THE BELMONT-VILLA HEIGHTS-OPTIMIST PARK SURVEY AREA
by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett
Click on the map to browse
The Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park survey area is unlike
any other in this study. It was built up around the turn of the
century beyond the northern rim of Charlotte's nineteenth century
boundary. Although the area was distinctly suburban in location and
well served by streetcars, it was not built as a middle- and
upper-income "streetcar suburb" like the contemporaneous
neighborhoods of Dilworth, Elizabeth, Wesley Heights or Wilmore,
among others. And although it contained textile mill housing, it
was not the typical company-owned mill village found on the edges
of Charlotte and other southern cities in the period.
The area's beginnings are to be found near the tracks of the
Seaboard Railway which runs near its southern boundary and the
mainline of the Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern) which forms
its western edge. 1 These lines sparked industrial
development in what had been farmland belonging to the wealthy
antebellum farmer W.F. Phifer. The Alpha Mill (1889, 1901), Highland Park
#1 (1891, 1895) and the Louise Mill (1897, 1900) built straight
streets of cottages for their workers adjacent to the plants.
2 Beginning in the 1890s, half a dozen private
developers added subdivisions between the mill villages. A wide
variety of single-family homes sprang up, somewhat more spacious
than the mill houses, but mostly compact, wooden, and one story
The area's residents were almost without exception blue-collar
workers and their families. A few seem to have used the Brevard,
Pegram, or Plaza streetcars
which served the neighborhood to commute to jobs elsewhere in the
city. But most walked to work in one of the textile mills or
related industries that came to line the railroads.
Though the area has no residences built for the rich and
powerful, and no structures except churches designed as showy
pieces of architecture, it is not without historic sites. The Alpha
Mill at Twelfth and Brevard streets is one of the city's earliest
and best-preserved textile plants, an early work of industrial
innovator D.A. Tompkins. Adjacent to the mill on Calvine and
Caldwell streets is a cluster of Alpha Mill cottages, Charlotte's
oldest surviving mill village. Several blocks of
privately-developed housing near Belmont Avenue contain interesting
examples of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century popular
residential design. The 1000 block of Harrill Street in particular
comprises one of Charlotte's last well-preserved collections of
The area's value goes beyond these specific architectural and
historical high points. The Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park
area was Charlotte's first entirely working-class suburban
district. 3 As such, it is an important reminder of this
large group of people who with their labor helped advance Charlotte
to its position as a leading textile producer and the largest city
in North and South Carolina during the textile boom decades of the
late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The Mills and Their Villages:
The survey area contains three of Charlotte's five surviving
pre-1900 textile mills, plus a number of related industries. The
three mills were begun between 1888 and 1897, a critical decade in
Mecklenburg County's economic development. In that short period the
county moved from having a single cotton mill to become one of
North Carolina's top three textile producers. 4
The earliest and best-preserved of these three textile plants is
the Alpha Mill at 311 East Twelfth Street. Its original section was
erected in 1888-1889 and is now largely gone, with only the chimney
stack and boiler room remaining. 5 The main building
today, highly visible due to its location adjacent to the recently
constructed Brookshire Freeway (I-277), dates from 1901 when Orient
Manufacturing took over the firm. 6 It is a handsome
two-story brick structure with a castle-like corner tower. Unlike
many early mills in this region, the building still retains its
segmental-arched window openings, with eight-over-eight-over-eight
triple-hung wooden windows. On the rear and west sides of this
structure are several one-story additions made after the facility
became Mill #3 of the Chadwick-Hoskins chain in 1908 (popularly
known as the Calvine Mill). 7
The Alpha Mill
East of the mill, three parallel rows of cottages survive from
what was originally a somewhat larger mill village. The dwellings
were in existence by the time that the area was first covered on
fire insurance maps in 1911, and they may well date back to the
construction of the Alpha Mill in 1888-1889. 8 The
dwellings that line the two sides of Calvine Street are absolutely
identical. Each is planned in the shape of a "T" with its side to
the street. A front porch nestles into the front side of the "T",
matched by an enclosed "shed room" nestled into the back side of
the "T". Trim is very simple, with narrow corner-boards and window
surrounds, plain boxed eaves, and six-over-six pane double-hung
sash windows. There is a brick chimney with a corbelled cap at the
center of the "T", and each house originally rested on brick
Alpha Mill Village
The third row of cottages, along the west side of Caldwell
Street, consists of slightly larger dwellings. They share the same
gable roofs, weatherboarding and trim, but were built with an
additional full room at the rear, rather than the small "shed-room"
of the T-plan cottages. A fourth and fifth row of even larger
dwellings along Brevard Street have been demolished.
The original Alpha Mill was organized by Charlotte lawyer E.K.P.
Osborne and local grocer Calvin Scott. Both were active politicians
and community leaders, and Osborne had been instrumental in
initiating horse-drawn streetcar service in Charlotte a year
earlier. For textile expertise the pair hired a thirty-six year old
industrial entrepreneur recently arrived in Charlotte, named Daniel
Augustus Tompkins. Tompkins designed and built the mill building,
providing its machinery, and presumably built the workers' housing.
