone turns to Walter Benjamin: “To live is to leave traces.”



Obsolescence is the exhaustion of use in relation to value.  It renders what was once productivity as superfluous and unsustainable routine.  It deprives work of meaning.

Obsolescence strips a building of its identity and meaning.  For example, a mill is a place where workers operate machinery in the production of what will eventually become goods.  When the mill closes everyone who once worked there is stripped of his or her identity.  The machines—the mill’s real assets—are the first things to go.  With no machines and no one to work them, mills become useless spaces.  As architectural plans and historic photographs reveal, mills are purpose-built and industry specific.  They might be adapted to produce different types of textiles, for example (a cotton sheeting plant becomes a tire-cord plant), but a textile mill is unlikely to be easily repurposed by its owners as an office building or a department store.

Capitalism creates industrial buildings; it also consigns them to the status of ruins.  Modernity has no place (one could say “no use”) for uselessness.   Cotton mills in the South were once icons of progress.  Small towns vied with each other to attract entrepreneurs willing to build a mill.  In the process towns acquired a completely new type of building and a new set of economic relationships to which their inhabitants were subject.  Farmers became mill “operatives.” In some small towns, the mill was, effectively, the defining feature of that town, with the name of the mill and the name of the town becoming synonymous.

When the last mill closed in the 1980s or 1990s, towns, and people, and buildings lost their usefulness and their identities.   When it became apparent that there were no late twentieth century entrepreneurs in most towns to reconstruct, refurbish, rehabilitate, remodel, renewal, renovate, repair, restore, or retrofit the buildings in relation to their original industrial purpose, these structures were abandoned.  They became industrial ruins and blights on the local landscape.


New Functions

Adaptive reuse is a transformative intervention in the life of a building.  It is a response to the building as industrial ruin by an entity with the resources and vision to be able to impose a possible future on it.

Rodolfo Machado refers to adaptive reuse as an “architectural palimpsest”—the architectural equivalent of writing over on the same page, or painting over the same canvas in such a way that previous inscriptions are still visible.  The building’s past is what he calls a “package of sense”—accumulated meanings that reuse can underscore, re-mark, point toward, or efface.  But the deeper layers of the building’s history are still there beneath even the most resolute attempts to rub them out. [4]  Stone (p. 74) argues that the repurposed building can symbolize the transition from one culture to another.  In communities defined by a mill or factory for generations, reuse is sometimes cast as a sign of civic rebirth.

These new functions are themselves responses to a new set of needs and priorities, which could have instigated the adaptive reuse process to begin with.  Adaptive reuse inevitably produces a tension between the prior functions of the building and those envisioned for its future.  Stone provides two examples as a part of her definition of adaptive reuse: “This could be the conversion of a deconsecrated church into apartments, or an industrial warehouse into a museum.”  Both point to the question of who gets to decide which buildings will be repurposed for what functions—whose needs and priorities are paramount.


The Landscape of Adaptive Reuse in North Carolina[5]

In some respects North Carolina shares the adaptive reuse landscape with other states, but is distinguished by the predominance of the industrial legacy of a single industry: textiles.  Between 1885 and 1920, the economic, social, and cultural landscape of the southeastern Piedmont was transformed by what a contemporaneous commentator called the “Cotton Mill Campaign.” From Virginia to Alabama, thousands of textile mills and villages to house the families who worked in them seemed to sprout from the red clay. Nowhere was this transformation more pronounced than in North Carolina, where the number of mills increased five-fold. By the beginning of World War I, more than fifty thousand white men, women, and children (some younger than twelve) worked in mills. An even larger number of North Carolinians—white, black, and Native American—were connected to the mills in some way: growing, processing, selling, or transporting cotton; cooking in boarding houses and lunchrooms; caring for children; preaching in the mill churches; and teaching in the mill schools.

The cotton mill boom was itself built on the modest success of pioneering industrialists who harnessed shoals and falls in the state’s inland river valleys to power small cotton gins and mills and leased slave labor from surrounding farms to operate them. Whether these settler-entrepreneurs knew it or not, the falls they appropriated had been important features in the indigenous landscape for thousands of years.

The deployment of slaves and free persons of color as mill operatives came to an end after the Civil War. The business model of the late nineteenth century textile industry in the South depended upon a great regional migration of tens of thousands of white farming families, pushed off the land by ruinous tenant and sharecropping practices and lured into “public work” in the burgeoning small towns of the Piedmont by the prospect of housing, steady work for multiple family members, and the amenities of village life. As steam and electricity replaced water power, cotton mills and villages were sited along the expanding rail networks that connected raw cotton to manufacturing to markets for yarn, sheeting, and woven goods. Although African Americans would continue to be connected to the textile economy, by 1898 when African American entrepreneur Warren Coleman established the first black-owned and operated mill in North Carolina, the New York Times reported that there were no black “operatives” in any of the state’s two hundred mills.

