Survey and Research Report
Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church (Former)
- Name and location of the property:
The property known as the former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church
(now known as the Great Aunt Stella Center) is located at 927 East Trade
Street in Charlotte, N. C.
- Name and address of the current owner of the
The current owner of the
Charlotte Tabernacle LLC
926 Elizabeth Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28264
- Representative photographs of the property:
This report contains representative photographs of the property.
- Maps depicting the location of the property:
This report contains a map depicting the location of the property.
UTM: 17 515066E 3897183N
- Current deed book reference to the property:
The most recent deed reference to the property is found in Mecklenburg
County Deed Book 9147, page 893. The tax parcel number to the
property is 125-04-203.
- A brief historical sketch of the property:
This report contains a brief historical sketch of the property prepared
by Emily D. Ramsey.
- A brief architectural description of the
property: This report contains a brief architectural
description of the property prepared by Emily D. Ramsey.
- Documentation of why and in what ways the
property meets the criteria for designation set forth in N.C.G.S.
- Special significance in terms of its history,
architecture, and/or cultural importance.
Historic Landmarks Commission judges that the former East Avenue
Tabernacle A. R. P. Church possesses special significance in terms of
Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The Commission bases its judgment on the
The former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church, completed in
1914, was designed by locally and regionally important architect James
Mackson McMichael (1870-1940).
The former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church is the only
remaining building associated with one of the first Associated Reformed
Presbyterian congregations in Charlotte.
The former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church, an impressive
Neoclassical structure at the intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and East
Trade Street, occupies an important place within the built environment of
Second Ward, and served as a religious and social center for a number of
nearby Charlotte communities.
of design, workmanship, materials, feeling, and association.
The Commission contends that the architectural description by Emily
D. Ramsey demonstrates that the former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P.
Church meets this
- Ad Volorem Tax Appraisal: The Ad
Valorem tax appraisal for the property’s .528 acres of land is $344,990.
The Ad Volorem tax appraisal for the property’s improvements is
Date of Preparation of this Report:
August 1, 2001
Emily D. Ramsey
745 Georgia Trail
Lincolnton, NC 28092
The former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church, located on the
intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and East Trade Street (East Avenue), is a
property that possesses local historic significance as the only remaining
structure associated with one of the earliest Associated Reformed
Presbyterian Churches in Charlotte and as an important part of the built
environment within the Second Ward neighborhood. Begun officially in
1898 in the basement of a modest house in First Ward, the Tabernacle A. R.
P. Baptist Church took its place as only the third Associated Reformed
Presbyterian Church in Charlotte during a most advantageous period in the
city’s history. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
saw Charlotte emerge as a regionally important textile manufacturing and
cotton trading center, and the population boom, coupled with widespread
economic prosperity, helped Tabernacle A. R. P. Church quickly gain
members and accumulate funds for a formal sanctuary. By the end of
1899, the church had begun the construction of a brick Victorian church
building on a triangular lot at the intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and
East Trade Street. This edifice served the growing congregation
until the early 1910s, when a fire destroyed the building. Under the
leadership of the Reverend W. W. Orr, former minister of the Huntersville
A. R. P. Church and founder of Huntersville’s first community school, the
congregation had continued to attract new members from First Ward, nearby
Elizabeth, and other middle-class neighborhoods during their first decade.
Consequently, the Tabernacle A. R. P. Church members were able to replace
the burned building with a church that would reflect their increasing
importance within the urban fabric of center city Charlotte. The
resulting building, an imposing Neoclassical structure with a central
dome, impressive portico supported by Corinthian columns, and large
Italian stained glass windows, was completed in 1914 and has remained an
integral part of Charlotte’s center city built environment.
The former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church is also significant as
the work of James Mackson McMichael, a nationally recognized architect who
was known throughout the North Carolina piedmont for his church designs.
