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Mecklenburg County Courthouse

This report was written on April 5, 1977

1. Name and location of the property: The property known as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is located at 700 E. Trade St. in Charlotte, N.C.

2. Name, address and telephone number of the present owner and occupant of the property: The present owner and occupant of the property is:

Mecklenburg County
720 E. Fourth St.
Charlotte, N.C. 28202

Telephone: 374-2472

3. Representative photographs of the property: This report contains representative photographs of the property.

4. A map depicting the location of the property: This report contains a map depicting the location of the property.

5. Current Deed Book Reference to the property: The most recent reference to this property is found in Mecklenburg County Deed Book 610 at pages 62, 70 and 76, and in Mecklenburg County Deed Book 605 at pages 321 and 356. The Parcel Number of the Property is 12503201.

6. A brief historical sketch of the property:

The official opening of the edifice which still serves as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse occurred on March 10, 1928. It was a festive occasion. Musicians serenaded the throng of local citizens who meandered through the structure that Saturday afternoon. Banks of flowers adorned the various departments, where officials, dressed in their Sunday best, waited to guide the visitors through their particular facility. "The most popular part of the courthouse, " The Charlotte Observer reported, "was the jail, where every caller was anxious to visit. " The Board Of County Commissioners had instructed the architect of the new courthouse, Louis H. Asbury of Charlotte, N.C., to place the jail on top of the building. Only in this way could they assuage the fears of nearby residents concerning the proximity of the jail. Not surprisingly, politicians were in plentiful supply at the official opening, "seeking votes and making friends ". Indeed, the members of the Board of County Commissioners (R. N. Hood, Chairman; R. E. Henderson, J. A. Newell, J. R. Robinson and W. M. Ross) stood at the front door throughout the celebration (3 PM until 10 PM) to greet the "thousands of Mecklenburg County residents who came to inspect the "new $1,250,000 courthouse. One might assume that the events of March 10, 1928, were the culmination of a happy series of developments. Unfortunately, the truth was otherwise. The process by which the County erected a new courthouse was fraught with rancor and acrimony from the beginning.

In 1922 Mayor J. O. Walker of Charlotte convinced City Council to sell the City Hall at 5th and N. Tryon Sts. and to undertake steps necessary to build a new facility on another site yet to be determined. The Charlotte Observer suggested that the Board of County Commissioners sell the courthouse, located at 3rd & S. Tryon Sts., and join with the City in erecting a single structure that would house both areas of local government. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, directed by C. O. Kuester, responded to the newspaper's suggestion by appointing a special committee to investigate the benefits of a joint venture. Chaired by E. R. Preston, the committee came out in favor of this existing courthouse, even though it was less than thirty years old. The committee appeared before the Board of County Commissioners at its meeting of February 5, 1923, and asked the Commissioners to endorse the concept of a City-County Municipal Building. The Board responded favorably, saying, however, that final endorsement would have to await the presentation of a specific proposal.

Mayor Walker and the City Council never supported the idea. However, they agreed to allow the people to decide the issue at the ballot box. According to special legislation which had been introduced by the Mecklenburg delegation at the urging of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the voters would have to approve the establishment of a special inter-governmental commission to supervise the construction and management of the proposed building. Of course, the Chamber of Commerce and the other organiza-tions supporting the concept hoped that the people would favor it at the polls.

