All Aboard for Apex

By Diane Lea

Small Town Sophistication


Apex, a thriving town of 30,000 in southwest Wake County, more than lives up to the town motto touting it as the "Peak of Good Living." Chartered in 1873, Apex was so named because the depot around which the town grew was the highest elevation on the Chatham Railroad between Richmond, VA, and Jacksonville, FL. Today, Apex has grown more than 600 percent beyond its 1990 population of 4,500 and is notable for its tasteful new residential and commercial developments, numerous parks and greenways, a modernist regional library, and a historic Downtown that features an enviable mix of offices, services, stylish restaurants and food shops, antique stores, and specialty retail establishments. The Downtown was the focus for Apex's Today and Yesterday Festival in September. The Christmas Parade and Historic Homes Tour come in December, and the Peak Week Festival in May.

The bustling historic Downtown flanks both sides of Apex's Salem Street, adjacent to the railroad tracks where the melodious whistles of trains are heard throughout the day. Architectural historian, Ruth Little, who prepared the National Register Nomination for what became the Apex Historic District, describes Salem Street as "an almost continuous streetscape of early 20th-century railroad, commercial and municipal buildings." It is lined by handsome brick one-and two-story commercial buildings fanning out from the restored 1914 Apex Union Depot. A one-story brick structure with a bell cast roof supported by heavy chamfered brackets, the depot is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Wake County Historic Landmark. Now the headquarters for the Apex Chamber of Commerce, the building was designed by the Norfolk office of the Seaboard Railway and built to replace an earlier depot destroyed by fire.

Iron horse town

Little notes that the depot embodies the reason for Apex's existence, first as a stop for the North Carolina Railroad bringing coal from Chatham County to Raleigh, and later, at the turn of the century, as the transportation center for the rich tobacco harvests brought to auction in Apex, the region's first tobacco market town outside of Raleigh. In the early 1920s, changing agricultural practices and a failed effort to convert the town's tobacco warehouses to cooperative ownership led to the loss of the Apex tobacco market and a decline in the town's population. The 1930 census showed a population of 863, down from 1,000 in the post-World War I period.

So what put Apex back on the track and led to its being named by Business North Carolina magazine as the "Best Small Town in North Carolina?" Mayor Keith Weatherly gives a lot of credit to the town's respect for its heritage and appreciation of its friendly small-town atmosphere. "About 10 years ago, Apex town officials and governmental staff and the citizens made the decision to capitalize on the largely intact historic architecture in the Downtown by putting all utilities under ground. Then, we thought, why not go all the way and put in new, more appropriate street lights and new sidewalks to give the whole commercial core an upfit?" The decision, which involved investing town funds, as well as seeking state discretionary funds to accomplish the task, proved prescient. With the help of Raleigh landscape architect Dan Sears and his firm, the transformation of Apex became a reality, and in 1996 Apex was awarded the first of two Anthemion Awards it would garner from Wake County's Capital Area Preservation organization. Weatherly thinks the success of the project gave all the Downtown property owners and other stake-holders a sense of pride in their buildings and businesses. This impression is borne out again and again by the inviting store fronts and the cornucopia of wares often out on the sidewalk for display.

Town and campus

The next big project in the reinventing of Apex was the purchase and redevelopment of a large tract of land at the edge of Downtown for the Town Campus, completed in 2001. Planning Director David Rowland says that it was important to locate the governmental campus, which is comprised of the Town Hall and the Apex Community Center, Downtown. "The commissioners and the mayor wanted the Town Hall to be a symbol of Apex. Connecting it to the historic Downtown and choosing a style of architecture that is reminiscent of an old tobacco warehouse accomplished that." Rowland added: "We asked our architectural firm, NBBJ, to incorporate details from the old Apex depot into the Town Hall design, too. That's where the brackets and the flared roofline came from.  The large arched windows are similar to those in the old Town Hall." After only four years in their new buildings, the town is completing the Town Hall's unfinished third floor and doubling the size of the Apex Community Center. "We are adding 22,000 square feet to include a new gymnasium, expanded storage, administrative offices for the Recreation Department and more meeting rooms," explained Rowland. "The current meeting rooms are so popular, even the town has difficulty in booking them for its own meetings."

Rowland credits John Brown, Director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, a man with an impressive array of projects already underway, with adding yet one more. "John is spearheading an initiative to raise additional money to rehabilitate the old Town Hall and adapt it to a Performing and Cultural Arts Center," says Rowland. The estimated cost of the restoration is $1.2 million, with Brown contemplating raising another $800,000 in private donations to double the size of the building. "John and the Town are working with architect Steve Schuster and Clearscapes Inc. on the Center renovation."

Schuster, a Raleigh architect, whose firm has done much work in small towns, is also working with Apex to refine the design standards for infill and new construction, as well as for large-scale additions to buildings. The purpose is to allow for a better integration of new and larger buildings into the relatively small scale, low-rise Apex townscape. Rowland points out that Schuster's work is intended to encourage more creative use of large sub-dividable lots. "We hope to create a model using a group of three well-known residences, and by virtual imaging show what a replacement design would look like using our current, less creative standards, and then what a replacement design might look like under the new, more flexible standards," says Rowland.

Though Apex is proud of its historic Downtown, the town's goal is to achieve quality in every aspect of its growth and development. Town Manager Bruce Radford, who was formerly the Town Manager of Selma, NC, is glad to be working in Apex at this time.  "There is such an enormous amount of growth underway, it is both exciting and demanding," he says. "Our staff and officials are constantly paying attention to details in all our projects, whether they are focused on the Downtown, our expanding parks and greenways systems, new commercial centers, new residential neighborhoods or new capital improvement projects for the Town. We do this to ensure that quality development is what we get."