McMichael, a Pennsylvania native who came to Charlotte in 1901,
constructed a number of Charlotte’s most extraordinary churches during the
first half of the twentieth century, including the former First Baptist
Church, the Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church, Myers Park Presbyterian
Church, and St. John’s Baptist Church. The design for the East
Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church exhibits many elements which McMichael,
who eschewed the typical Gothic style in favor of Neoclassical buildings,
incorporated into many of his churches. The Tabernacle A. R. P.
Church is particularly close to McMichael’s designs for the former
First Baptist Church and the former Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church.
These three church buildings, which once served as religious centers
within Charlotte’s center city neighborhoods, are also connected in that
they have all been adaptively reused as community centers: the former
First Baptist Church now houses Spirit Square, an arts and cultural
center; the former Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church now serves as the home
of the African American Cultural Center; and, in 1997, the former East
Avenue Tabernacle Church became the Great Aunt Stella Center, home to the
Community Charter School and a variety of non-profit, ethnic and cultural
First Baptist Church (1908)
Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church (1911)
Historical Background and Context Statement
The establishment of the East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church at the
edge of the Second Ward neighborhood, just east of Charlotte’s central
business district, is intimately tied to Charlotte’s emergence as a
New South cotton trading and textile manufacturing center in the
late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. After the Civil War,
Charlotteans wholeheartedly embraced the urban, industrial philosophy of
New South leaders such as D. A. Tompkins and Edward Dilworth Latta.
Between 1880 and 1930, the textile industry effectively transformed
Charlotte from a “dirt-street crossroads community with barely seven
thousand inhabitants, where farmland was only a fifteen minute walk from
the central Independence Square,” into “the center of a major new American
industrial region.” and the largest city in North Carolina.1
As the city’s textile mills and related businesses boomed, economic
growth translated into physical growth, and Charlotte’s boundaries
expanded to include new neighborhoods, industrial and commercial
One such neighborhood was
First Ward, one of four wards that defined the commercial, civic,
religious and residential heart of Charlotte during the New South era.
First Ward attracted a wide array of residents, businesses and
congregations, from affluent and fashionable families such as Hector T.
McKinnon (a cotton merchant) and John Price Carr (who operated Charlotte’s
leading delivery and moving entrepreneur), who built magnificent houses
along the east side of Tryon Street, along East Trade Street, Brevard
Street, and McDowell Street during the early decades of the twentieth
century, to working class whites near the Advent Christian Church near N.
McDowell and African Americans, who attended the Little Rock A. M. E. Zion
Church. Public, commercial, and civic buildings followed residents
to the burgeoning community, and First Ward boasted some of Charlotte’s
most impressive churches and commercial structures, including the Carolina
Theater, the Southern Bell Building, Belk’s Department Store, William
Peep’s Court Arcade, the Woolworth Store, First United Presbyterian
Church and First Baptist Church.2
Although the East Avenue A.R.P. Church was built at the edge of Second
Ward, it drew many of its members from First Ward.
The East Avenue Tabernacle
A. R. P. Church was began in 1898, as a Sunday School mission - members
met for Bible Study and devotion in the basement of a house in the First
The mission benefited from it strategic location near First
Ward, which allowed the congregation to quickly attract affluent new
members. By 1899, the bible study had officially become an
Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church, and by the end of the church’s
first year, the congregation had secured enough funds to begin
construction of a substantial brick Victorian building on a prominent plot
at the convergence of East Trade Street (known as East Avenue within
Second Ward) and Elizabeth Avenue, an easy walk for members from First
Ward and the emerging Elizabeth neighborhood. The turn of the
century not only brought the East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church their
first building, it also saw the beginning of Dr. W. W. Orr’s influential
tenure as minister of the fledgling church.4
Dr. Orr was an established figure within the Mecklenburg County Associated
Reformed Presbyterian community by the beginning of his time at East
Avenue, and he was well-known throughout the county for his religious and
educational work in Huntersville. In addition to serving as minister
to the Huntersville A. R. P. Church (established in 1875 as the third A.
R. P. congregation in the county), Orr established the first school in the
small town, a parochial school operated by the church, which attracted
students from across the county.5
The East Avenue A. R. P.