The vote occurred on July 28, 1923. The proponents insisted that the City and County now had the opportunity to provide a "benefit to generations yet unborn. " "There is a great popular clamor, " asserted the Charlotte News, "in these material times for the best that's going, and we want that sort of courthouse-city hall here in Charlotte ". Pamphlets and leaflets were distributed. The Charlotte Observer endorsed the project enthusiastically. Everything seemed to be going well. In the final days of the campaign, however, the opposition began to assert itself. They claimed that the joint enterprise would lead to inter-governmental rivalry and bickering, "The best of friends live most harmoniously when separated, " asserted Mrs. John Van Landingham. Dr. James R. Alexander, insisting that he had been the builder of the first apartment house in Charlotte, seconded Mrs. Van Landingham's contention. He stated that he was thoroughly conversant with the friction which arises frequently among parties housed in apartment buildings. Even more effective was the opposition's charge that the project would raise taxes and would place too much power in the hands of an untested commission. The supporters of the venture attempted to overcome the opposition by insisting that a joint effort was the only means by which Charlotte and Mecklenburg County could afford a first rate building without issuing new bonds. Speaking to the fear of intergovernmental friction, D. E. Henderson, a prominent attorney, said,

"After all, all of us are citizens of Mecklenburg County and there is no danger of one of us falling out with ourselves because at one time, we are acting for the city of Charlotte and at another time for the county of Mecklenburg. That which is good for one is good for both. "

The results of the election were a disappointment to Mr. Henderson and his associates. The residents of Charlotte favored the project by a small margin. The citizens of the county, however, assured the defeat of the proposition by voting against it almost two to one. The Charlotte Observer was especially irritated by the small number of people who voted, insisting that the farmers "must have spent the day picking cow ticks and boil weevils. " As expected, Mayor Walker was pleased by the outcome. He contended that both the city and county should move independently to provide themselves with adequate facilities. The evidence suggests that Mayor Walker was determined to fulfill a dream of building a new City Hall. Interestingly, however, it was the residents of the County, not the City, who prevented his dream from being compromised, if not destroyed.

The new City Hall, designed by local architect C. C. Hook, was officially opened on October 29, 1925, and is therefore the oldest of the governmental buildings now located on East Trade St. W. C. Dowd, Sr., publisher of the Charlotte News, called it "the handsomest monument to the most stupendous piece of municipal folly I have ever seen." Whatever one might have thought of the new City Hall, the placement of this imposing edifice on E. Trade St. placed pressure upon the Board of County Commissioners to upgrade their facilities.

The results of the vote of July 28, 1923, forced the Board of County Commissioners to go it alone, so to speak. Until November 1924, when three new members were elected to the five-member Board of County Commissioners, the Board favored the refurbishing of the existing courthouse at 3rd S. Tryon Sts. On September 25, 1923, the Board invited Mr. C. C. Hook to present renderings of how the courthouse could be expanded. Even more significantly, it awarded a contract to J. A. Jones Construction Company on October 6, 1924, in the amount of $6463.00, for purposes of, building a new Record Room by January 1, 1925.

On December 1, 1924, a new Board of County Commissioners assembled for the first time. The majority had committed themselves during the campaign to the building of a new courthouse, if such action would not require the issuing of new bonds. The backers of the new courthouse insisted that it should be placed adjacent to the City Hall then under construction, thereby allowing a single governmental complex to come into existence. Prominent supporters of this proposition, including T. L. Kirkpatrick, C. O. Kuester, W. G. Rogers and Mayor Harvey W. Moore of Charlotte, appeared before the Board on August 3, 1925. On September 7, 1925, the Board voted unanimously to erect a new courthouse at the Southeasterly intersection of East Avenue, or East Trade Street, and South Alexander Street in the City of Charlotte. " Final action, as required by law, had to be delayed for ninety days, until December 7, 1925, but the Board had set into motion the procedure which could provide a new courthouse for the citizens of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The fall of 1925 witnessed one of the most acrimonious and divisive debates which has occurred in this community. H. N. Pharr, a prominent attorney, joined forces with W. C. Dowd, Sr., publisher of the Charlotte News, in an attempt to block the new courthouse. On November 2, 1925, a delegation of opponents asked that a special primary be held so that the people could decide the issue. Mr. Pharr stated that the opponents would pay for the primary, if necessary. The Board, advised by the County Attorney that it had no legal right to call such a primary, refused to do so on November 3, 1925. The Charlotte Observer, an ardent supporter of the new courthouse, heartily endorsed this decision, claiming that "such a hurried helter-skelter vote, representing only a fraction of the population, would not in any sense have been an expression of public opinion.

