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Research Triangle Institute

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1957–1959, Odell and Associates; Lewis Clarke and Associates, landscape architect. Bounded by Cornwallis Rd., Davis Dr., I-40, and NC 147.
  • (Courtesy of Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina)

The Research Triangle Institute (RTI) was established to jumpstart development and build momentum for research operations in the Research Triangle Park (RTP), one of the oldest and largest commercial land development projects in North America dedicated specifically to multi-agency research and technology development.

The immediate post–World War II economy in North Carolina suffered from declining industrial investment. It was disproportionately dependent on agriculture and saw college graduates leaving the state for jobs elsewhere. The “brain drain” was of particular concern. Greensboro developer Romeo Guest (1906–1987) used the phrase “Research Triangle” as a marketing ploy in reference to the geographic region supported by the intellectual atmosphere between North Carolina’s three most esteemed universities: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Duke University in Durham, and North Carolina State College (NCSC, now University) in Raleigh. The Research Triangle was to harness this intellectual capital through collaborative research programs between universities and build a reputation that would, in turn, attract companies to locate their own research operations in RTP.

The RTP emerged through a series of conversations between local businesspeople, the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development, and administrators at the three universities. Governor Luther Hodges (1898–1974) appointed a committee to investigate the idea and selected UNC sociology professor George Simpson (1921–2012) as director. An immediate concern was the need for physical land to help market their idea. Simpson puts it plainly: “There is great value in having something concrete, something that can be mapped and walked over, to place before people. Something tangible stimulates the imagination.” Simpson hired Pearson Stewart (1919–2010), an early member of the UNC City and Regional Planning department faculty, as assistant director of the Research Triangle Committee in charge of physical planning.

Stewart took the park concept quite literally, using the corporate subdivision as a guide and following the model of Planned Urban Developments. To be sure, RTP was not an office park and RTP was not in the business of property development, but it did acquire the land for resale to individual organizations, using deed restrictions and covenants to homogenize its constituency and dictate the look of landscape. Initially occupants were required to be in the design and research fields, and related operations, or be of use to fields requiring high scientific input, ones that would benefit from university ties.

The RTP Owners and Tenants Association and Design Review Board oversaw development including approval of tenancy, building design, and landscape plans. They established a set of rules mandating a minimum of six-acre lots, hidden off-street parking, building footprints limited to 5 percent of lots and total square footage limited to 10 percent of the site. These were later increased to 15 percent after the park lost a lucrative tenant, but site improvements (buildings plus other impervious surfaces) are limited to 30 percent of each land parcel. This ensures that fully 70 percent of the park remains in some form of landscaped or wild nature.

Many initial groups locating in RTP had a keen interest in university research programs, most notably in geographic information sciences, biological sciences, agriculture, and textiles. Federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service Forest Sciences Laboratory and the National Environmental Health Sciences Center, also had an early presence. The largest and most significant commitment came from International Business Machines (IBM) in 1965, when they announced a major engineering facility on 300 acres, putting RTP on the national map.

RTI, a nonprofit subsidiary of UNC focusing on pure science for technological and industrial applications, was the first organization committed to locating in RTP. Researchers contracted by private, nonprofit, and governmental agencies facilitated projects that were conducted in collaborative laboratories often funded by public-private partnerships. As the first residents, RTI had the important task of developing an architecture that would impress upon other companies the value of establishing separate research operations in RTP. The foundation of this architecture is the campus plan, developed in 1959 by Odell and Associates in collaboration with landscape architect Lewis Clarke, which borrows heavily from academic campus precedents. The grounds are subtly landscaped, a close cooperation between architecture and landscape that the two design firms would finesse in the following decades through collaborations on many community and liberal arts college campuses throughout the region.

The campus is organized around a hierarchy of circulation that separates pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Buildings are grouped around a large green space at the center and a ring road loops around the campus, weaving in and out of wooded areas and providing vehicular access to the larger site. The Robert Hanes Building was the first structure at RTI. It sits at the head of campus facing northeast on a slight knoll off Cornwallis Road, with a generous setback allowing for a processional approach buffered by a small grouping of pines. The style of the building set a precedent for the campus by using modern architecture blended with authoritative classicism to balance innovation with authority.

Named after the first chairman of the Research Triangle Committee, the Robert Hanes building was constructed with funding from the Hanes family, friends, and corporate donors. The two-story structure has a flat roof and is clad in painted brick with metal fascia connecting windows vertically. Steps lead up to a recessed entrance portico with a double-height glass curtain wall and square columns that line up with the facade. The 19,000-square-foot building originally housed administrative offices for RTI, other RTP offices, and a geo-physics laboratory. At the rear, the Hanes Building opens out to an expansive rectangular green space with research and support buildings now lining the sides.

The creation of RTP was the result of rare and progressive cooperation among governmental, institutional, private, and corporate entities. Persistent leadership transformed the vision into reality and subsequent generations have both fostered and benefitted from its immense and lasting impact.

RTP is open to the public but access to many of the buildings is restricted.


Banham, Russ. Impact on a Changing World: RTI International at 50. Old Saybrook, CT: Greenwich Publishing Group, 2008.

Larrabee, Charles X. Many Missions: Research Triangle Institute’s First 32 Years. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institute, 1992.

Link, Albert N. A Generosity of Spirit: the Early History of the Research Triangle Park. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Foundation, 1995.

Link, Albert N. From Seed to Harvest: The Growth of the Research Triangle Park. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Foundation, 2002.

Little, William F. “Research Triangle Park.” The World & I3, no. 11 (1988): 178-185.

Luger, Michael I. and Harvey A. Golstein. Technology in the Garden: Research Parks and Regional Economic Development. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Rohe, William H. The Research Triangle: From Tobacco Road to Global Prominence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Williams, Wiley J. “Research Triangle Park.” NCpedia. Accessed January 28, 2019.

Wolfe, Spencer. “Where is the Research Triangle Park?” North Carolina Architect30, no. 5 (1982).

Writing Credits

Nicholas Andrew Serrano
Kristen Schaffer
David Hill

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