Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Maintaining devotion to art museum project despite significant setbacks

White continues his discussion of the problematic construction of Raleigh's art museum. The original contractor hired to do the project was incompetent, and after watching them fall behind schedule and perform shoddy work with an inadequate crew, White declared their contract null. The lawsuit that followed, after some "legal gymnastics," went to the state Supreme Court, where at the time of this interview, it was still idling. White's devotion to creating a lasting institution of great cultural value helped him endure the difficulties of the museum project.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Jackson White Jr., March 14, 1986. Interview C-0029-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

PAMELA DEAN:
This is tape two of the March 14th interview. If you will go on. You were talking about the prime contractor for the art museum.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
To begin with, I assume that this general contractor's man knew that water would run down hill, but if he did know it, he didn't make any provision against it because the first thing they did out there in that red clay land, and on a hillside, was to start the excavation for a tremendous building without making any provision to keep the water from running in the hole they were digging. [Laughter] And that's the same outfit that's now suing the State of North Carolina for $7 million, and part of their damages for that water running into that hole they dug. I don't know just how that's going to work out but water is going to have to run uphill, I think, before they win that one. Anyway, in many respects they did a good job but they kept sending men down here to run the job who couldn't get along with anybody.
PAMELA DEAN:
Where was this company from? You say, "Sending down here." Were they northern?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
New Jersey, I think. I'll get you that address.
PAMELA DEAN:
Had they been chosen because they had experience with this kind of thing?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
No, they were chosen because they were the low bidder. They were the low bidder on the general construction and there were four or five of these companies and we didn't have much trouble with the rest of them. Except that there was one that evidently did a very poor job with one section of the roofing and you would have thought that Noah's flood came through that little hole in the roof but I don't think that there was over ten gallons at a time. The News and Observer said that this is a pretty bad job. But anyway, this was a large building. It would look better from the outside if it were white, but the brick of which it is constructed was chosen by a committee which our commission appointed to choose the brick, and there was some, I assume, good reason they chose this particular brick. If they are ever successful in moving that building downtown, they've got 1,100,000 bricks to move. That's how many bricks there are in that building. [Laughter]
PAMELA DEAN:
I don't think it is going anywhere.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
I don't think so either. Anyway, the building was never completed by the original construction contractor (Middlesex), the subcontractors, yes, but the construction contractor, no.
PAMELA DEAN:
Middlesex?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Middlesex, began to have just partial crews of men working. They weren't doing a good job. They didn't have anybody overseeing the job that seemed to be interested or wanting to do a good job. And finally, they were conducting their work in such manner that the architects, who were of course vitally interested in it, couldn't approve what they were doing. It was more what they were not doing than what they were doing. They weren't doing much of anything. They'd have skeleton crews on the job.
PAMELA DEAN:
So they were getting way behind schedule, too, were they?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
They got behind schedule early in the game and stayed behind schedule. So finally, on the date which I'll have to provide you with, and after many efforts to work things out in many, many conferences with Middlesex and its attorneys, we finally (I say "we," I'm talking about the building commission), the building commission finally found it necessary, advisable, and their duty to declare the contract in default.
PAMELA DEAN:
That would have been November of '81, I believe, according to what I've got here. Does that sound right?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
That sounds right. Anyway, we declared the contract in default after making every effort to keep from having to do that. We notified the contractor's bondsman, which was the Travellers' Insurance Company, and it declined to take any action at all. The Middlesex Construction Corporation kept claiming that it had done all it was supposed to do and called for specifics on what it had failed to do. To get this up was quite a job; it took a lot of time, it cost a lot of money, but our architects got up the necessary reports and, of course, Middlesex agreed with nothing. Then Middlesex employed counsel and brought suit against the state. I'll have to explain to you how you sue the state for different things. This case is entitled Middlesex Construction Corporation ex rel., which means "on the relation of," the State Art Museum Building Commission. That suit was started and we had our initial hearing on that before Judge James K. Pou Bailey, and he ruled with Middlesex; we appealed to the supreme court and the supreme court ruled with us. I've forgotten all of these legal gymnastics, I could give them to you.