The final ploy of the opposition once on November 30, 1925. For two and one half hours the Board of County Commissioners "sat in silence," listening to the speeches of opponents who had been granted a special hearing. John P. Hunter, magistrate for the Mallard Creek Township, stated that the "country people" would never find the new courthouse. He advised the Board, if it persisted in its folly, "to place a big sign at the square showing the rural people how to reach it, else they would never pay their taxes." W. C. Dowd, Sr., insisted that the present site on S. Tryon St. could provide enough space for adequate facilities for one thousand years. He also intimated that certain property owners on East Trade St. favored the new court-house for selfish reasons. A. R. Justice, an attorney, argued that Tryon St. was the "all-time center of the City" and that the courthouse should be located thereon. It should be noted that the majority of lawyers opposed the new courthouse. The Lawyers Building was located near the courthouse on S. Tryon St. and was less than twenty years old.

The proponents had their say at a special hearing before the Board on Saturday, December 5, 1925. The turnout was enormous, largely due to the efforts of the Charlotte Woman's Club. The arguments that were advanced reflected the values which undergirded the philosophy adhered to by the majority of prominent Charlotteans of that era. Marvin L. Ritch lamented the fact that several communities in North Carolina had larger and newer courthouses than Charlotte possessed. W. C. Davis, an attorney, stated that unless the Board went through with its plan, "this generation in Mecklenburg will not see a new courthouse". "To take a step beck now", he said, "should be fatal to the cause." Judge Wade W. Williams expanded upon this theme, maintaining that by carrying through with their plans the Commissioners would be "following the urge and surge of present day progress and development." Women's organizations were especially vocal in endorsing the new courthouse. By providing space for home demonstration meetings, for agricultural workshops, and for a produce market, the new facility would encourage and promote positive economic developments. Most of the speakers, however, were content to appeal to vaguely defined notions of progress. The new courthouse, they asserted, would be "in keeping with the County's dignity."

On December 7, 1925, the Board voted unanimously to move ahead with the project. The Charlotte Observer of December 10, 1925, commented editorially upon the Board's decision. "The Observer is confident," the newspaper assorted, "that with completion of the new courthouse and surroundings, there will be some willing to admit that it was a good thing they 'got beat.' "Apparently, the Board of County Commissioners expected the same result, for they moved to complete the structure as quickly as possible. On December 28, 1925, the Board selected Louis H. Asbury as architect. The plans for the building were approved on May 14, 1926. On June 23, 1926, the contract for general construction was awarded to J. J. McDevitt Co. of Charlotte, N.C., and construction of the new courthouse began soon thereafter. The agencies of the County began to move into the beginning in January 1928. The first session of court in the structure commenced on January 9, 1928, when Judge William Harding opened the regular term of criminal court. Because workmen still needed to provide some finishing touches, the formal opening of the building was delayed until March 10, 1928.

Perhaps this background explains why the members of the Board of County Commissioners was willing to stand at the door of the Courthouse to greet the public on that Saturday afternoon.

7. A brief architectural description of the property: This report contains an architectural description prepared by Jack A. Boyte, A. I. A.

8. Documentation of why and in what ways the property meets the criteria set forth in NCGS 160A-399.4:

a. Historical and cultural significance: The Mecklenburg County Courthouse is historically and culturally significant for two reasons. First, it is the oldest surviving structure which has served as the courthouse of Mecklenburg County. Second, it has architectural significance as the finest Neoclassical Style structure in Mecklenburg County.

b. Suitability for preservation and restoration: The structure is in good repair and can be preserved in its current condition.

c. Cost of acquisition, restoration, maintenance or repair: At present , the Commission has no intention of purchasing this property. It assumes that all costs associated with renovating and maintaining the structure will be paid by the owner or subsequent owners of the property.

