DURHAM -When Gary Kueber gave up practicing medicine several years ago, he stopped worrying about tending to people’s fevers, aches and pains.
Instead, he took on a new patient: a city whose signature bricks and mortar he hopes to save from the so-called progress that often leads to sameness.
“The homogeneity of a lot of the new places we build disturbs me,” says Kueber, now a preservationist. “The plasticized, franchised lack of uniqueness that defines a lot of American life — I find that disturbing.”
With that philosophy, Kueber, 38, has emerged as one of Durham’s most resolute advocates for conserving and restoring the architecture of years gone by.
For two and a half years, the New Orleans native has pieced together a provocative snapshot of this former tobacco town at his Endangered Durham blog, endangereddurham.blogspot.com.
“He’s creating a very valuable resource,” says Lynn Richardson, head of the Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection. “He does such a good job of gathering information and making sure it’s correct. It’s a tremendous resource, a gift for Durham.”
Preservation is not only Kueber’s preoccupation, it has become part of his occupation at Scientific Properties, a company behind several significant redevelopment projects in Durham’s old tobacco district and the Hayti neighborhood, once the center of a thriving black middle class.
Kueber did not set out to be a preservationist, nor did he plan on making a living in urban planning and development. He invested most of his 20s and a lot of money in becoming a doctor.
After working in private practice for four years, diagnosing lots of sore throats and constantly wondering why he was less than enthusiastic about his work, Kueber started shopping around for a new profession.
“Medicine never seemed fun to me,” Kueber says. “… It was sort of like being entranced or in love with the idea of doing something, and not being entranced with doing it on Monday morning.”
In 2004, with bachelor’s degrees in English and zoology from Duke University and a medical degree from Louisiana State University, Kueber returned to the classroom.
After receiving a master’s degree in public health in 2005 from UNC-Chapel Hill and doing a residency in preventive medicine in 2006, Kueber got a master’s degree in urban planning in 2007.
During those studies, the disillusioned physician was drawn more and more to research that showed the impact of urban planning on the well-being of a city’s people.
By that time, Kueber had adopted Durham as his home. He bought a former mill house, and while renovating it became curious about his property and the broader history of the area around him.
Soon, Kueber was digging through photo archives in the Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection. He pored over Durham history books and land records.
As Kueber explored the Bull City’s rich past, he worried more and more about its future. Significant landmarks were being demolished.
The Royal Ice Cream parlor, the site of Durham’s first civil-rights sit-in, was torn down.
“I got a call from a friend of mine who said, ‘You won’t believe what they’re doing,’ ” Kueber recalled. “I ran out there with my camera. But I was too late. It was a pile of rubble.”
Properties were being neglected, and city ordinances and state law offered few protections. The county and city were getting rid of whole blocks to make room for governmental development.
So Kueber set out to educate people.
He posted old photos from the library archives and the Durham Herald-Sun’s collection from the past 50 years. With evocative narratives and images from today, he shows what Durham is in danger of losing as it marches ahead in time.
Perusing his blog is like taking a virtual tour through a city lost to the wrecking ball, and looking into the faces of generations lost to time.
There are blurbs about old high schools, fire stations, downtown buildings, parks, and houses where important movers, shakers, musicians and physicians in the city once lived.
“Part of what I wanted to do was an inventory — an inventory that would include what was gone,” Kueber says. “It’s definitely a labor of love. I do post something new every day.”
Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Durham, Kueber looks out on a new courtyard off Corcoran Street where a beloved bull statue stands today. On that site three decades ago was the Washington Duke Hotel — a high-rise building with a grand lobby and noted guests.
“Martin Luther King spoke in that building,” Kueber says.
Eyes on the past
Over the summer, Kueber posted about the tobacco auctions, auctioneers and seasonal culture that played such an important role in the city.
Much of what he posts is written on the weekends and saved for daily distribution later in the week.
These days, his focus has been on East Durham.
“I’m glad his blog is there,” says Eugene Brown, a city councilman. “Although I don’t always agree with him on all his issues, he contributes to Durham in a positive way.”
Kueber cannot really pinpoint what drives his interest in preserving old buildings.
Part of it stems from his New Orleans roots, he says, and part could be because his mother studied architecture and cared about preservation when he was a child.
Not only does he find the architecture of the past more interesting and aesthetically pleasing than much of what goes up today, but Kueber says he finds it environmentally wasteful to demolish existing structures that could be refurbished.
Durham has made strides, he says, with reinvestment in the downtown.
“The biggest thing I would love to see is people all over the place,” Kueber says. “There would be lit-up storefronts, and people coming in and out and just walking the streets. It would be a very walkable city without spaces that feel desolate. I just love going to places, not to do anything, but to immerse myself in the hustle and bustle.”