Church, the fourth Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church in the county
and only the second within Charlotte’s city limits, thrived under Orr’s
leadership during the prosperous early years of the twentieth century.
However, the church suffered a major setback in the early 1910s, when
their sanctuary caught fire and burned to the ground. Orr and his
congregation made plans to rebuild immediately, and to rebuild
ambitiously, with a building that would reflect the church’s increasing
importance in center city Charlotte. East
Avenue Tabernacle members turned to architect J. M. McMichael, who had
recently designed Neoclassical church buildings for First Ward’s First
Baptist Church (1908) and Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church (1911).6
McMichael’s design for the East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church, with
its dramatic “Celtic cross” sanctuary topped with an octagonal dome and
fronted by an imposing pedimented portico, was completed in 1914.
The church building, rising out of the small rectangular lot facing East
Trade Street and Elizabeth Avenue, immediately became a centerpiece of the
community. The members of the East Avenue Tabernacle congregation were so
impressed with McMichael’s work, they commissioned him in 1925 to design a
rear addition to the church, which housed the church’s educational center,
kitchen, and offices.
Although the East Avenue
Tabernacle A. R. P. Church was adequately supported through donations of
it many affluent members, the financial burden of these substantial
building projects weighed heavily on the congregation after the stock
market crash of 1929. Fortunately, the neighborhood church remained
united, in large part because of the continuous leadership of the Orr
family. Although W. W. Orr had died in 1928 after twenty-eight years
as minister of East Avenue Tabernacle, his son, the Reverend Ernest Neal
Orr, himself a long-time member of the congregation, immediately assumed
the responsibility of his father’s position.7
Ernest Orr served as minister until 1950, and was succeeded by Henry E.
Pressley, who stayed at East Avenue Tabernacle until 1980.
Despite the stability and
long term commitment of the church’s ministers, East Avenue Tabernacle A.
R. P. Church began losing members in the post-World War II period, when
residents of First Ward and other nearby residential neighborhoods
followed the rest of Charlotte (and the rest of the country) to the
suburbs. As government buildings, including a new courthouse and
jail, replaced stately homes along East Trade Street, parking spaces
disappeared, crime increased, and members stopped coming to East Avenue
Tabernacle– by 1950, the congregation had dropped from a pre-war high of
1,200 members to 900 members, and by the 1980s, the number of active
members had dropped to just under 400.8
Once considered a neighborhood church, by the early 1990s, East Avenue
Tabernacle A. R. P. Church (under the Reverend John Hill) faced a
dilemma – follow the congregation to the suburbs or stay downtown and risk
extinction. In 1992, the church’s remaining members voted to abandon
Second Ward and build a new sanctuary in the suburbs.9
This new sanctuary never materialized, and the East Avenue Tabernacle
eventually merged with Craig Avenue A. R. P. Church to form Craig
Tabernacle A. R. P. Church
The church and educational building at 927 East Trade Street, a
neighborhood landmark and one of J. M. McMichael’s signature designs, was
purchased in July of 1997 by local businessman and philanthropist Bruce
Parker and converted into a multi-use community center. Parker
renamed the building the "Great Aunt Stella Center," as a tribute to his
Great Aunt Stella Sparrow, a mountain missionary. Thus, the former
East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church joined the former First Baptist
Church (now Spirit Square), the former Little Rock A. M. E. Zion Church
(now the African American Cultural Center) and the former First A. R. P.
Church as the fourth center city church designed by McMichael to be
adapted for use as a cultural center. The Great Aunt Stella Center
is currently home to a wide variety of organizations, including the
Community Charter School, the Sierra Club, the Afro-American Children’s
Theater, the Catawba River Foundation, Right Moves for Youth, United
Family Services, and the Nigerian Community of Charlotte. The Uptown
Christ Covenant Church meets in the sanctuary for Sunday services.