d. Educational value: The property has educational value, both because of its architectural significance and because of its association with county government.

e. Possibilities for adaptive or alternative use of the property: The structure would be suited for a variety of purposes. Indeed, at this writing, plans are underway to convert the structure into an office building for the county.

f. Appraised value: The current tax appraisal of the structure itself is $4,662,390 and for the 4.47 acres of land $584,140. The Commission is aware that designation of the property as a historic property would allow the owner to apply annually for an automatic deferral of 50% of the rate upon which the Ad Valorem taxes are calculated.

g. The administrative and financial responsibility of any person or organization willing to underwrite all or a portion of such costs: As indicated earlier, at present the Commission has no intention of purchasing this property. Furthermore, the Commission assumes that all costs associated with the structure and property will be met by whatever party now owns or will own the property.

9. Documentation of why and in what ways the property meets the criteria established for listing in the National Resister of Historic Places: The Commission believes that the property known as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte, N.C., does meet the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places. Basic to the Commission's position is its understanding of the purpose of the National Register. Established in 1966, the National Register represents the decision of the Federal Government to expand its listing of historic properties to include properties of local and state significance. The Commission believes that the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is of local historic significance and therefore meets the criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

10. Documentation of why and in that ways the property is of historic importance to Charlotte and/or Mecklenburg County: The property known as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is historically important to Charlotte and Mecklenburg County for two reasons. First, it is the oldest surviving structure which has served as the court-house of Mecklenburg County. Second, it is the finest Neoclassical Style structure in the county.


Bibliography

An Inventory of Old Buildings In Mecklenburg County And Charlotte For The Historic Properties Commission.

LeGette Blythe and Charles Brockmann, Hornets' Nest (Charlotte, N.C., McNally of Charlotte, 1961), p. 447.

Mecklenburg County Courthouse, A Folder of Items Compiled by the Staff of the Carolina Room of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library.

Minute Book 1916-1925 of the Board of County Commissioners of Mecklenburg County, pp. 349, 350, 362, 363, 369, 397, 434, 477, 481, 501, 508, 520 and 544.

Minute Book 4 of the Board of County Commissioners of Mecklenburg County, pp. 47, 110, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 125, 128, 129, 132, 133, 134, 135, 140, 147, 148, 158, 159, 161, 169, 182, 184, 185, 190, 196, 198, 199, 205, 206, 213, 215, 230, 231 and 233.

Records of the Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office.

Records of the Mecklenburg County Tax Office.

The Charlotte Observer (July 27, 1923, p. 2.); (July 28, 1923, p. 1.); (July 29, 1923, p. 1.); (July 30, 1923, p. 6.); (November 1, 1925, p. 1.);(November 2, 1925, p. 8.); (November 3, 1925, p. 8.; (November 4, 1925, p. 8.); (December 1, 1925, p. 13.); (December 6, 1925, p. 3.); (December 10, 1925, p. 8); (January 1, 1928, p. 1); (March 1l, 1928, p. 1.).

Date Of Preparation Of this Report: April 5, 1977

Prepared by: Dr. Dan L. Morrill, Director
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Conversion
139 Middleton Dr.
Charlotte, N.C. 28207

Telephone: 332-2726

Architectural Description

On East Trade Street, anchoring the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Governmental Plaza building complex, the classical Mecklenburg County Courthouse is a rare example of the county's architectural heritage. The fifth courthouse in local history, the building was erected in the 1920s in response to continued pleas from jurists for more adequate facilities -- a familiar refrain even today.

The fifty year use of the present building exceeds the life span of any one of the four previous courthouses. Number four, for example, was occupied for thirty years. This structure was an impressive three tiered Greek Revival building featuring a high dome reminiscent of many midnineteenth century public buildings. It was located at the corner of South Tryon and Third, where Charlotte's well documented 'Liberty Hall' stood. In the rear lawn of the present-building one finds the corner stone from this fourth courthouse listing the building committee, the architect and the builder, and the dates of construction, 1896-97.

