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Center City Housing

This photograph of the Alpha Mill in First Ward shows the variety of housing.  Especially noteworthy are the two middle class Victorian cottages in the foreground.

   The history of housing in Center City Charlotte can best be understood within the broader context of the history of the development of the city as a whole and especially its rapid growth in population in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  Defeat in the Civil War and the end of slavery led Southern leaders to push for economic modernization, especially the diversification of agriculture and the development of industry. This so-called "New South Era" witnessed profound changes in the region’s built or man-made environment. As a manufacturing base, mainly textiles, began to emerge, the small towns and villages of the Piedmont grew rapidly into cities. Inland communities with excellent railroad connections, such as Charlotte, outdistanced the old ports, including Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, in importance and population.  This process had begun even before the Civil War.  With four railroad lines already in place, Charlotte had seen its population more than double between 1850 and 1860  -- from 1065 to 2265.1

This map of South Mint St. and South Graham St. in Third Ward shows the density and arrangement of housing in a "walking scale" city.

         Rapid growth persisted in Charlotte in the decades following the Civil War.  The emergence of the city as a major textile manufacturing center, the introduction of streetcars, and the emerging importance of Charlotte as a regional distribution center, continued to fuel economic advancement, population growth, and its concomitant physical expansion.  Between 1900 and 1910, for example, the city grew from 18,091 to 34,014 people, an 82 percent increase, larger than any other decade in the twentieth century.  Also impressive was a 78 percent augmentation in Charlotte’s population in the 1920s, bringing the number of residents to 82,675 by 1930.2  Clearly, the coming of so many people to Charlotte in the decades following the Civil War produced a substantial demand for housing.

The Galloway House stood at 702 North Brevard St. until the 1970s.  It was more or less typical of the middle class homes that once stood in the "finer" section of First Ward.

     What is now Center City Charlotte essentially comprised the entire community until the late 1800s.  Consequently it became increasingly filled with houses. "The grid of straight streets that lies within today's innermost expressway loop was the whole of Charlotte less than one hundred years ago," stated historian Thomas W. Hanchett in the early 1980s.3  There were residences in all of Charlotte’s original four wards (created in 1869), but the most prestigious neighborhoods were in Fourth Ward and parts of First Ward, as well as along the two thoroughfares of Tryon St. and Trade St., briefly known as East Ave.  African Americans lived interspersed with whites in some parts of  First Ward, but the largest collections of blacks resided in Second Ward, also known as “Brooklyn,” and Third Ward. The earliest map of the outlying areas of Charlotte, Butler and Spratt's Map of Charlotte Township ... 1892, shows a cluster of small houses labeled "Blandville" just off South Tryon Street outside the city limits.  This area was one of several black villages that grew up in the nineteenth century around the edges of the city.  Another was Dulstown.

North McDowell St. on the eastern edge of Center City Charlotte still had several imposing homes in the mid-1970s.  This eclectic cottage stood at 125 North McDowell. Note the historian recording the house in the Summer of 1975.

    David Ovens, who came to Charlotte in 1903 to work for J. B. Ivey Co., gave a compelling description of the city when he arrived.  "Charlotte wasn't much of a place to come to -- in 1903," he declared. "Beyond the homes of the aristocracy, a fringe of dwellings housed the poorer white class, and still further back were the homes (if they could be called such) of the colored folks."4  

This is the type of humble "shotgun" house that David Ovens saw.  It was still standing at 522 North Caldwell St. in 1975.

 

Abodes for the less advantaged economic groups  were of two dominant types – so-called “shotgun” houses and textile mill houses.  In the 1970s, folklorist and social historian John Michael Vlach performed the first academic investigation of the shotgun house. He discovered that it was  found almost exclusively in the South. According to Vlach, the shotgun house has its roots in Haiti, where he believes it had originated during the seventeenth century. “Today Haitian blacks still build thatched-roofed ‘cailles,’ which, except for their primitive building materials, look exactly like urban American shotgun houses,” writes historian William Huffman.5  D. A. Tompkins, Charlotte’s preeminent champion of the “New South” movement, profoundly influenced the design of many of Charlotte’s textile workers’ houses through plans he included in his book, Cotton Mills, Commerical Features.

Liddell-McNinch House.  North Church Street.

    Architecturally, the houses in Center City Charlotte reflected, although belatedly, the dominant styles of the day.  The designs of the finer older houses in Fourth Ward and First Ward and along Trade St. and Tryon St were Victorian.  “Beginning before the Civil War, builders and architects all over America began turning away from the severe, symmetrical formality of the Greek Revival,” writes  Hanchett. “They created new freer, more ornate designs inspired by a diverse array of Italian, French, English, Roman and other prototypes.”6  In keeping with the needs of a “walking scale” city, these imposing houses tended to have minimum frontage on the streets and sat close to one another.  The early twentieth century saw the introduction of the Craftsman style into Center City housing, especially in the early streetcar suburbs of Irwin Park, Woodlawn, and McNinchville.

This was one of the more imposing dwellings in Second Ward.  It was the home of J. T. Williams, a local African American physician and educator.  It stood at 215 South Brevard St.