Seeing Is believing

In a tour of the town with Planning Director Rowland, Radford's words became tangible in a variety of settings. The entrance to Apex along NC Highway 55, which is called Williams Street, offers little of the road-rash and unadorned strip commercial development that often are the first glimpse of a community. Good access roads, lush landscaping and a requirement that a certain percentage of parking be placed to the sides of the complexes accomplishes this pleasing access. Even the larger commercial strip centers and big-box shopping installations place parking to the sides rather than array it in a vast forecourt in front of the buildings. Haddon Hall Commons and Peakway Market Square are well landscaped and sit off the highway with discreet entrances and thoughtfully scaled buildings. Beaver Creek Commons, at 300,000 square feet, and Beaver Creek Crossing, which will account for 700,000 square feet, are located across Highway 64 from one another with the buildings occupied by large retailers disaggregated and accented with contrasting bands of brick and recessed entrances. "We will have a bridge across Highway 64 so shoppers can be above the traffic when moving from one center to the other," adds Rowland.

Developments that meet the town's standards enjoy commercial success while adding to the quality of life in Apex. Scott's Mill, a neo-urbanist neighborhood with a variety of housing styles and a mix of traditional and town homes, is selling well with few For Sale signs in evidence. The development's first commercial building is going up adjacent to the park green. Slated for retail establishments, as well as offices, the complex is across the street from an award-winning school complex designed by Raleigh architect Roger Cannon. "The town homes in Scott's Mill border our greenway, Beaver Creek Parkway," says Rowland. "Eventually our greenway system will connect to The American Tobacco Trail, and hikers and bicyclists will be able to follow it all the way to Durham."

Two favorite Apex amenities are the town's reservoir and its public library. Easily accessible from Highway 64, Community Park Lake is suitable for fishing and water gazing and is ringed by a jogging trail set beneath mature shade trees. Across the highway, the Eva Perry Regional Library sits on an elevated site filled with beautiful plantings. "The library, designed by Raleigh architect Louis Cherry, is very modern and user friendly," says Rowland. "Cherry worked with a committee who requested that there be window walls so the books could be seen from the outside. It is especially nice at night with the lights showing up the interior."

Joining much of the Apex community for the free hot dog lunch provided at petroleum distributor L.G. Jordan's Hospitality Day, we took a stroll back down Salem Street. It provided the opportunity to purchase a couple of tasty loaves of bread and sample a chocolate cookie at Savoy Cakes and Pastry Shop and visit with town resident, businessman and restaurateur Steven Adams. A mortgage broker, Adams came to Apex four years ago and fell in love with the 1912 Classical Revival-style Watkins and Seymour Building, the largest on the block. After making an extensive renovation, Adams has opened a 5,400-square-foot restaurant, the Peak City Grill and Bar, on the building's main level. His mortgage company, Regency Home Funding, has offices on the second floor. As an enthusiastic crowd enjoyed Peak City's American steakhouse cuisine and eyed the impressive array of beers and wines behind the handcrafted bar, chef Franz Propst and sous chef Stephen Wagner smiled approvingly from their open kitchen. The patina on the restaurant's original pressed-tin ceiling was complemented perfectly by designer Michelle Ishihara's faux finishes on the walls and columns and her warm and subtle colors.

Rowland, whose time in Apex spans 18 years, has seen the results of the combined and coordinated efforts of government, staff and citizenry. "We're all about keeping the small town experience while providing a very sophisticated quality of life," says Rowland. It's a noble mission, and Apex is carrying it out well. 


Lamp Maker Extraordinaire

You will find Louise Gaskill's one-of-a-kind lamps, elegant gilded sofas, mirrors and chandeliers in high-end emporiums including Raleigh's Thompson-Lynch in Cameron Village, the avant-garde Porto in the new North Hills and Furniture Solutions on Falls of the Neuse Road. She works closely with area designers Beverly Taylor, Michael Steiner and Susan Stone, and her work has been featured in Country Living and other life-style publications. Several designers selected Gaskill's lamps to adorn their rooms in the Andrews-London House, the subject of the April 2005 Designer's Showhouse jointly sponsored by Raleigh Woman's Club and the Carolinas Chapter of the ASID.

Gaskill, who grew up in historic New Bern, came to Raleigh to attend Meredith College and never left. When asked about the evolution of her craft as lamp-maker and gilder, Gaskill says she was always refinishing furniture and searching through yard sales and thrift shops for interesting items. About five years ago, she found a beautiful old watercolor in an antique frame. "I wanted to preserve the old finish of the frame so I went to Askew Taylor at his art supply store in Raleigh, and he walked me through the process of gilding." The skill proved useful as Gaskill moved into creating distinctive lamps by combining wonderful objects, often with new bases or elements that she touched with gilt. On a sideboard in Porto, Gaskill's lamp transformations include the celadon green porcelain leg of an antique sink, a delicate Murano glass vase, and a graceful blue urn, a favorite color for the artist. Gaskill is currently at work on a kitchen chandelier with glass shades taken from an old Lutheran church. "I purchased them on e-Bay," says Gaskill. "This piece is just so much fun."
Gaskill's next "Big Thing" is working with designer Susan Stone to provide lamps for WRAL-TV's Make a Wish Show House, opening in November in the Registry neighborhood off Creedmoor Road in Raleigh.

-Diane Lea