Reverent Revitalization

The outside of the Rainbow Upholstery building.
The Rainbow Upholstery building on West Street, just north of downtown Raleigh.

The Rainbow Upholstery building, once the home of Raleigh’s oldest custom upholstery shop, is taking steps to increase its iconic status

On a December morning seven years ago, hundreds gathered at the white brick warehouse at 911 N. West Street, just north of downtown Raleigh, to honor the legacy of Delores Powell Glenn, founder of Rainbow Upholstery and Furniture.

Then, the 1940s-era warehouse was known to locals equally for the multicolored ‘Rainbow Upholstery’ sign on the outside and for the quality custom work done within. Nestled in the middle of a rundown industrial street located across from the hidden Pigeon House Branch stream and a massive bay of city garbage trucks, the venue of Glenn’s celebration of life was about to be transformed.

The building, overlooking the planned Devereux Meadows park, will still boast a colorful “Rainbow Upholstery” sign. But a new mural, based on the image of Glenn, a woman who lived a purpose-driven life, will soon adorn its south-facing wall. From Wade Avenue to Peace Street, where the much-anticipated Publix will anchor a new retail and apartment complex, the formerly rundown West Street is in the midst of one of Raleigh’s most exciting revitalization efforts; the Rainbow Upholstery building, where Glenn’s legacy will be preserved, is at the center of it all.

Raised in rural North Carolina in the 1940s, Glenn lived the heartbreaking reality of worlds divided by race. A divorced mother of three, she fell in love and had two more children with a white man she could not marry. For the wellbeing of her now racially mixed family, she moved to New York in search of a more diverse and welcoming community. But North Carolina was home, and in 1979 she returned.

Glenn began assisting women making the transition from incarceration to education, opening a boarding house on Person Street in 1982. She quickly realized that many of these women also needed a way to make a living, so she started Rainbow Upholstery and Furniture Company the next year as a way to train, motivate and support the women whom society had cast aside.

After a few moves, with determination and business acumen, Glenn’s mission found its home in the West Street building. What began as a service to others blossomed into a premiere custom upholstery shop; a mission became a business, and a business became a ministry. The women who trained at Rainbow Upholstery gained not only tangible skills and a path to future success, but they were part of a company that was making Raleigh a more vibrant place.

“Love, hard work, dedication and belief in what you want to do, that’s what my mom represented,” says Chuck Bullock, current owner of both Rainbow Upholstery (now located in Wake Forest, closer to Bullock’s home) and the West Street property.

Prior to the move, the Bullocks dreamed of what would become of the edifice that housed so much more than a business.

“It was founded on faith,” says Chuck Bullock’s wife, Karla, as she looks up at the iconic sign on the 24,000-square-foot building. The windows have been lengthened and the walls painted but the integrity of the original construction has been maintained.

In a unique development deal, Atlas Stark partnered with Michael Iovino, founder of August Construction Solutions, and other partners to purchase a minority share, leaving Bullock the majority owner of the property.

“It’s a development story that works for everybody involved,” Iovino says. “We will do anything for Chuck at any time. He owns the building and we understand that. We appreciate him letting us in, so there’s a reverence that we treat the building with.”

The renovated windows let in a surprising amount of light. Sunbeams illuminate exposed wood ceiling trusses, and vast open spaces create unique office opportunities. Iovino and the Bullocks discuss construction progress and point out areas that have already been claimed by tenants like DeRonja Real Estate.

Principal broker, Frank DeRonja, admits that when he announced the move, he was nervous. “I said, ‘I’m scared to tell you where the address is, but two years from now, you’ll call me a genius.’”

DeRonja uses West Street as a shortcut and marveled as the rundown industrial street was revived day by day. The moment he saw a ‘for lease’ sign outside the warehouse, he made a call.

“We walked the building when it was still being used for upholstery, and we knew then it would be amazing,” says DeRonja.

What he didn’t know was the history of the mission, nor the scope of the many lives it changed.

“Knowing that makes us feel an even greater affinity for where we’re moving,” says DeRonja. “There’s something about all of it that seems like it’s staying true to Raleigh: to make it better, but not tear it down.”

To make better and not tear it down.

It could be a motto for Glenn’s life’s purpose. To her, every person deserved time, respect and another chance; Glenn’s is the legacy a of woman who believed she could make a difference through love, and that legacy will persist through all the changes to West Street—and to Raleigh—in the years to come.