White family tours the Lofts at White Furniture

The glass of the windows facing the train track at Lofts at White Furniture is about an inch-thick to minimize the sound of passing trains. 

The White Furniture Company was a family-run business for 106 years in Mebane. The enormous brick building that sits on the corner of Route 70 and Fifth Street provided jobs and experiences for at least five generations of the White family, and in some cases, three generations of other families who worked there. It was a workplace that felt like home to many Mebanites for over a century.

Now, the building will quite literally be home to Mebanites, hopefully for years to come, as D3 Development, Inc., of Durham has reached the final stages of developing the once-deserted building into beautiful and affordable loft apartments that keep the history of the building intact.

In fact, on Nov. 10, members of the White family took a tour, lead by D3 project manager Shannon Moser, of the progress that has been made on the project.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said former White Furniture company president Sam White of the project. “I’m sure they are going to do their very best to make it very usable and will be trying to fill it up.”

It was Sam White’s great uncles, William and David, who founded the company back in 1881. Soon their younger brother – Sam White’s grandfather, Stephen A. White IV – came on board to help oversee operations at the company. The company established a national – and international – footprint when it convinced the federal government it was capable of loading up train cars of premium furniture headed toward the Panama Canal Zone for Americans working on the construction of the Central American passageway. It was a novel notion that a small town like Mebane, North Carolina – a state which at the time was not known for the creation of fine furniture – could make the quality of furniture that was shortly thereafter being exported to all corners of the world.

Sam White first worked for the family business the summer before he left to pursue an undergraduate degree at Davidson College. Upon graduation, he spent a year in the factory learning the ropes before he enrolled at the University of Virginia in order to acquire an MBA. At that point, it was becoming more clear to him that he would carry on the family tradition of eventually running the White Furniture Company. And it was a family tradition, to be sure – by the end, White’s father, Stephen A. White V worked at the company for 54 years. His grandfather ended up receiving a service pin – something the company gave out to all of its employees to commemorate each decade of tenure of 20 years and above – for 70 years working for the company.

But gradually the company had more and more stakeholders that were not members of the White family, and as business slowed to a crawl in the late 1980s, the board eventually held a meeting to vote on whether or not the company would be sold. That meeting was a family affair too. Sam White’s daughter, Julia White Buckner, attended the meeting when she was 16 years old. Much to the Whites’ chagrin, the company was sold in 1986.

“I think I understand now more what was happening than when I was a teenager,” Buckner said. “It was really sad for the family, but it was also really sad for the folks who had worked here all their lives.”

Her father agreed. “I was sad for my father. And there were many people who had worked [at the company] for years. For some years we had the awarding of service pins… there were men who had worked there more than 50 years.”

Most sad for the White family was knowing that the company who had bought it – The Hickory White Furniture Company – had no connection to the community and a history of buying companies like White Furniture, running them dry, laying off employees, and moving out of town. This happened over the seven year span between 1986 and 1993, until the building finally shuttered its doors for what appeared to be the last time.

“My father lived another nine years,” White said. “His second wife, my stepmother… just before the auction, she took him down and they went through the plant. Of course, everything was down, or stacked up ready for the auction. But he never really talked about it, to me anyway.”

The building rotted away on the corner of 70 and Fifth Street, and reminded the community of the mighty company that was.

“A lot of years we walked by and watched the Ivy grow,” Buckner said of those years after it closed.

Whispers in the community of transforming the building into housing started some ten years ago, but it was not until D3 Developers, Inc. took over in 2012 that real progress in the project started to take shape.

The Durham-based company specializes in rehabilitating historical landmarks into housing or commercial space, and has worked on projects like the Durham Baseball Park and the American Tobacco project in Durham. The American Tobacco project is, according to D3’s website, “widely credited with triggering the successful resurgence of downtown Durham from an abandoned, decaying eyesore into the vibrant and popular destination it has become.”

One of the keys to that success, according to the Lofts at White Furniture project manager and D3 employee Shannon Moser, is one similar to the goal once maintained by the White Furniture Company.

“We want to be part of the downtown and not just an apartment complex in the downtown,” Moser said. “And with that, we want to foster a sense of community within the apartment complex. We want to have events for our residents and make them feel like they are living in a place where they are part of the downtown and not just a part of the apartment complex’s community.”

Wherever the developers could, they worked to maintain pieces of the original building in a nod to the history of the place. While walking through the building, Sam White said he was especially pleased with a couple things.

“I’m really glad that they are saving the original posts in that building and the ceiling,” White said. “It’s a good use of the building. And it’s nice to see it’s going to be maintained. I would hate to see them come in with a ball and smash it down, which has happened in many places. That would be sad. I think it’s going to be fine, and I trust the people who move in will enjoy being there.”

That is a philosophy taken on by D3 and is part of the reason Moser and her company wanted to show White and his family what the building looks like now, and what they hope it will look like in two months, when folks are scheduled to begin moving in.

“The White Furniture family and company, from the stories I’ve heard and what Sam [White] has told me, they were there for their employees and for their community,” Moser said. “They treated people in the town like their family and they were a really important part of the community.” This tradition of community is something Moser and her company hope to quite literally build on, with amenities like a saltwater pool, an exercise facility, and outdoor spaces where residents can congregate.

There is another relationship between the Lofts at White Furniture and the building they will occupy, which is the quality of product the respective companies turn out.

“These are going to be high-end apartments,” Moser said. “A lot of what we are putting into the apartments is high-end,” noting the pine, granite, and quartz that will make up different aspects of the lofts. But for Moser, D3 is building something more than an apartment complex.

“We don’t build something and walk away,” Moser said. “We build something and we want to be part of the community. We really want people to feel like that’s their home.”