          No historically significant houses survive in Third Ward or Second Ward nor along Trade St. and Tryon St.  None.  One Second Ward house was moved from South Brevard Street to North Poplar St. in the 1970s.  There are a few historic houses remaining in First Ward, most notably the Treloar House at Seventh and Brevard, the Queen Anne style John Price Carr House at Fifth and McDowell, and the Rectilinear style William Bratton House at 631 North Brevard Street.  In the 1970s, when urban renewal swept through First Ward, several early twentieth century homes were relocated to East Eight St.; and the Historic Landmarks Commission moved two shotgun houses from Bland Street to the rear of the former Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church, now African American Cultural Center, in the 1980s.  The Alpha Cotton Mills Village borders First Ward on the North and contains a significant collection of textile workers' houses.  Click here for more detailed description of the Alpha Cotton Mills Village.

Alpha Cotton Mills Village.

   Fourth Ward has the largest collection of historic homes in the older part of Center City Charlotte.  They include such notable structures as the Queen Anne style Liddell-McNinch House, the Italianate style Newcombe-Berryhill House, and the Queen Anne style Elias Overcarsh House, all of which have been designated as historic landmarks.  Three historic apartment buildings survive in the original four wards – the Poplar Apartments on West Tenth St. and the Frederick Apartments on North Poplar St. (in Fourth Ward and both designated) and the Guthery Apartments on North Tryon St. in First Ward.   The Woodlawn Ave. Apartments and the Elizabeth Apartments are located on the fringes of uptown Charlotte.  There is one surviving intact African American house in Blandville.

Woodlawn Ave. Apartments Gurthery Apartments

     The largest number of Center City Charlotte residences that have yet to be processed for historic designation are early middle class Craftsman style suburban homes.  Charlotte did begin to obtain outlying middle class neighborhoods after 1887, when horse-drawn streetcars began to operate.  This process accelerated with the advent of electric streetcars or trolleys in May 1891. One area of intense real estate activity was known as "Phifer's," a district situated between Tryon St. and College St. near the northern edge of Charlotte. "Four new houses are now in process of erection, besides several already finished," reported the Charlotte Chronicle on February 13, 1890. A second suburb arose at the opposite end of town between Tryon St. and Church St. The local press announced on March 14, 1890, that the streetcar lines would be extended into this emerging residential section and that E. K. P. Osborne would "erect a handsome residence on part of the property."7  Unfortunately, none of the homes in either of these neighborhoods survives.    Three turn-of-the-century streetcar suburbs called Woodlawn, Irwin Park, and McNinchville platted streets on the western edge of Charlotte soon after 1900.   All contain significant collections of historic residences.  "These areas are now thought of as part of the Center City, but they were conceived and advertised as 'streetcar suburbs,'" explains Hanchett.   "They were served by the West Trade trolley line."8 The streetcar line extending across Big Sugar Creek or Irwin Creek to Biddleville opened on April 25, 1903.  Unlike homes in Fourth Ward, where Victorian styles of architecture predominate, the houses in Woodlawn, Irwin Park, and McNinchville are mostly Craftsman style, principally bungalows.  Charlotte City Directories reveal that Grove Avenue in Woodlawn had eleven houses by 1911 and that Irwin Ave. in Irwin Park had seven houses by 1916.9

An Irwin Park streetscape.

A Rectilinear style home in Woodlawn

Click here for Dr. Tom Hanchett's comprehensive overview of the development of Center City Charlotte

Endnotes

1.  For a comprehensive overview of the history of Mecklenburg County see:  Dan L. Morrill, "A History Of Mecklenburg County," n.d. (http://danandmary.com/historyofcharlotteindex.htm).  The most comprehensive collection of photographs of Center City housing in the 1970s is contained in "An Inventory Of Older Buildings In Mecklenburg County and Charlotte For the Historic Properties Commission," 1975.  These invaluable records are in the offices of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 2100 Randolph Road, Charlotte, N.C.

2.  Sarah J. Woodard and Sherry Joines Wyatt, "Industy, Transportation, and Education.  The New South Development of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County," n.d. (http://landmarkscommission.org/surveyindustrialsurvey.htm).

3.  Thomas W. Hanchett, "THE CENTER CITY: The Business District and the Original Four Wards,"n.d. (http://www.cmhpf.org/educationneighhistcentercity.htm).  Hereinafter cited as Hanchett.

4.  Dan L. Morrill, "David Ovens: A Charlotte Leader," November 1997 (http://www.cmhpf.org/educationovens.htm).

5.  William H. Huffman, "Survey and Research Report on Representative Shotgun Houses,"May 1985 (http://www.cmhpf.org/surveys&rshotgun.htm).

6.  Hanchett.

7.  Dan L. Morrill, "Charlotte's First Streetcars:  Mule-Drawn and Horse-Drawn,"n.d. (http://www.cmhpf.org/surveybytopicstreetcars.htm).

8.  Hanchett.

9.  Charlotte City Directory, 1911, 1916.