Dr. William H. Huffman
The Dairy Queen on Central Avenue in the Plaza neighborhood of Charlotte is something of an anachronism in modern times. Its location, its Art Moderne appearance complete with a neon "Dairy Queen" sign, and its drive-up trade only are all from the immediate post-World War II era, but the business continues to flourish today as well as it ever did, and loyal customers drive considerable distances to buy the soft ice cream. There are only two Dairy Queens in Charlotte, one on Wilkinson Boulevard (opened 1947), and one on Central Avenue (opened 1950), and both owe their existence to several factors: the post-war automobile society; the invention of soft ice cream by two Illinois men in 1938; and Preston Aaron, who acquired local Dairy Queen rights after the war.
Dairy Queen got its start in the late Thirties, when J. F. McCullough, who lived in a small Illinois town, noticed that his daughter, before eating her ice cream, would mash it and allow it to melt some in order to get it soft enough to eat. With a friend, Herb Noble, their tinkering with that idea led to the first sale of a new soft ice cream product in 1938, which sold for the extravagant price of 10 cents a portion, but even then it was an instant hit. The first store set up to sell their confection opened in Joliet, Ill. in 1940, and its success provided the incentive to open other stores. By the time of America's entry into World War II in December, 1941, however, there were only three in operation. 1
World War II broke the ten-year economic depression the U. S. suffered in the Thirties, and after the war, the pent-up affluence accumulated by the workers on the home front and those returning from the service caused a great economic boom that lasted until the late '50s. Much of this boom centered around demand for new automobiles (which had not been manufactured during the war) and new housing, as well as for other consumer goods. More than ever, America became an automobile-centered society that lived ever farther out from the middle of town in new suburbs. The phenomenon was magnified by a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive gasoline, low interest rates for loans, and government policies that encouraged individual home ownership. Above all, the automobile was king: trolleys ceased to run in many cities (in Charlotte, 1938); train ridership dropped dramatically; and many of the new suburban areas were not served by any kind of public transportation at all. In this context, it is not surprising to find, from that period to the present, the growth of businesses catering to the convenience of motorists.
It is also in this content that we find Dairy Queen to be one of the pioneers in this field, and their post-war expansion illustrates the point. In 1946, the company had franchised seventeen stores, but at the end of the following year, there were an even one hundred; and by 1950, there were 1,466 in operation. Today there are over 4700 worldwide. 2 In Charlotte, Preston Aaron opened his first store on Wilkinson Boulevard in 1947, and another on Franklin Avenue in Gastonia two years later. (He got his franchise rights from Harry Oatz, who held the patent on the ice cream machine and ran a store in Miami, Florida.) The Wilkinson store was the first of its kind in the state, and only the third in the Southeast. 3 They joined a host of automobile-related businesses that appeared in the city: drive-in movie theaters; curb-service restaurants, and, of course, gas stations and repair shops. Many of these were located on the main thoroughfares leading in and out of the city: Wilkinson Boulevard, South Boulevard, Statesville Road, and Central Avenue.
The man who operated the Esso Station at the corner of Wilkinson Boulevard and Berryhill Road, Robert F. Hewitt, and his wife, Mary, became two of the Aarons' steady customers, and the Aarons, in turn, bought all of their gas from Hewitt. Over time, Hewitts became interested in the Dairy Queen business, and in 1950 they bought a franchise territory from Harry Oatz. Using sketches provided by Mr. Oatz for his Miami, Florida, store (the same one used for the Wilkinson store), Hewitt hired a local small contractor, Mr. Mauney, to construct the cement block building, and the first ice cream cone was vended from the new business on March 1, 1950. 4 It was built on the corner of Central and Pecan Avenues on property leased from Charles H. Garmon, Sr., a retired automobile salesman. 5
At the time, Central Avenue (before the construction of Independence Boulevard) was a main road coming out from downtown Charlotte, and eras located in a small shopping area surrounded by residential neighborhoods. It was well situated for a business designed for drive-up trade. From the very first it enjoyed a good volume of business (cones cost 5 cents) and developed a loyal following. Although they advertised some, most of their trade came from word-of-mouth, and customers, as they still do today, drive in from Monroe, Rock Hill and Fort Mill, among other places to buy the ice cream. Even though the city has changed in many ways since the Central Avenue Dairy Queen was first opened, when they retired from the business in 1979, the Hewitts still had some of their original customers from 1950, and people were still driving in from all over the Charlotte area and from miles around. 6
As a pioneer business in the city's automobile-oriented post-World War II past, the Central Avenue Dairy Queen is now quaint in appearance and is no longer located on a major thoroughfare, but still plays a very active role in the in the modern world-on-wheels we still live in, and is a significant artifact of our modern culture.
