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Charlotte Civil Center

1973

 

A. G. Odell, Jr., the flamboyant son of a Cabarrus County textile executive, studied architecture at Cornell University and came to Charlotte in 1939 to establish a one-man office. By the time of his death in April 1988 Odell oversaw the operations of one of the largest and most influential architectural businesses in North Carolina. "In a society where class connection still counted for much, young Odell had automatic entry to the offices of the area's mill owners and businessmen," writes historian Thomas Hanchett.1 When Odell arrived, Charlotte’s buildings were overwhelming conservative and revivalist in appearance and had been so for decades. "Most architecture in the area can best be described as pseudo-neoclassical, with elements of design copied from buildings elsewhere that had already incorporated copied elements of classic design," remembered M. H. Ward, one of Odell’s early associates.2 Odell set out to change that circumstance.

Odell took his lead from the thinking of such revolutionary post-World War One European architects as Le Corbusier. From about 1920 until shortly before his death in 1965, Le Corbusier was an untiring proselytizer for what he called the "Radiant City." To his way of thinking, urban designers should break completely with the past. Le Corbusier had no sympathy or interest in the preservation of existing buildings or neighborhoods. "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he proclaimed.3 Le Corbusier envisioned people living in high rise apartments surrounded by lustrous skyscrapers separated from one another by large expanses of manicured open space and dramatic fountains. Urban cores should be hygienic, antiseptic, and ordered -- not cluttered, begrimed, and haphazard. The tradition of mixing functions in a single structure or neighborhood was an anathema to Corbusier. The city of the future would be divided into discreet sections devoted to specific purposes – working, living, leisure – connected to one another by expressways.

Le Corbusier also called for a new vocabulary of building design. "We must start again from zero," he insisted.4 His new architecture became known as the International style. "A house is a machine for living in," said Corbusier.5 The fundamentals of the International style centered upon the exploitation of new materials, especially reinforced concrete, strengthened steel, and large expanses of glass, to create grace, airiness, and to allow great amounts of sunlight to penetrate the interior of structures. Some suggest that Corbusier wanted all buildings to look like luxury liners. The proponents of the International style "maintained that a well- designed building could be beautiful without the addition of expensive trim that obscured its functional shapes and structure," Hanchett explains.6 Another center of International style philosophy was the Bauhaus in Germany, where influential designers like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe held sway.

A. G. Odell, Jr. is standing in the middle.

A.G. Odell, Sr.

A. G. Odell, Jr. became Charlotte’s principal champion of the International style and devoted his considerable talents and energies to reshaping the local urban landscape. For good or ill, he largely succeeded. Odell embraced the architecture of "tomorrow" and had nothing but disdain for the revivalist buildings he observed on the streets of Charlotte. Describing what he saw when he arrived in Charlotte, Odell declared: "There was nothing here . . . that illustrated the honesty of stone as stone, steel as steel, glass as glass. Everybody was still wallowing in the Colonial heritage."7

In 1965-66 Odell and Associates developed a comprehensive plan for the remaking of Center City Charlotte.8 It reflected his iconoclastic philosophy and established the fundamental parameters of uptown development for more than two decades. The plan continues to have considerable impact even today. The initial impetus for the remaking of Center City Charlotte originated with the Downtown Charlotte Association in the early 1960s. Convinced that the urban core was spiraling downward in the face of growing suburbanization, the Association hired Hammer & Associates, economic consultants, in early 1963 to study what Center City Charlotte needed. The Hammer Report determined that new stores, green space, parking garages, and new entertainment facilities were required. It was this report that induced the Downtown Charlotte Association to hire A. G. Odell and Associates in 1965 to devise the Center City Plan, which was officially released in September 1966.9