The county's third courthouse was on the northeast corner of Church and West Trade Streets. This building was a classical two story brick structure with a columned front portico designed in the Jeffersonian mode similar to Davidson College buildings of the early nineteenth century.

The first courthouse was the traditional log structure located at the village crossroads. This building was erected by local citizens at their own expense in order to persuade the North Carolina Legislature to locate the government of newly created Mecklenburg County in Charlotte rather than in the rival Rocky River community.

Soon after independence was achieved, the growing community made its first response to public clamor for better court rooms and erected a second courthouse in the same crossroad location. Known for many years as Independence Square, commemorating local rejection of British rule in 1775, this intersection of Trade and Tryon Streets is now called 'The Square.' The second courthouse was a large square two story brick Georgian building with a tripped roof. Centered at the high peak was a bell cupola where court days were rung in. From the courtrooms in this building it was said that the judge could view the stocks and pillory located in the public square in front of the courthouse.

The county authorities were given a public mandate for a new courthouse in 1926. At the time there was vigorous public debate on whether to build a consolidated city-county building. The idea had strong support from government and civic leaders. A public referendum rejected the joint building, however, and chose instead to build separate facilities. Soon thereafter the commissioners retained one of the first formally trained architects in North Carolina to design the new courthouse building. Educated at Trinity College, now Duke University, and later at M.I.T., the young classical designer was Louis H. Asbury, a native Charlottean. After graduation, Asbury traveled in Europe a year or more where he studied first hand the British and French precedents for the emerging classical architecture.

Late in the nineteenth century and into the first part of the twentieth, schools of architecture were strongly influenced, perhaps even dominated, by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Pictorial interpretation of Greek and Roman forms was the distinguishing characteristic of Beaux Arts classicism. The style was used in many public buildings during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The baroque style of Beaux-Arts was modified by American architects early in this century. The discipline of this movement resulted in a simplicity and order which produced a uniquely American style termed 'American Renaissance' or 'Neoclassical.' It was in this mode that young Louis Asbury conceived the new courthouse.

The building is a massive rectangular limestone structure rising three floors above a rusticated foundation wall of gray Mecklenburg granite. Ten massive fluted Corinthian columns are drawn in parade formation across the center front. Behind this towering colonnade a shallow portico rises three stories. Above this a carefully correct Corinthian entablature circles the entire building. At the top of the frieze is a delicate dentile mold with an egg and dart intermediate band. Supporting an over-hanging cornice are closely spaced modillion brackets. Above this and set back on the flat roof a continuous balustrade also circles the building perimeter. With paneled and molded sections at intervals, this balustrade features repeated sturdy balusters shaped as turned members, and provides screening for equipment mounted further back on the roof. Somewhat later the county erected an undistinguished jail enclosure on the roof. This discordant feature should eventually be removed.

At either side of the center portico there are precisely symmetrical bays slightly projected from the face of the building and wide enough to define broad interior courtrooms. Located on the second floor and rising through the third are three tall painted steel windows in the upper courtroom facade. Balancing smaller windows open into office spaces on the first floor and in the cellar below, all carefully aligned. The tall upper windows consist of an eight light wide middle window with an arched head and fan lights. There are two four light wide flanking windows. In the center window molded jambs arch to a stone voussoir at the top. Recessed carved stone panels are inserted in the spandrel spaces between upper and lower windows. Featuring stylized acanthus leaf borders, these panels have carved garlands in the wide center inserts.

The main entrance occurs in the center three bays of the front colonnade. Here are three pairs of massive paneled polished bronze doors set in stone encased openings. The frames are carved with egg and dart molding on the outer border, and twisted rope molding on the inner edges. Above the door a moderate carved architrave supports pedimented heads, again featuring egg and dart and acanthus leaf molding. Over the doors are transom windows screened by patterned cast iron grills.

