David Ovens: A Charlotte Leader
Dr. Dan L. Morrill
Charlotte is quick to forget the actions of its leaders once they are
gone. A case in point is the career of the adroit merchant and noted
philanthropist David Ovens (1872- 1957). A native of Kingston, Ontario,
Ovens came to Charlotte in 1903 as manager of the local shop operated by the
S. H. Kress Co. J. B. Ivey, who had opened a store next door, was impressed
with Ovens and persuaded the 33-year-old Canadian to become a junior partner
in 1905. "He was a hard worker, enthusiastic and ambitious and was a great
help to me," said Ivey. As for Ovens, he was persuaded to join Ivey's
because he wanted to work for an enterprise that was locally owned. "I
wasn't particularly pleased with the idea of spending my life with an
out-of-town-owned cooperation--and a dime store, at that," Ovens declared in
These were the Ivey's employees in 1906. David Ovens is standing fourth
from the left on the on the first row. He is holding a straw hat in his
Sam Lawrence greeted shoppers when they entered Ivey's. Neal Alexander
was Mr. Oven's driver.
J. B. Ivey
Charlotte was becoming a major textile mill center in the early 1900's.
The population of the town increased from 18,091 in 1900 to 34,010 in 1910.
Ovens singled out New South industrialist D. A. Tompkins as the principal
reason for this impressive rate of growth, calling him a "brilliant
engineer." "It was he," Ovens insisted, "who led the way in persuading
people from distant points to come here and invest capital in the
establishment of factories and mills." "Then there was Mr. E. D. Latta,"
Ovens continued, "who gave us our first electric street railway, gas and
electric lights." By the time of his death on September 7, 1957, Ovens
himself could lay claim to being a major civic leader, especially in
Charlotte's cultural life. This article seeks to describe the career of this
civic-minded merchant and to assess the significance of Ovens's
Its business growth notwithstanding, Charlotte was still a country town
when David Ovens arrived. "Charlotte wasn't much of a place to come to -- in
1903," he declared. The more money you had the closer you lived to the
Square. "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." Charlotte's first automobile, a
steam-powered Locomobile owned by Osmond L. Barringer, had arrived just
three years earlier -- in November 1900. The streets were filled with
horses, "stabled at Wadsworth's Will Ross', Cochrane & Brothers, Queen City
Stables, and several others." Doctors drove in buggies to the homes of their
patients, and the fee was from "two to three dollars a visit."
Osmond Barringer sitting in his Baker Electric Automobile
Charlotte had no skyscrapers and several saloons. Charlotte had three
hospitals with a combined capacity of about 100 beds. There was only one
decent restaurant in town, "The Gem" on South Tryon St. On steamy, summer
afternoons folks would sit in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and fan
themselves while they listened to lawyer E. T. Cansler argue his cases. "His
scathing denunciation and keen satire of his opposition was a perfect
delight," said Ovens. It was Ovens who was the driving force behind the
transformation of Ivey's from a small shop into a major department store
chain. "I would probably have been satisfied with a moderate business that
would make something over a living," admitted J. B. Ivey, "but Mr. Ovens was
ambitious to make J. B. Ivey & Company a big store." Among Ovens's
innovative marketing schemes was tossing unsold hats out the second story
window of Ivey's at the end of each sales season. " . . . we kept this up
until the police stopped us for creating a riot," Ovens proclaimed. On a
more substantive level, Ovens and Ivey abandoned the practice of selling
goods only for cash. ". . . we found that we could not sell to the better
customers unless we sold on credit," Ivey explained. Ovens traveled to New
York City to purchase goods for the store. He drove hard bargains and was
always attentive to changing fashions.
There is a shocking difference in women's fashions since the century
turned over the page from the nineteenth to the twentieth. Then, modest
women went around completely covered from top to toe. Now, many leave
nothing to the imagination. Formerly, women were not even supposed to have
ankles; and as for legs, they tried to keep it a deep dark secret as to how
they got about! Now they haven't much they want to conceal; and at that, the
modern bathing "suit" is simply an excuse for women to walk on the beach
Ladies covered from head to toe. This is what fashionable women were
wearing when David Ovens arrived in Charlotte in 1903.
The most tangible reminder of Ovens's contributions to the growth of J.
B. Ivey & Company is the large building, recently converted into
condominiums, that stands at the corner of North Tryon and Fifth Sts. It was
designed by architect William H. Peeps and opened as the new home of J. B.
Ivey & Company in 1924. The store was renovated and enlarged in 1939.
Ivey's Department Store
David Ovens is best remembered as a lover of the arts. A man of
conservative tastes, he detested modern architecture and modern art.
"Everyone should be allowed to have one pet peeve," he proclaimed. "Mine is
modern architecture." He spoke with special disdain about "those straight
up-and-down, steel-ribbed, glass-enclosed structures, that are more in
keeping with the design of a small-town factory, or parking garage."
Ironically, the Charlotte landmark that bears his name, Ovens Auditorium on
East Indepedence Boulevard, is just such a building. It was fashioned by A.
