The History Behind the Rocky Mount Imperial Centre

rocky mount historical imperial centerHistory is something that can’t always be quantified with a story. Sometimes it seeps into our being through song, experience and even the heart of our buildings. The Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences in downtown is much more than a hub of Rocky Mount education and activity. Its history represents the story of Rocky Mount itself.

Imperial Tobacco Company

The story begins an ocean away with the Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland. The company had a branch in Rocky Mount and was a leader in the N.C. tobacco industry for over 65 years. The business built several facilities in the area, ranging from warehouses to curing furnaces. These structures date from 1903 to 1923, and they are a rich reminder of Rocky Mount’s industrial history. 

In the 1960s, the facility was the site of hand and machine stemming and ordering, and it was known as the McDonald Building. By the 1980s, all operations ceased at the Imperial Tobacco Company. 

The Flood of History

Hurricane Floyd devastated Rocky Mount in September 1999. More than 25 percent of Rocky Mount was inundated with flood waters. As a result, several buildings were destroyed, including the Children’s Museum and Arts Center, which was located downtown, and the Playhouse community theatre, which was located in the Nashville Road area. The City Council evaluated several different plans for rebuilding the facilities. When it was discovered that the previous locations included a flood plain, the council decided to use the Imperial Tobacco Company site.


When renovations began, architects and designers had a unique challenge. They needed to create a world-class, state-of-the-art center, complete with animal habitats, planetarium and theatre, but they also wanted to preserve the spirit, history and “feel” of the building. After all, the tobacco industry was a major part of Rocky Mount’s initial development, so it made sense to naturally implement these features into the new building.

Some of these features included:
  • A 180-foot overhead steel conveyor
  • An 80-foot water tower
  • A 90-foot brick chimney

These features, coupled with wonderful exposed brick walls inside, provide a flair and atmosphere that is both industrial and innovative,  combining architectural artistry with functionality. 

The Imperial Centre Today

The Imperial Centre not only has a wide, extensive array of activities for all ages, but it is also very popular to be rented out for weddings, banquets, or other events. There are three main parts of the Imperial Centre:

Children’s Museum, featuring rotating educational exhibits and regular shows in the Cummins planetarium. The children’s museum also offers astronomy and nature programs. It’s also available for birthday parties. 

The Arts Center focuses on visual and performing arts with exhibitions, theatre, classes and other special events. There are also artist opportunities for participation in juried exhibits and guilds where developing and established artists can hone their crafts. 

The Community Theatre has an extensive reputation for producing top-quality performances for more than 50 years. Auditions take place throughout the year and audiences can order tickets for the theatre’s upcoming season. 


The Imperial Centre reflects a vision of Rocky Mount’s future

Next time you go to the Imperial Centre, take a short drive downtown to see many of the exciting things that area going on there. Renovation has encouraged new businesses, urban loft apartments are attracting young professionals, and there’s always a festival or other special event coming up.

Want to know more? Visit the Imperial Centre’s website

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