As historian Jacquelyn Hall and her colleagues demonstrated in their path-breaking book, Like a Family, a distinctive culture grew out of cotton mill work and mill village communities in North Carolina, affecting every aspect of everyday life: religion, music, education, sports and leisure, foodways, health, gender roles, and race relations. As they argue, cotton mills were sites of long, hard, and dirty work. They were also sites of struggle over working conditions and low pay that sometimes erupted into violence.  But cotton mill life engendered distinctive social relations and identities that spanned multiple generations across the twentieth century. Conditions were different in Roanoke Rapids and Ranlo, Saxapahaw and Shelby, but there were strands of shared experience involved in life on the mill village wherever it was.

African Americans, however, were excluded from most jobs in textile production for most of the twentieth century, and, concomitantly, from mill village communities. African American men worked on the loading docks in some plants; African American women were restricted to cleaning jobs and food service. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and other victories in the struggle to break down Jim Crow barriers to equal employment resulted in a change in the textile workforce in the South of historic proportions. In 1960, textiles were still the South’s largest industry, but only 3.3% of textile workers were black. By the end of the 1970s, African Americans held more than a quarter of all production jobs. Historian Gavin Wright has called the dramatic influx of black workers, both male and female, in the 1960s and 1970s “a genuine revolution, very deserving of a prominent place in the history of the civil rights movement.”

A century after the “Cotton Mill Campaign” began and over the same amount of time that it developed, the textile and apparel industry in North Carolina withered. Foreign competition, international trade agreements, changes in import quotas, the admission of China, Vietnam, and other low-wage manufacturing countries to the WTO combined in the 1980s and 1990s to drive hundreds of U.S. textile companies out of business. In North Carolina alone between 1982 and 1985, seventy-six plants closed putting 10,000 textile workers out of a job. The second largest textile producing state in the country, North Carolina lost more textile jobs and closed more plants than any other state. Between 1996 and 2006, fifty-five percent of its apparel plants closed, and its textile workforce dropped from 233,000 to 80,000.

The effects of the collapse of the textile industry in North Carolina cascaded through hundreds of small towns: unemployment soared; municipal tax bases shrank; small businesses that served mill communities failed. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the landscape of Piedmont North Carolina was pockmarked by abandoned textile plants, derelict mill houses, and boarded-up storefronts. Some plants and houses were demolished, but many still stand as mute reminders of a bygone way of life.

However, a number of communities responded by initiating discussions among civic and business leaders, community groups, property developers and historic preservation organizations to explore the repurposing of textile plants and the revitalization of mill villages. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program had been in place since 1976, offering tax credits for the rehabilitation of “historic, income-producing buildings.”

In 1998, the State of North Carolina expanded its program of historic tax credits, and since then North Carolina has been a national leader in historic rehabilitation projects. Between 1998 and 2013, some 2164 adaptive reuse projects were completed, representing an investment of $1.36 billion. In 2011, the state was third in the nation in the number of such projects. Among these was the Loray Mill development in Gastonia, North Carolina: the restoration and repurposing of what was once the largest textile mill under one roof in the South. The $40 million, 630,000 square foot development—the largest adaptive reuse project in state history—opened in the winter of 2015 as 190 loft apartments and 80,000 feet of commercial and retail space.

[1] This white paper and final report reflects the input from a number of people who worked together on adaptive reuse projects undertaken over the last six years through the UNC Digital Innovation Lab and Community Histories Workshop, in particular: Nicole Coscolluela, Project Coordinator, Rocky Mount Mills Project; Sarah Almond, Assistant Director, Community Histories Workshop (CHW); Elijah Gaddis, Assistant Professor of History, Auburn Univ, and Co-Director, Will Bosley, General Manager, UNC Digital Innovation Lab; CHW; Seth Kotch, Co-Founder, CHW, and Professor of American Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill; Lucas Kelley, graduate research fellow, CHW; Bernetiae Reed, Community-Driven Archiving Team, Southern Historical Collection; Evan Covington Chavez, Project Manager, Rocky Mount Mills, Capitol Broadcasting Company; Traci Thompson, Local History and Genealogical Librarian, Braswell Memorial Library, Rocky Mount, NC; Christie Norris, Director, Carolina K-12; Mary D. Williams, gospel singer extraordinaire; John Mebane, former president, Rocky Mount Mills; Julie Davis, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Digital Innovation Lab.  Many community members in each of the towns in which we have worked contributed their memories, stories, and family heirlooms.

[2] Sally Stone, Undoing Buildings: Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Memory (London: Routledge, 2020).

[3] Liliane Wong, Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings (Basil: Birkhäuser).

[4] Rodolfo Machado, “Old Buildings as Palimpsest,” Progressive Architecture 57: 11 [1976], pp. 46-49.

[5] This section is adapted from the project narrative for “Rocky Mount Mills: From Adaptive Reuse to Public Engagement,” a project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and Data Administration, Project #DP100110.