One approaches the front from the north side on a broad plaza which leads to the starting riser of a monumental stairway of gray Mecklenburg granite. Rising some sixteen steps, this stairway spans the entire width of the center portico and dominates the northern building facade. A favorite element in European classicism, this stairway reflects the influence of Beaux Arts on Louis Asbury's courthouse design.

Secondary entrances occur at each end of the building. Sheltered by small flat roofs supported on stylized Doric columns, here twin entrance doors have heavy molded bronze frames with large glass inserts. At the west end the doors are approached up a granite stair which rises over an arched platform support. Centered below this is a single glazed cellar door. End facades have seven tall arched windows symmetrically placed in the upper wall. First floor windows are smaller units, three of which flank the door at each side. At the sides there are shallow receding planes at each corner wide enough for one window.

The side entrance shelters show a high degree of elaboration in stone detailing. Doric-like columns have rounded capital with an egg and dart theme. Above the columns the entablature is also Doric in character. There is a mutular frieze with a denticular cornice and modillion brackets in the cornice overhang. On the flat roof there is a limestone balustrade similar to that on the west, except that the arched platform support has been removed and the cellar door at this end closed. Solid brick walls now support the east entrance platform.

The impact of the south facade is very nearly as impressive as the north. Centered in this elevation is a three bay portico. Rising from a marble platform four Corinthian columns identical to those on the front support a high roof. At the far ends there are wings projecting from the main wall. These bays are surfaced with smooth limestone with little elaboration and anchor the ends with solid simplicity. Completing the facade are three bay intermediate sections divided by tall Corinthian pilasters. At the center portico there is a monumental granite stair rising fifteen steps to the marble entrance platform. The entrance here is a centered pair of glazed polished bronze doors with a wide transom above, set in a molded stone frame.

On the interior there is extensive use of polished marble on floors and walls. Floors on the upper three levels are light tan marble bordered with molded black marble bases. High wainscots of light brown Georgia marble rise to the top of doors on the first floor and some five feet on the floors above. Over the marble is smooth plaster on walls and ceilings. Intricate molded plaster cornices are used in all halls and corridors where walls join ceilings. Here also the ceilings have a criss-cross pattern of dropped plaster beams whose edges are chamfered. Plaster panel molding is used to create rectangular divisions in all ceiling bays.

From the north portico the entrance doors open to a spacious center gallery. At each side of the gallery wide marble stairs rise in two runs to the second floor. The detailing of these stairs is typical of the elegant original finishes used throughout the interior. The balustrade features intricate wrought iron grills in the baluster portion, capped by a molded walnut rail. From the second floor the stairs rise in two runs to the third floor.

In plan the building has a wide hall centered in the long axis on each floor and extending to end doors in the cellar and on the first floor. The second floor hall terminates at double doors opening to court rooms.

There are offices and small court rooms opening from the center hall on each floor. At the second floor large court rooms occupy the end bays. These chambers rise two floors to vaulted ceilings. In these large rooms the original wood paneling and molded trim has been replaced with modern material. Light fixtures which were originally incandescent brackets and chandeliers have been generally replaced with modern fluorescent fixtures. The integrity of the original design is damaged by such changes. In the long corridors on all floors original plaster ceilings are now concealed by dropped ceilings used to hide mechanical equipment. This modification disrupts the balanced proportions of the original high ceilinged interior. Cast iron steam heat radiators remain throughout the interior. Set in molded marble frames with large transom windows, the original doors are solid molded wood, often with glass inserts.

Established, as they have been, for over two centuries, it is surprising that there are no public buildings remaining from earlier days in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. For that matter there are few historic buildings of any type remaining. The loss of this heritage places more emphasis on the significance of this fine old classical building. The structure should be preserved without further damage or alteration, and perhaps this will establish a precedent for more effective preservation in the community.