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    Historic Institutional Buildings In

Center City Charlotte

 

Louis Asbury's Mecklenburg County Courthouse (1928)

     City and County government and Christian congregations have played the largest part in erecting institutional buildings in Center City Charlotte.  Established in 1768 as the seat of government for  Mecklenburg County, Charlotte has always had a courthouse.1  The first was in the intersection of what are now Trade and Tryon Streets, locally known as the Square.  The second was on West Trade Street and Church Street; and the third, a Neo Classical style edifice designed by Frank Milburn, was located just below South Tryon and Third Street.  The oldest surviving building that served as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is Louis Asbury’s imposing Neo Classical style former courthouse at 700 East Trade Street, which officially opened on March 10, 1928.

This City Hall stood at 6th and North Tryon Sts.

Gottfrid Norrman's City Hall (1891)

          The City of Charlotte has had several city halls.  The earliest photographed Charlotte City Hall was a whimsical Victorian style building on North Tryon Street.  This structure was replaced in 1891 by a magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque style edifice that stood at North Tryon Street and Fifth Street.  Designed by Swedish-born architect Gottfrid L. Norrman (1846-1909), the building housed all city services, including the police department and the fire department.  Some residents still remember the clock in the tower of the Charlotte City Hall striking the hour.  The bell could be heard in all sections of Charlotte. By the early 1920s, Charlotte had outgrown this city hall. Consequently, James Oscar Walker (1879-1947), elected Mayor on May 3, 1921, advocated the construction of a new municipal complex. The City purchased an entire block on East Avenue, now East Trade Street, in the midst of what was then a fashionable residential area.  On January 26, 1924, City Council authorized Mayor Walker to negotiate a contract with Charles Christian Hook to design the new city hall.2 A native of Wheeling, W. Va., and graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., Hook had moved here in 1891 to teach mechanical drawing in the Charlotte Graded School and soon thereafter had begun designing homes for the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company, the developers of Dilworth.3

C. C. Hook's Charlotte City Hall (1925)

          The new governmental complex consisted of four structures. An administrative building, commonly known as the City Hall, was placed in the middle of the block, thereby allowing for future expansion. A fire station, a police station, and public health building were constructed along the southern edge of the property.

These are the public health, police station, and fire station that stood behind City Hall.  All three have been demolished.

Governmental agencies occupied the new facilities on October 30, 1925, and the initial meeting of City Council occurred there on November 1, 1925.4 The fire station, police station, and public health buildings no longer stand. The City of Charlotte also superintends two municipal cemeteries in Center City Charlotte – Old Settlers Cemetery and Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery.5 One historic fire station survives.  It is Station No. 4 at 420 West Fifth Street, which was completed in 1925.  Another local governmental building of historical note is A. G. Odell’s former Charlotte Civic Center (1973) on South College St., which is about to undergo insensitive alteration.  Finally, three historic public schools or portions thereof survive in the urban core.  They include two that served African Americans, Alexander Street School and the former gymnasium of Second Ward High School, as well as Harding High School, where dramatic events surrounding the racial integration of public schools occurred in 1957.6

 

The relocation of the main Center City Fire Station to East Trade St. from North Tryon St. persuaded the City to construct a new station on West Fifth Street in 1925.  It continued in service until 1972.  It is now a museum.

     The Federal government contributed significantly to the built environment of Center City Charlotte by erecting a Neo Classical Revival style U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse on West Trade Street in 1917.

This 1906 postcard shows the U. S. Post Office that was demolished in 1917 to make way for the new building.  Note the former U. S. Mint Building that stood next door.

 Expanded in 1934 to accommodate the needs of a fast-growing city, the imposing edifice was designed by Government architect James A. Wetmore.  “The construction of the Former Charlotte Post Office in 1917,” writes historian Emily Ramsey, “and its subsequent expansion in 1934 is a tangible reminder of the growth of Charlotte itself. From its humble beginnings in taverns and rented spaces to its occupation of the largest Federal Building in the Carolinas, the Charlotte Post Office developed along with the city, and reflects its progress and maturation during the first half of the twentieth century.”7

Jews comprised the only non-Christian religious community  of note in Charlotte in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Hebrew United Brotherhood Synagogue stood on West 7th St. between Pine St. and Graham St. in Fourth Ward.

