Part 1 in a series on the Adaptive Re-use of Local Historic Landmarks, by Deborah Cox
Those who doubt the utility and economic benefits of old buildings should talk with Charlotte restaurateur Bonnie Warford. Nine years ago she and her sister, Tricia Maddrey, opened Carpe Diem in a 1920s downtown store front that originally housed a florist shop.
At the time friends questioned their sanity. In 1989, downtown nightlife barely flickered. However, the idea of locating their restaurant in a suburban strip mall left Warford and Maddrey cold. They searched downtown Charlotte for a suitable old building but found greater difficulty locating an accommodating landlord. Restaurants experience notoriously high failure rates and landlords were especially hesitant to lease to young, female, first-time business owners, Warford recalls.
The sisters finally located-quite by accident-a site on South Tryon Street. Designed as a florist shop by renown local architect William H. Peeps, the building operated in that capacity from its completion in 1929 until the 1908s. Built in the Mediterranean Revival Style, the Ratcliffe Flowers building oozed character.
The Ratcliffe family had made few alterations to the shop in the more than 50 years that they owned and operated it. Original light fixtures and details including spiral- grooved plaster columns with Corninthian capitals, stained glass windows, Arts and Crafts Style doors and barrel vaulted ceiling remained intact. Warford and Maddrey had found an architectural gem and Carpe Diem had found a home.
Much of the work necessary to convert Ratcliffe's Flowers to an operable restaurant had been accomplished by a previous tenant and Warford and Maddrey worked at perfecting the details. The new tenants removed an inappropriate and cheaply constructed enclosure below the mezzanine, replacing it with the custom designed semi- circular bar that stands there today. Hand-made tiles were ordered to fill an opening caused by the relocation of the cooler. Woodwork was stripped and re-stained.
A few years ago, Warford repaired the shop's original neon sign incorporating the restaurant's name into it. The pink and green neon letters spelling out "Ratcliffe's Flowers" once beckoned passers by - but with "Carpe Diem" added in the small script of cobalt blue to affirm and celebrate the building's resurrection.
Warford admits that operating a 70-year-old building does not lack challenges. "Shortly after opening, we realized that the kitchen was too small and poorly arranged" - a situation they were forced to endure until 1993 when Warford and Maddrey acquired additional kitchen space by leasing the adjacent store front that they also operate as the Moon Room, a music club. Nor is the electrical system "state of the art" - one system operates the lights while a newer system powers the restaurant equipment. But the building's romance and elegance overshadow its quirks. Carpe Diem is historic preservation at its best.
For more information...
Survey & Research Report: Ratcliffe Florist Building