Although the East Avenue Tabernacle Presbyterian Congregation no longer
resides in the center city, their Neoclassical church building continues
to operate as a religious, educational, and social center for the
Architectural Description and Context Statement
Architecturally, the former East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church is
significant as one of several center city churches designed by nationally
recognized architect James Mackson McMichael. A native of
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, McMichael first came to Charlotte in 1901, when
the city was on the verge of a building boom that would last until the
beginning of the Great Depression. Sensing that opportunities were
opening up dramatically for architects in Charlotte, McMichael set up his
practice in the city. During the next four decades (until his death
in 1944), McMichael designed over two hundred buildings in Mecklenburg
County, including fifty-two churches. At a time when the majority of
architects were designing conservative Gothic-inspired church buildings
with pointed-arch windows and tall steeples, McMichael’s preference for
the clean lines of the Neoclassical style proved to be a revolutionary
force. One of his first commissions in Charlotte (and perhaps his
most famous design), the former First Baptist Church on North Tryon
Street, exhibited a “boldness, innovation and . . . flamboyance” as yet
unseen in Charlotte’s religious community.10
With this building, McMichael set the tone for most of his center city
churches – large Neoclassical brick structures with a central dome and
imposing columned frontal entrance. First Baptist was completed in
1908; three years later, in 1911, McMichael completed the Little Rock A.
M. E. Zion Church nearby. By the early 1910s, when the first East
Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church burned, McMichael had ample
experience with religious buildings in center city Charlotte, and he was
an obvious choice for a congregation looking, as East Avenue Tabernacle
was, for a building that would make a bold statement within center city
The East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church is a two story brick
Neoclassical structure on a Celtic Cross plan, topped with an
octagonal-based dome and situated on the triangular lot at the eastern
face of the intersection of East Trade Street and Elizabeth Avenue. A
large, four-story brick addition, designed by McMichael and completed in
1925, stretches east from the rear of the main building. The façade
of the main building, facing East Trade Street, features an imposing
pedimented portico decorated with dental molding and visually supported by
Corinthian columns and pilasters. The sanctuary appears almost
circular from inside the building, and the entire interior is lighted by
intricate stained glass windows. Church legend holds that the
stained glass for the windows was custom made for the church in Italy, and
was about to be shipped when World War I broke out. The stained
glass stayed in Italy, unharmed, until the war was over, and then was
shipped safely across the Atlantic. The most impressive of these windows
depict simple farming scenes on the north and south sides of the sanctuary
– farmers scattering seed and reaping the fruits of their labor.
Abstract designs decorate the glass covering the opening at the base of
the central dome. The four-story addition is, in contrast, a plain
rectangular structure with regularly punctuated six-over-six windows and a
simple stringcourse along the top perimeter of the structure. The
exterior of both the sanctuary and the educational building remain much as
they were in 1914, with original massing, brickwork, windows, doors, and
detailing. The only recent alteration to the exterior is an
elaborately carved wooden handicap ramp on the south side of the
sanctuary, completed in 2000 by the Executive Woodmen.
As impressive as the exterior of the building is, the interior is an even
more spectacular space. From the double-doored central entrance, one
enters a small nave, with staircases on each side leading up to the
sanctuary’s balcony level. A large stained glass window greets
visitors, flanked by doors leading to the main interior space. A
large pipe organ dominates the stage space, with exposed golden pipes
forming an arched focal point within the space. Simple, dark wooden
bench pews and individual seating (most likely added during the adaptive
reuse in the late 1990s) fill the sanctuary floor, a hardwood floor
covered in large part by dark wine carpeting. Doors on each side of
the stage area (on both the lower and upper levels) lead to staircases and
give access to the large educational building.
Although the educational building is now occupied by a large variety of
charitable organizations, foundations, and operations, the interior has
remained largely unchanged. Each floor is accessed by end staircases
connected by a wide central hall. Large rooms, once school
rooms, open off of each side of the central hall, and feature wide window
expanses, high ceilings, and polished light-colored pine flooring.
The East Avenue Tabernacle A. R. P. Church, one of J. M. McMichael’s
signature Neoclassical church designs, formed an integral part of the
early twentieth century built environment of the Second Ward neighborhood,
and, as the Great Aunt Stella Center, remains an important part of
Charlotte’s center city community.