     Center City Charlotte contains several churches that date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Charlotte was experiencing a surge in population and growth due to its rising importance as a textile manufacturing and wholesale distribution center.  Three continue to serve African American congregations.  They are Grace A.M.E. Zion Church (1902) on South Brevard Street. in what was once the heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church (1911) on North Myers St., and

Grace A.M.E. Zion Church is in the background.

West Avenue Presbyterian Church was built by 1911 to serve the nearby suburbs of McNinchville, Irwin Park, and Woodlawn.

First United Presbyterian Church on East Seventh Street (c. 1896).  A fourth church, originally West Avenue Presbyterian Church (c. 1911), served the suburbs of McNinchville, Irwin Park, and Woodlawn in the early twentieth century but belongs to an African American congregation today. Four Center City churches have been converted to secular uses – First Baptist Church, now Spirit Square, on North Tryon Street, First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, now the McColl Center for the Arts, also on North Tryon, the Advent Christian Church on North McDowell, which has been converted into offices, and East Avenue Tabernacle A.R.P. Church, now the Aunt Stella Center, on Elizabeth Avenue.

First Presbyterian Church

     The oldest and largest historic church in Center City Charlotte is First Presbyterian Church on West Trade Street.  Most of the early white settlers who migrated to Mecklenburg County in the eighteenth century were Scots-Irish Presbyterians. As Calvinists, they believed in a stern but merciful God who rewards good and punishes evil. They were also experienced pioneers. The Scots-Irish were Scotsmen who had been sent by King James I to Ireland. Later, many had migrated to the New World, mainly to Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. After 1730, when the Royal government began to market land aggressively in the Carolina "backcountry," the Scots-Irish started pouring into the Piedmont in search of cheap land. Some, like Thomas Polk, stopped when they came to the major crossroads formed by what is now Trade Street and Tryon Street.

    The Scots-Irish were not alone. Even in Mecklenburg County there were Germans, English, Welshmen and others. Especially in county seats like Charlotte, where tavern keepers and lawyers tended to settle, several Christian denominations could be found. It is not surprising that the first church on this site, established in 1815, was a town church. The Presbyterians bought this lot and erected their own house of worship in 1845, and they have been using the land ever since. The oldest part of the building you see today is the very front section. It dates from 1857. Most of the ornate structure, including its crenelated parapets, towers, spires, and pinnacles, was built in the mid-1890's.8

St. Peter's Episcopal Church (1893)

St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church

      Tryon Street contained many of Charlotte's most architecturally ornate churches.  Several, including Second Presbyterian Church, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Trinity Methodist Church, and Tryon St. Methodist Church, have been destroyed.  Happily, two imposing churches of the late nineteen century survive, and neither is endangered.  They are St. Peter's Episcopal Church and St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church.   There has been an Episcopal house of worship on the corner of North Tryon Street and Seventh Street since 1857. The present Richardsonian Romanesque style sanctuary was completed in 1893.  Jane Smedberg Wilkes, the founder of St. Peter's Hospital and Good Samaritan Hospital, was a member; and there is a memorial window to her in the church.9

    St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church was established in 1851 mainly to serve the Irish who were laboring in gold mines in and around Charlotte. Two of the largest mines, the Rudisell and the St. Catherine's, were close by. That's probably why St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church was located on what was then the southern edge of town. The current church building, which was erected in 1893, is the only 19th century structure remaining on South Tryon Street, except for the fanciful Victorian Eastlake style rectory next door, which was completed in 1897.  The similarity of St. Peter's design to that of buildings being erected at Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County suggests that one architect fashioned all of the buildings.10

First United Methodist Church (1927)