G. Odell, Jr., whom Ovens called a "good friend."
Charlotte Coliseum, now Independence Arena
Ovens played a pivotal role in securing public backing for Ovens
Auditorium, originally called the Civic Center, and the Charlotte Coliseum,
now Independence Arena. On October 27, 1949, Mayor Victor Shaw selected
Ovens to head a planning committee to select a site for the new facility and
to recommend an architect. Shaw described Ovens as "the most public-spirited
citizen that Charlotte had ever known." As early as 1912, when he had headed
a fundraising campaign to build a new YWCA, Ovens had begun to establish
himself as a prominent local philanthropist. He was president of the Good
Fellows Club, a charitable organization that had its origins in Second
Presbyterian Church. "The chief value of this club lies not in its
charitable work alone, but in acquainting five hundred men with the other
side of life apart from our palatial clubs, luxurious homes, trips to
Florida in winter and to Europe, or expensive resorts in Newport or Bar
Harbor in the summer," Ovens declared. He headed Charlotte's first Community
Chest Drive, forerunner of today's United Way. Ovens was the local chairman
of the American Red Cross during World War II and served on the boards of
several other prestigious Charlotte-Mecklenburg institutions, including
Queens College, Davidson College, and Presbyterian Hospital. The list goes
on and on.
This is the Board of Directors of the Good Fellows Club. David Ovens is
sitting in the middle of the first row.
One of Ovens's favorite civic responsibilities was serving for eighteen
years, from 1934 until 1952, as president of the Community Concert
Association. His job was to bring excellent professional actors and
musicians to perform in Charlotte. The problem was that Charlotte had no
building that could meet even the minimum performance requirements of
artists during the 1930's and 1940's. The first concerts were held in the
auditorium at Piedmont High School and then in the Armory Auditorium on
Cecil St., later Kings Drive. There was a time," remembered Ovens, "when the
old Armory was becoming so shabby that people didn't want to go to artistic
events there, and the attendance fell off."
Determined that Charlotte would have a cultural and entertainment
facility worthy of its status, Ovens and his fellow members on the planning
committee pushed ahead with their agenda. In May, 1950, City Council
approved the committee's recommendation that A. G. Odell, Jr. be the
architect. The voters of Charlotte went to the polls on October 14, 1950,
and gave their backing for bonds to acquire the land and build a new
auditorium and a new coliseum. The Charlotte Coliseum and Ovens Auditorium
were completed in 1955. David Ovens attended the official dedication
ceremonies on September 11th. Not surprisingly, the featured speaker was
evangelist and native son Dr. Billy Graham. David Ovens died almost exactly
two years later, on September 9, 1957.
The home of David Ovens and his wife, also a Canadian, still stands in
Myers Park at 826 Ardsley Road. The house is in the straightforward
Rectilinear style. The original landscaping was by Earle Sumner Draper for
the John Nolen firm. The home and its surroundings are suggestive of the
straightforward pragmatism that formed the core of David Ovens's being. This
man, now forgotten by most Charlotteans, is one of many individuals who have
demonstrated the pivotal importance of leadership in making Charlotte the
city that it is today.
J. B. Ivey, My Memoirs (The Piedmont Press, 1940), p. 175. This
writer is indebted to the research performed by Marc Ben-Joseph in his
unpublished manuscript, "Charlotte's Built Environment. David Ovens And The
Ovens Auditorium" (1994). Joseph Benjamin Ivey, the handsome son of a
Methodist preacher, opened a small store room in rented space near the
Square on February 18, 1900. A devout Methodist, Ivey insisted that the
curtains be drawn in his store windows on Sundays, so that the pedestrians
would not be tempted to consider matters of this world on the Lord's day.
David Ovens, If This Be Treason. A Look At His Town And Times
(Heritage House, 1957), p. 210. David Ovens was born on December 4, 1872, to
James and Eliza Campbell Ovens. Ovens had lived in several Southern cities
before coming to Charlotte, including Little Rock, Memphis Knoxville,
Chattanooga, and Nashville.
1 Ovens, p. 94.
3 Ovens, p. 1.
4 Ovens, p. 2.
5 Ovens, p. 75.
6 Ovens, p. 157.
7 Ovens, p. 188.
8 Ivey, p. 175.
9 Ovens, p. 26.
10 Ivey, p. 175.
11 Ovens, p. 24.
12 On May 4, 1990, Ivey's was purchased by Dillard's, another
department store chain.
13 Ovens, p. 32.
14 Ovens, p. 34.
15 Quoted in Paula M. Stathakis, "The Old Charlotte Coliseum
Historical Essay" in the "Survey and Research Report On The Charlotte
Coliseum (Original)" prepared by the American Institute of Architects,
Charlotte Chapter in conjunction with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic
Landmarks Commission (July, 1990).
16 Ovens, pp. 138-139.
17 The Amory Audtiorium, destroyed by fire, stood about where
the Grady Cole Center is now located on Kings Drive.
18 Ovens, p. 68.
19 Mrs. Ovens, whom he married in 1908, was Margaret Allan
Ovens, a former school teacher from Kingston, Ontario. Born in 1874, she
died in May, 1957, just a few months before her husband.