The Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences, located in downtown Rocky Mount, is one of the premier cultural facilities on the eastern seaboard. The 135,000 square foot facility occupies the combined former sites of the old Braswell Memorial Library and the Imperial Tobacco company. The Rocky Mount branch of the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland played a major role in Eastern North Carolina’s tobacco industry for more than 65 years. The buildings that compose the main facility were added to over the years, with over 90% of the surviving structures dating from 1903 to 1923. The result is a historically significant building with architectural elements that evoke an industrialized version of the medieval Romanesque style.
All operations at the facility had ceased by the 1980s, and the buildings remained unoccupied until their renovation. During that process, great care was taken to preserve as many of the significant architectural features and remaining industrial features as possible. The latter include a 90-foot fire brick chimney, a 180-foot long overhead steel conveyor, an 80-foot steel water tower, and a steel and brick boiler the size of a small house.
The original Imperial Tobacco Company building. This photo was taken in the 1960s, showing the addition of a small two-story extension (behind the water tower). Known as the McDonald Street building, the original three-story brick structure was used for hand and machine stemming and ordering. This building is the current location of the Children’s Museum & Science Center.
Fenner’s Warehouse, built in 1938, was a block of one-story sheds adjacent to the old railroad spur. They were used for storage of tobacco and hogsheads (large wooden barrels for transporting and storing tobacco – fully packed, each hogshead weighed 1000 pounds) that were ready for shipment. This building is the current location of the Live Animal Habitat.
On a single day in September of 1999, the Children’s Museum and the Arts Center’s four buildings were destroyed when the flood following Hurricane Floyd inundated 25% of Rocky Mount. In the four years preceding Hurricane Floyd, three of the Arts Center buildings had been flooded twice, and the Children’s Museum had been seriously threatened. Acknowledging the likelihood of future flooding, since both institutions were located in the flood plain, it was decided not to rebuild at the old sites. City Council designated the old Imperial Tobacco Company site in downtown Rocky Mount, in combination with the adjacent old Braswell Memorial Library site (a new library was built across the street) as the new permanent location for the Arts Center and the Children’s Museum. The new facilities make use of the majority of the old tobacco company structures as well as the entire old library, thus preserving links with Rocky Mount’s past. The theatre is united with visual arts and the Children’s Museum by a common plaza. This positions all the facilities as close neighbors with one another and with the new Braswell Memorial Library, creating a significant cultural complex with potential for interrelated projects and activities beyond the individual programming capacity of each part.
The cultural complex, generating significant traffic, has the potential to impact positively on the downtown area. It also illustrates the City’s commitment to its historic core, and complements the renovated train station and fire station at the opposite (south) end of the old business district. The cultural center also functions as a beautiful entrance to downtown from U.S. Highway 64. A busy cultural center anchoring the north end of downtown, and the busiest Amtrak station in the state anchoring the south, provides encouragement for commercial investment. Rocky Mount’s location at the juncture of Interstate 95 and Highway 64 makes visiting by automobile very easy for most North Carolinians and residents of neighboring states.