NOTES1 Brochure, Dairy Queen International. Inc.
3 Interview with Preston Aaron, Charlotte, NC, 27 June 1985.
4 Ibid.; interview with Mary Hewitt, Charlotte, NC 26 June 1985.
5 Deed Book 699, p. 29B, 16 April 1928; Charlotte City Directories. 1926-1950.
6 Interview With Mary Hewitt, cited above.
The Central Avenue Dairy Queen is one of Charlotte's most notable examples of Art Deco commercial architecture. Constructed in 1950, the building clearly speaks of an earlier time, "late Art Deco,and early Happy Days," yet it continues to adequately serve the function for which it was built. 1
Just as turn of the century ice cream parlors reflect the time in which they were built, pedestrian oriented structures displaying the popular Victorian and Edwardian motifs of the day, the Dairy Queen is a product of an America on the move. The prosperous post-World War II American population embarked on a love affair with the automobile. Ice cream stands, drive-in movies, motels and gas stations were constructed to meet the traveler's needs. The Central Avenue Dairy Queen is part of a roadside architecture which is fast disappearing and which remains largely unappreciated.
The one-story building occupies a corner site at the intersection of Central and Pecan Avenues; the location made the business convenient to both passing vehicular traffic and residents of the surrounding Plaza-Midwood and Elizabeth neighborhoods. Preston Aaron, the store's first owner, utilized and slightly modified the plans of his Wilkinson Boulevard Dairy Queen, which had opened in 1947, to construct this building. Referred to as a "two-window, walk-up flattop" by company officials, the structure is a simple albeit late expression of the Art Deco style. Notably lacking interior amenities, most prominently seating, the Dairy Queen was designed to serve the customer on the move and to encourage that customer to move as quickly as possible. The building's curved corners and neon signage reflect a playfulness appropriate for an ice cream dispenser. The edifice is constructed of cement block and sheathed in stucco. The main block thrusts forward to greet the passerby . Plate glass windows, set within metal frames, dominate the front and side elevations. The existence of wood surrounds indicates the possibility that the present windows are a later replacement. Although the size of the window openings remains unchanged, multi-paned display windows may have originally been used. A blue and white aluminum awning, with rounded corners, distinguishes the selling area. A thin entablature, composed of a narrow architrave and cornice, both of aluminum, and a corrugated aluminum frieze, appears to rise from the awning; an identical sized entablature, displaying a plain aluminum frieze, encircles the rear ell. On the main block, the words "Dairy Queen" are centrally placed on the front elevation's frieze and are lit by pink neon; paired horizontal bands of green neon extend from the signage and continue down the front quarter of the west side and across the east side to the elf. The neon lettering and bands serve to further distinguish the selling area; this effect is enhanced by fluorescent lighting placed beneath the canopy. 2
The ell is also stuccoed: the east wall is notably recessed from the main block while the west wall projects beyond the line of the main block. Paired recessed circles, arranged vertically, distinguish the face of the ell's west side; the lower circle contains a drinking fountain, all openings are minimal and randomly placed. On each side, window openings of varying height and width display a projecting stuccoed sill, the west opening has been covered with board sheathing.
The two-room interior is functionally arranged and is largely unaltered. Within the selling area, the handsome glazed ceiling is framed by a simple cornice. A storage room and employee restroom facilities are housed in the ell.
The Dairy Queen is a slice of bygone Charlotte. It speaks about the need to be gaudy and eye catching in the age of the automobile. More importantly, the Dairy Queen remains a people place. Regardless of the weather, the time of day or the season of the year, it embraces the entire spectrum of Charlotte's population under its welcoming blue and white awning. And after all, isn't that what a successful building is all about? 3
Footnotes1 Lew Powell, "The Big DQ, Should We Preserve This Slice of Americana?,'' Charlotte Observer, August 22, 1985, p. 5B
2 Dr. William Huffman, A Historical Sketch of the Central Avenue Dairy Queen, prepared for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, June, 1985. Information on the building's plan and construction was obtained from Dr. Huffman's report.
3 Lew Powell.