Odell benefited from the temper of his times. The 1960s and 1970s in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the United States as a whole were decades of buoyant optimism, the persisting unpopularity of the Vietnam War notwithstanding. An eagerness to greet the challenges of the future and an almost total rejection of history and its architecture dominated elitist thinking. In a speech to the Charlotte Civitan Club’s 1966 Distinguished Citizens Award Ceremony, Dr. John T. Caldwell, Chancellor of North Carolina State University, advanced the commonly held assumption of that day that focusing upon the past was counterproductive to "progress." Charlotte "is a community filled with optimism for the days head, or it is a city enjoying a past that probably never was," he declared. Caldwell continued: "Charlotte is a city which is captive to the mores and fears of the past, or it is a community which greets the new demands of contemporary America with resilience at least and with eagerness at best."10

The Charlotte Observer sounded a similar tone. The newspaper was a consistent champion of the growth and expansion of Charlotte and its environs. Predictably, it issued a call for aggressive implementation of Odell’s Center City Plan when it was presented to the Charlotte City Council in March 1966. The editorial page contended that "Charlotte . . . has been studied enough. Those concerned about making this a more functional, more attractive city will now begin to act."11 The Charlotte Observer chided City leaders again in July 1966 for their alleged record of sluggishness in moving ahead with daring innovations. "Past councils have been much too reluctant to act with boldness and determination in redevelopment," the newspaper proclaimed.12

On March 2, 1966, James Rouse, the visionary developer of the planned community of Columbia, Md., trumpeted the same message in a stirring address he gave to attendees at the first annual UNCC Forum. He argued that unless Charlotte acted quickly and boldly it could squander its chances for becoming "one of the country’s most glorious cities." According to Rouse, the people of Charlotte stood "on the threshold of opportunity." To step back from the challenge, he insisted, would propel Charlotte in the wrong direction. "You can also succeed in reaching the point where the big, ugly cities are now. And you will surely get there if you don’t plan with boldness and vision," Rouse maintained.13 Not surprisingly, the Charlotte Observer rushed to endorse Rouse’s remarks. "Charlotte, as the major city of the Carolinas, can plan, can grow in an orderly manner, can become a city of the future," the editors declared. "But its citizens will have to have their minds stretched again and again."14

This is Odell's vision of Center City Charlotte.  You are looking toward the Center City from the west.

Odell’s Center City Plan was bold and visionary. Voters had approved a bond referendum the previous year to fund street improvements in the Center City; and the leveling of virtually every structure in the Second Ward or "Brooklyn" neighborhood, a large African American enclave, was already proceeding apace.15 Building upon these initiatives, Odell proposed a series of audacious initiatives. Like Le Corbusier, Odell embraced the philosophy of the "Radiant City." His plan predicted that visitors would "be coming to a new Charlotte, a Charlotte built anew with imagination, with sound economic reasoning, with a full knowledge that Charlotte’s position of leadership in the Carolinas and in the Southeast is one which the city deserves."16 What the Charlotte Observer called "swaths of expressway construction" would enable suburbanites to drive their automobiles more easily to the urban core.17 Parking decks would be built to house all the additional cars coming to the Center City, and all curbside parking would be eliminated. The intersection of Trade and Tryon Sts. would be transformed into a true "Square" by creating a plaza at the southeastern corner bordered by a hotel and retail shops.

This was the concept for connecting the Government Center of East Trade St. with Independence Square.  Clean, even clinical.

Odell, much in the tradition of the International style, advocated the creation of residential districts defined by parks and high rise apartment buildings. The plan called for the destruction of all the older homes in Fourth Ward, which the Charlotte Observer termed a "slum."18 Edwin Towers, a high rise apartment building for the elderly, was then under construction and apparently was the type of structure Odell envisioned for much of Fourth Ward.19 The plan advocated the burial of all utility lines and the removal of the railroad tracks between College and Brevard Streets and the turning of the rail line into a "Convention Boulevard."20

The most crucial element of Odell’s Center City Plan, what the Charlotte Observer called its "spark," was the construction of a Convention Center at the corner of South College St. and East Trade St.21  John A. Tate, Jr., Chairman of the Committee for the Master Plan, underscored the urgency of proceeding with the building when he spoke to the Charlotte Rotary Club on June 14, 1966. "The convention center is the ‘heart’ of the master plan for downtown revitalization," Tate insisted. "It is the ‘trigger’ and the ‘stimulant’ for redevelopment of the first block of South Tryon Street."22

The story of how the Convention Center got built is a tortuous and twisted tale The schedule for erecting the Convention Center was sidetracked on several occasions, but the City finally began constructing the facility in October 1971.23 "We’re concerned that this building will have a character of its own that will symbolize Charlotte in the eyes of the nation," said A. G. Odell. Odell promised that the Charlotte Civic Center, as it became called, "will compare with any in the country."24  The building opened with great fanfare on September 9, 1973. Ironically, the Charlotte Civic Center, which has been replaced by a new, larger convention center, stands empty today; and its future is in great jeopardy.

