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Charlotte Planners: Earle Sumner Draper

Excerpted from Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition
by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett

Photo from Mary Norton Kratt and Thomas W. Hanchett, Legacy: The Myers Park Story (Myers Park Foundation, 1986).

Three of the most important city planning firms in the United States helped shape Charlotte. They were the Olmsted Brothers, John Nolen, and Earle Draper. All worked in the city during the boom years of the 1910s and 1920s. They gave the city new ideals in urban design which are still followed today. In addition, Nolen and Draper took lessons learned in Charlotte's neighborhoods and applied them in hundreds of cities throughout the nation, giving Charlotte's early planning efforts special importance.

When Charlotte's original hundred acre tract was laid off in house lots in the 1770s the city fathers chose a gridiron street pattern. A surveyor, either hired by the village or supplied by the colonial government, laid out the streets at right angles to each other. Many cities of the era were not planned at all, with streets growing up from trails and cowpaths running in every direction. The grid was the most popular alternative because it was orderly and easy to understand, and its straight lines meant that it could be created quickly and broken up into lots easily. Charlotte's reliance on the grid continued throughout the nineteenth century.

In the 1910s Charlotte's New South leaders, as part of their drive to make Charlotte a modern city, hired John Nolen, the Olmsted Brothers, and Earle Sumner Draper who turned the city forever from the grid pattern. The very idea of having a landscape architect/city planner design streets was unusual. In progressive Dilworth, Latta had hired Joseph Forsyth Johnston, a landscape architect from New York City, to create Latta Park and evidently also asked him for suggestions on the surrounding street pattern. Most areas, though, were laid out methodically by surveyors or civil engineers.

Nolen, the Olmsteds, and Draper were part of a generation with a strong appreciation for nature. America's first National Parks were established in the era and the conservation movement blossomed, extending even to President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). Landscape architects sought to bring this consciousness to city planning.

Earle Draper arrived in Charlotte in October, 1915, as field supervisor for John Nolen's Myers Park. 1 He had graduated that spring from the landscape architecture program at what is now the University of Massachusetts with a passion for what he called "Civic Art" -- city planning. 2 He won a position in Nolen's office upon graduation and after only a few weeks of internship under chief designer Philip Foster, Nolen offered him the chance to move south.

Draper's first tasks in Charlotte included creating landscape designs for lot buyers in Myers Park and spending one week per month supervising the construction of the industrial center of Kingsport, Tennessee, a Nolen-designed new town. 3 In 1917 with Nolen's blessing he established his own firm, by some accounts the first professionally trained resident landscape architect to establish practice in the southeastern United States. 4

Between 1917 and 1933 Draper's firm was extremely busy, becoming, he remembers, one of the five largest in the U. S. 5 Work continued in Charlotte on private estates and revisions to the general design of Myers Park. At least a third of the street layout in Myers Park is Draper's. In addition Draper laid out other new developments around the city, including one for developer Lex Marsh on Old Pineville Road, and a design for the Rosemont section of Elizabeth that was apparently not executed. 6 Draper's most notable Charlotte suburb was Eastover, the 1920s' most prestigious development. 7

Through his schooling and his work with Nolen, Draper shared the new ideals of suburban development. "I was of the old school, the Olmsted school," he recalled in 1982, "that the best and finest use of the land is the most important thing and that all developments have to be keyed to the land itself. . .I tried to analyze. . .what the future would be 40 or 50 years away, the growth pattern and so forth, so as to make sure that they fitted into the environment that was developing. . .That wasn't done in a lot of places." 8 Like many of his contemporaries, Draper sought to "limit access to heavily traveled highways as much as possible" in his developments, and he believed in the "idea of adjusting to the topography, and very little of that had been done in town planning up to that time." 9

Despite their similarity of intent, it is possible to distinguish Draper's work from Nolen's in Myers Park. Nolen favored tightly winding streets to heighten visual interest, while Draper used grander curves. "I didn't feel that you wanted to introduce a curve. . .just for the sake of putting a curve in," he says, "you had to have some reason to. The topography or direction or relationship. . .to other areas." 10 In Myers Park the winding curves of Queens Road in the northern, older section of the neighborhood are Nolen's, while the sweeping radius of Queens Road West at the south end of the neighborhood is Draper's, laid out in 1927-30. 11 Cherokee and Colville roads, the main streets of Draper's Eastover, have similar majestic curves.

From 1917 to 1933 Earle Draper's work extended all over the South. In the early twenties the firm had twenty to thirty employees in Charlotte, with branch offices in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and New York City. 12 Draper planned over a hundred suburbs from Alabama to Virginia, as developers from all over the region visited Myers Park and determined to create something like it at home. 13 Among his projects in North Carolina were Raleigh's Hayes-Barton neighborhood, Durham's Forest Hills, Highpoint's Emorywood, and the resort development at Lake Lure. 14 Many of Draper's elite neighborhoods included golf courses, and he claims to have introduced to the South the notion of weaving country-club golf fairways among suburban streets with his design of Farmington outside Charlottesville, Virginia. 15 In addition, he did dozens of parks, cemeteries, private estates and college campuses including parts of Winthrop and Davidson colleges near Charlotte. 16

At least as important as Earle Draper's contribution to suburban planning in the Southeast were his activities in mill village design. The decade following the outbreak of the First World War was a boom period for the textile industry and tax laws encouraged companies to channel some profits into worker housing.

