How do you honor history while still being innovative? The Cotton Room has found a way to do it.
An event venue in Durham, the Cotton Room is part of the Golden Belt Manufacturing Company complex, former cotton mills that were renovated as part of the downtown revitalization efforts beginning in 2008.
Durham native Michelle Aldred is the current lessee of the 16,000-square-foot space and created the Cotton Room with her husband Dodd in 2009. Aldred said she appreciates Durham’s efforts to both revive the downtown while also honoring the city’s history within the textile and tobacco industry.
“I think that Durham is kind of special because it’s one town that hasn’t torn these sites down, and they’re protective of the history of Durham,” Aldred said. “It’s exciting to see that at one time, downtown was so silent and that it’s now buzzing.”
The six-building factory complex was renovated and reopened in 2008 as the Golden Belt Arts District. The industrial buildings were restored into office spaces, residential lofts, art studies, a gallery space, retail shops, restaurants, a music venue and an event space — the Cotton Room.
Aldred said the original brick, large restored windows and Southern aesthetic add to the charm of the Cotton Room, attracting events ranging from weddings to photography shoots to corporate socials.
The Golden Belt Manufacturing Company was built in 1887 as part of Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco’s factory complex, established to help the tobacco industry meet its higher production demands. The Golden Belt processed cotton and produced cloth drawstring pouches for loose leaf Bull Durham tobacco, replacing a local cottage industry of women who worked out of their homes and sold hand-made bags to the tobacco company.
The Cotton Room is located in the part of the old factory that produced the pouches. Aldred said many industrial features are still visible, which immediately attracted her to the space and reminded her of the Durham she knew in her childhood.
“I fell in love with it because some of the original pulley systems are still in the ceiling of the Cotton Room. Having some of that still there was really special to me — nobody had ripped it down,” Aldred said. “It’s what I remember growing up in Durham — there was still a lot of the original pieces to the room and that’s what drew me.”
John Schelp, a Durham resident and Durham history enthusiast, said it’s important to remember the workers of these mills — some 700 of them when the factory complex opened — because they contributed to Durham’s success more than anyone else.
“We have lots of monuments to generals and men, especially men, of history, but we don’t devote as much to the history of blue collar workers — those in the tobacco industry, those that worked in the cotton mills,” Schelp said. “We don’t have very many monuments to the folks who built North Carolina into what it is today.”
After decades of commercial success, changes in products and then commercial decline, the Golden Belt complex was donated to the Durham Housing Authority in 1996. The City of Durham put the complex up for sale in 2004, and Scientific Properties restored the industrial buildings in 2008. By the time the Cotton Room came along the next year, the historic district had become a lively area.
Schelp said he was glad the old cotton mills and houses were abandoned and untouched because now they have been restored beautifully.
“In a way we’re fortunate in Durham that a lot of the mill neighborhoods and a lot of the old factories and mills — they sat in their own dust for a number of years, vacant, and that was actually a blessing in disguise,” Schelp said. “Now, you know, money is flowing into Durham. People are renovating the old factories and mill houses instead of tearing them down.”
Aldred said she and her husband try to honor the history of the Cotton Room as well as they can. The renovated Belt Line Station, the former freight depot where trains would deliver cotton to the mills, is adjacent to the Cotton Room and is also managed by Aldred. She installed signs about the history of the train line and Durham’s cotton and tobacco industry.
Aldred also gives out charcoal sketches detailing the industrial features of the Cotton Room to customers, and they have some of the original Bull Durham Tobacco pouches displayed in their offices.
Aldred said people doubted her when she created the Cotton Room, but she could always visualize the buzzing place that the Golden Belt district would become.
“I know that nine years ago, when I was looking at this and I announced it, in my industry I had people who thought I was crazy,” Aldred said. “I could see what Durham could be and should be, and I just knew that downtown would come to my end — to Golden Belt. It’s exciting to see how quickly it happened.”