In this writer’s opinion, the 1973 Charlotte Civic Center demonstrates a major weakness of the International style.25 The building’s most distinctive features are large pyramidal skylights that are only visible from a perspective several hundred feet in the air. While perhaps impressive as part of an architectural model, the Charlotte Civic Center presents blank brick walls to the pedestrian and provides no vitality or life to the streetscape. This criticism in no way detracts from the historic importance of the building, however. The Charlotte Civic Center did stimulate large-scale real estate developments on adjacent parcels, specifically the North Carolina National Bank Complex and the Radisson Hotel. The building was also the most crucial element in the implementation of A. G. Odell Jr.’s seminal 1966 Charlotte Center City Plan.

Special Note:  The Charlotte Civic Center was imploded on June 19, 2005.

 


1.  Hanchett, Thomas W.  n.d. Charlotte Architecture:  "Design Through Time Part 2."  landmarkscommission.org/educationarchitecturept2.

2.   Charlotte Observer, April 22, 1988.

3.  Rybczynski, Witold.  n.d.  "The Architect Le Corbusier."  time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/lecorbusier.

4.  Quoted in Rybczynski.

5.  Quoted in Rybczynski.

6.  Quoted in Rybczynski.

7.  Hanchett.

8.  Economic consultant for the plan was Hammer, Greene, Siler Associates.  Wilbur Smith and Associates was the traffic consultant.

9.  Charlotte Observer, March 9, 1970.

10.  Charlotte Observer, May 2, 1966.

11.  Charlotte Observer, June 1, 1966.

12.  Charlotte Observer, July 12, 1966.  Charlotte demolished an average of 1100 black-occupied housing units per year between 1965 and 1968.  Goldfield, David R.  Cotton Field And Skyscrapers. Southern City and Region.  1989.  Baltimore and London:  The John Hopkins University Press.  168.

13.  Charlotte Observer, March 3, 1966.  The first UNCC Forum at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte was entitled "The University and the Development of the Modern City."  Professor Edith Winningham was the organizer of the Forum.

14.  Charlotte Observer, March 4, 1966.

15.  Charlotte Observer, June 6, 7, 1966.

16.  A. G. Odell and Associates Architects, n.d. "Greater Charlotte Central Area Plan."

17.  Charlotte Observer, March 4, 1966.

18.  Charlotte Observer, May 27, 1966.  The park would have embraced the land now bordered by Seventh, Ninth, Poplar, and Pine Streets.  That land is now at the heart of the Fourth Ward historic district.

19.  Charlotte Observer, June 22, 1966.  Edwin Towers was designed by J. N. Pease Associates.

20.  Charlotte Observer, March 4, 1966.

21.  Charlotte Observer, June 16, 1966.

22.  Charlotte Observer, June 15, 1966.  The members of the Committee for the Master Plan were John A. Tate, Jr., Chairman, William T. Harris, George M. Ivey, Jr., Sandy R. Jordan, W. E. McIntyre, Arthur R. Newcombe, Marshall I. Pickens, Elmer E. Rouzer, Jerry C. Tuttle, E. L. Vinson, J. Mason Wallace, Jr., Paul R. Younts.

23.  Charlotte Observer, October 17, 1971.

24.  Charlotte Observer, February 2, 1970.  For a photograph of the Charlotte Civic Center under construction, see Charlotte Observer, February 28, 1972.

25.  New York architect Robert Stern visited Charlotte in 1986 and called Center City Charlotte "the ugliest collection of third-rate buildings in America."  Charlotte Observer, May 17, 1986.