PAMELA DEAN:
They are on record.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Yes. They kept on undertaking to prevail through the courts, and the thing's been heard by the supreme court I think three times now. And it's now pending in the superior court of Wake County, to be heard by a judge without a jury.
PAMELA DEAN:
Now, do they keep bringing up new points? Is this is how they keep it going?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
No, same old things. The same points have already been ruled on about three times.
PAMELA DEAN:
It's basically a question of did they fulfill the contract and it's a haggling over individual points.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
I don't know what it'll wind up as but it's going to be a right serious question for either side. I think that Middlesex is suing for a whole lot more than they expect to get. And, of course, we don't think they are entitled to anything. As a matter of fact, I think we may have filed a counterclaim. I'm not sure; I don't have the record before me. And it's very foolish to talk about a record if you don't know what's in it. And I can't remember what's in it; and if you don't have the record in front of you when discussing it you have to refer to the record itself for accuracy. But anyway, that suit will probably not come to trial before July of 1986, if then, and it will go on for quite a while because there will be many depositions taken and the record in that case will be quite voluminous, in my opinion.
PAMELA DEAN:
Now, are you actively involved in this case anymore?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Well, I'm just the chairman of the commission that's being sued, or rather on whose relation the state is being sued. And of course I'm quite sure I'll be subpoenaed as a witness. Let's see, I've already got eighteen years of my life invested in this museum, and now I've got to have some more, which I can't help, I'll just have to do the best I can. But there is one thing that I ought to point out which I think is outstanding, and that is that neither I nor any other person who is now or has ever been a member of the State Art Museum Building Commission has ever applied to the State of North Carolina for reimbursement of even so much as a postage stamp. I don't know how many thousands of hours nor thousands of dollars that I have invested in that museum out there. But all of us were glad to do that. We were that much interested in the state having a museum because we felt that we were building a museum which would serve the people of North Carolina for at least a hundred years, and that we were thinking of all the little children who in a hundred years, or even twenty years, can have the benefit of seeing the fabulous paintings and sculptures and other objects of art which are owned by the State of North Carolina and are out there now where people can ride up and park their cars in a safe place day or night and go in and look at them for free. The newspaper said that nobody would ever go to the museum out at that place where it is and there have been thousands and thousands more people visiting that site than have ever visited the other one, I guess, in the whole time of its existence. Another thing is that we took into consideration in building this museum and this came poignantly to my mind when I was in another museum in San Francisco. If our commission has trained people in our museum competent to handle and care for objects of art, we can get art on loan from other museums. Let's begin at the bottom, people trained in building a crate in which to ship a painting, or how to take apart a crate that contains a painting, and how to protect them in transit, and how to protect them upon arrival at either place, how to care for them, that if we did that in a manner satisfactory to other museums all over the world that the people of North Carolina would have the benefit of seeing many, many objects of art that they could never see unless they left the country.
PAMELA DEAN:
You'd be able to take travelling exhibits because other museums would trust your expertise. Yes. It's very important.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Right. I saw some, well I'll call them objects of art, that were on display in a museum in San Francisco that had come there from the Louvre, I believe, I can't remember whether it was the Louvre in Paris or the Prado or somewhere else. But anyway, they were fabulous to look at. Now, the way our museum is constructed, with these things in mind, and meticulously cared for, our people in North Carolina, without leaving their homes any farther than to go from where their homes are to the museum out here on the edge of Raleigh, can see those things and enjoy them. And we thought this was very important to the people of North Carolina. And we felt that it was a part of our duty to do the very best that we could do along those lines.
PAMELA DEAN:
And you feel satisfied that you have fulfilled that duty?
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Yes, I think our commission did a real good job. I really think it did. They were all conscientious people. I suppose the one on the commission that knew less about art was I, but I didn't have to know about art to get that building built. I didn't think I did.
PAMELA DEAN:
You had to know how to make things work.
THOMAS JACKSON WHITE, JR.:
Anyway, it's out there and it's going to be there for quite a while, I think. I think that museum will be still in operation a hundred years from now.