Mill villages had always been part of textile production in the region because of the number of rural workers the plants drew. Early villages consisted of straight streets lined with rude houses. Draper helped change this. 17 He worked hard to convince owners that modern conveniences, including electricity and plumbing, were essential. He pushed for sidewalks in the villages, pointing out that they would keep workers from tracking dirt into the plants. 18

Above all, Draper insisted on the importance of planning. Beginning with his design for Spindale, North Carolina, for Charlotte's Kenneth Tanner in 1917, Draper brought many of the era's suburban concepts to mill village design. 19 Draper's villages were conceived as complete communities, with curving tree-lined streets, plentiful parks, churches, and often a community center. He did nearly one hundred and fifty village and village extension designs, including the Arkay mills in Gastonia, the Erlanger mills near Salisbury, the Pacolett mills based in Spartanburg and the Kendall mills based in Camden. 20 Probably his finest and most comprehensive design was the new mill town of Chicopee, Georgia. When Harvard's Arthur Comey toured U. S. new town experiments for a government report in 1939, he praised Draper's work and wrote that "Chicopee is the best. . .of the mill villages visited in the South." 21 Even before the Comey report, Draper was recognized as a leader in industrial new-town design. In 1933 his reputation resulted in his being named head of planning for the new Tennessee Valley Authority. 22 Draper was excited by the prospect of directing what was to be the country's largest planning effort. He remembers, "I thought it over and just said okay, that's the most interesting planning project ever to come up in the history of the United States . . .I was the first or second man on at TVA." 23 He put his private practice in the hands of assistant Harold Burdsley and left Charlotte for good.

At TVA Earle Draper directed land-use planning, pushed for development of recreational areas along the new hydroelectric lakes, and supervised the creation of the new town of Norris, Tennessee. He brought with him ideas he had begun to develop in private practice in Charlotte. A cornerstone of Draper's planning philosophy was the need for land-use controls, something he had had long experience with dating back to Myers Park's restrictive deed covenants. "Prior to TVA all federal dams. . .acquired land. . . only to mean high water. . .," he later wrote.

From my experience in the South from 1915 on I realized the importance of controlled land use. I was aided by the men in my division -- we got the board to accept takings of one-half to one mile of land above reservoir water level, which was the beginning of TVA's famous shoreline recreation development. Without that, much of TVA's beneficial by product activity would have been lost." 24

By 1940 much of the TVA planning work was done and Draper accepted a high level post with the recently established Federal Housing Administration. He was hired to broaden the FHA from its established role as a mortgage insurer into a backer of new town development. World War Two, however, forced abandonment of this goal and Draper took responsibility for war housing all over the United States. In 1945 President Truman designated him Acting Commissioner of the FHA, the agency's highest post. 25

As part of his government work, Draper was occasionally "loaned out" as a consultant on specific planning projects. One such was the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis regional plan in 1937. 26 Under Draper's direction, the plan proposed a system of beltway freeways around Baltimore and Washington, recalling the parkway loop he had first sketched around Charlotte back in 1917. According to Draper, today's interstate highway system in that area largely follows the 1937 proposal. 27

At the close of the War Draper resigned from the FHA and became a full-time consultant. He did little physical planning in this fourth phase of his career, instead helping builders and developers guide projects through the Federal bureaucracy. 28 In 1965 he retired after fifty years in the profession and now lives in Vero Beach, Florida. 29

1 Earle Sumner Draper, interview with Earle Sumner Draper, Jr., on behalf of the Myers Park Homeowners Association, Vero Beach, Florida, June 1971. Transcript in the archives of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina.

2 Earle Sumner Draper, letter to John Nolen, 1915, in the Nolen collection at Cornell, box 73.

3 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

4 Ibid. and Kay Haire Huggins, "Town Planning in the New South: the Work of Earle Sumner Draper, 1915-1933." (unpublished paper presented to the Citadel conference on the New South, Charleston, South Carolina, 1978), p. 1.

5 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

6 Ibid.

7 Draper, interview with Draper, Jr., June 1971.

8 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office, map book 3, page 317.

12 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid. and Who's Who in America 16 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis Co., 1930-31), p. 712.

15 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

16 Ibid. Draper, interview with Draper, Jr., June 1971. Huggins, "Town Planning in the New South. . .", passim.

17 Brent Glass, "Southern Mill Hills: Design in a Public Place," in Doug Swaim, ea., Carolina Dwelling: Towards Preservation of Place. . . (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1978), p. 124. Kay Haire Huggins, "Town Planning in North Carolina, 1704-1920," North Carolina Architect 20 (November/December 1973), p. 19.

18 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid. For other examples of Draper's mill village planning see Huggins, "Town Planning in the New South. . .".

21 Arthur C. Comey and Max S. Wehrly, "Planning Communities," in Urban Planning and Land Policies: Volume Two of the Supplementary Report of the Urbanism Committee to the National Resources Committee (Washington, DC: U.S.G.P.O., 1939), p. 24.

22 Earle Sumner Draper, interview with Charles W. Crawford, Director of the Oral History Research Office at Memphis State University, Vero Beach, Florida, December 1969.

23 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

24 Earle Sumner Draper letter to R. Walter Creese, July 19, 1969. In the Earle Sumner Draper papers, collection 2745, Cornell University Department of Manuscripts and Archives, Ithaca, New York.

25 Harry S. Truman, letter to Earle Sumner Draper, June 29, 1945. Carbon copy in the Draper papers at Cornell.

26 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid. Huggins, "Town Planning in the New South.. .,", p. 2.

29 Draper, interview with Hanchett, August 1982.

For more information...

Neighborhoods: Charlotte's Neighborhood Planning Tradition
Essays: Earle Sumner Draper House
Survey & Research Reports: Earle Sumner Draper House