     The First United Methodist Church is the final historic house of worship on Tryon Street that still serves its original purpose.  Architecturally, it  is an extravagant example of the Late Gothic Revival style. Typically constructed of stone, structures of this type were especially popular as churches or college buildings, such as Princeton University in New Jersey, Yale University in Connecticut, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  James Buchanan Duke,  whose money created Duke University, played a role in establishing First United Methodist Church in Charlotte. In the early 1920's, Duke met with Charlotte Methodist E. R. Bucher, an employee of what is now Duke Power Company, and said, "You know, I'm going to spend a great deal of time in Charlotte. I think I ought to do something for Charlotte Methodism." Later Duke promised to contribute $100,000 if Trinity Methodist Church and Tryon Street Methodist Church, both in Uptown Charlotte, would merge and "build a representative stone church." On November 24, 1926, Trinity Methodist Church and Tryon Street Methodist Church did vote to unite. The first service was held here on October 30, 1927. Although J. B. Duke had died in 1925, his estate did contribute money to the building of First United Methodist Church. The architect of the Charlotte church was Edwin Brewer Phillips of Memphis, Tennessee.11

  Public schools came to Charlotte in 1882 during the era of legal racial segregation. Partly intended to provide a more educated workforce for local factories and warehouses, the South Graded Schools for whites occupied the building that once housed the North Carolina Military Institute on Morehead Street on the southern edge of Charlotte; and Myers Street School for blacks was constructed in Second Ward.

This 1887 photographs shows the students and staff at the Myers Street School.

 By the early 1900s several public schools had appeared in Center City Charlotte, including First Ward Graded School and Bethune School.  The impetus to construct more educational facilities continued into the 1920s and 1930s as the population of Charlotte, both black and white, increased.  Second Ward High School for blacks opened in 1923; and the school's modernist gymnasium (1949), designed by A. G. Odell, Jr., survives. The 1930s saw the completion of a second major high school for whites, Harry P. Harding High School, which served Fourth Ward and the western sections.12

1940 Harding Men's Basketball Team

    Significant portions of the building are extant.  Finally, a new brick elementary school for blacks, designed by George Rhodes and financed through the Federal Public Works Administration, replaced an earlier wooden building on Alexander Street and received its first students in 1935.13

Alexander St. School (1935)

    

The 1929 Sanborn Map shows the first Alexander St. School and the neighborhood it served.

Endnotes.

1.  For an historic overview of Mecklenburg County see Legette Blythe and Charles R. Brockman,  Hornet’s Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

2.  Dan L. Morrill, "Survey and Research Report on the Charlotte City Hall" (http://landmarkscommission.org/surveysrcityhall.htm), 6 Februray 1980.  Hereinafter cited as City Hall.

3.  Lisa Bush Hankin, "Charles Christian Hook (http://landmarkscommission.org/educationhook.htm), nd.

4.  City Hall.

5.  Dan L. Morrill, "Survey and Research Report on Settlers' Cemetery (http://landmarkscommission.org/surveys&rsettlers.htm), 3 January 1984.  Emily D. Ramsey, "Survey and Research Report on Elmwood/Pinewood Cemetery (http://landmarkscommission.org/Surveys&relmwood.htm), 13 May 2001.

6.  For a description of the Civil Rights era in Charlotte-Mecklenburg see Dan L. Morrill, "The Emergence of Diversity" (http://danandmary.com/historyofcharlottechapter12newfinal.htm), 2001.  Doug Hicken, ed., Charlotte Fire Department Since 1887 (Fine Books Publishing Company, 1999), 21.

7.  Emily D. Ramsey, "Survey and Research Report on the Former Charlotte Post Office" (http://landmarkscommission.org/surveys&rpostoffice.htm), 1 April 2000.

8.  Dan L. Morrill, "Route VII.  Uptown Walking Tour Part I" (http://landmarkscommission.org/educationneighuptown1.htm), n.d.  Hereinafter cited as Part I.

9.  Part I..

10.  Dan L. Morrill, "Route VII.  Uptown Walking Tour Part II" (http://landmarkscommission.org/educationneighbuptown2.htm), nd.

11.  Part I.

12.  For an overview of the history of public schools in Charlotte, N.C., see Harry P. Harding, "Charlotte Public Schools."  Hereinafter cited as Harding.

13.  Harding.