The project was among the first executed by the D.A. Tompkins
Company (established 1884), which went on to design over one
hundred mills throughout the South. 9
D. A. Tompkins
The mill and village are today the earliest by Tompkins that
survive in Charlotte. His contemporaneous Victor and Ada mills have
been demolished, although his 1892 Atherton Mill may still be seen off
South Boulevard in Dilworth. 10 In addition to his
activities as a mill builder, Tompkins also published numerous
books on mill development and design. His 1899 Cotton Mills:
Commercial Features includes plans and specifications for a
"Three-room Gable House, Cost $325," which appears to be drawn
directly from the cottages on Calvine Street. 11
Along with his involvement in the physical design of Southern
mills, D.A. Tompkins also became known as a financial innovator
whose introduction of installment stock financing allowed numerous
small Southern towns to start their own mills. The creation of the
Alpha Mill was among the earliest tests of this idea, and may have
been the first. According to an 1888 Charlotte Democrat
It was moved that on Saturday, the 7th day of January,
1888, from 4 to 8 o'clock p.m., the subscribers to the capital
stock of the company be requested to call at the store of C. Scott,
on College Street, and sign the constitution and by-laws, and pay
in fifty cents per share on their stock, of which twenty-five cents
is the initiation fee and twenty-five cents is the first
installment of dues, and the weekly payments will be made at the
same place from 4 to 8 o'clock each Saturday.
After the Alpha Mill, the second mill in the survey area was the
Highland Park #1 Mill begun in 1892 two blocks north up Brevard
Street. 13 The company was formed in the summer of 1891
under the leadership of local real estate, manufacturing, and
streetcar magnate Edward Dilworth Latta. 14
Edward Dilworth Latta
Unlike Scott and Osborne, Latta had previous experience in
textiles. His establishment of the successful Dilworth Pants
Factory in the mid 1880s had been an important step in his rise to
prominence in the city. Despite this, Latta apparently took little
direct interest in the mill, but left its direction to local banker
J.S. Spencer. It was Spencer, along with D.A. Tompkins, who chose
the company name. 15 A long, one-story weaving mill was
the plant's first building. The brick structure survives today in
good condition except for bricked-up windows, as does the smaller
adjacent spinning mill added in 1895 under the direction of
officers W.E. Holt and Charles Johnston. 16 A finishing
building was added between the weaving mill and the Southern
Railway tracks sometime between 1900 and 1911, but it is now gone.
At the same time that Highland Park Manufacturing purchased land
for their factory on the southwest corner of Brevard Street and
present-day Sixteenth Street, they also bought land on the east
side of Brevard for a mill village. 18 The total
purchase was ten acres from the estate of W.F. Phifer, one of the
county's most important nineteenth century planters. Phifer had
come to Charlotte shortly after 1849, just in time for the arrival
of the region's first railroad. 19 Already a wealthy
man, he may well have been attracted by that harbinger of
prosperity. He bought land just north of the city, soon the route
of the North Carolina State Railroad, and built a handsome brick
house at North Tryon and Phifer Avenue, where Confederate President
Jefferson Davis conducted the last full meeting of his cabinet in
1865. According to Phifer's son, the planter fully realized the
future value of his cotton farm:
He ... predicted, in spite of the jeers of his friends,
a great future for this town, and said he, "In later years there
will be houses and streets where my plantation now lies, for," he
continued, "the prospect for a city is better than any I saw at
Atlanta, on my horseback trips to Alabama."
Phifer and his children began the laying out of streets in the
cotton land toward the close of the century, choosing a grid-system
with numbered cross-streets that clearly made the area an extension
of the existing "Mechanicsville" section of First Ward, a
developing area of industry along the railroad.
He had a great love for order ... he disliked crooked lines and
gave his land to straighten a street on his neighbor's side. The
regularity of that part of the city known as Mechanicsville, is in
striking contrast to some other parts of the city.
Today it is difficult to determine the boundaries of the small
Highland Park #1 mill village. The tract owned by the mill extended
from Belmont Avenue north to Seventeenth Street, and from Brevard
to Davidson. 22 Within that large rectangle, the west
side of Caldwell Street between East Fifteenth and East Seventeenth
streets is lined entirely with mill cottages, and the block bounded
by Fifteenth, Caldwell, Sixteenth, and Brevard is also completely
devoted to structures put up by the mill.
The Highland Park #1 mill houses are almost entirely wooden,
one-story, and single-family, like those at the Alpha Mill.
However, there is some architectural variety here, rather than rows
of identical dwellings. Most are three or four room variations on
the theme already described in the Alpha Mill village. At least two
additional types may be seen here, as well. At the corner of
Seventeenth and Caldwell streets is a house consisting of a gabled,
center-entry front wing, and a rear "L". At Fifteenth and Caldwell
is another type with the same sort of front wing, but two rear
"L"s. This latter design is similar to the "Four-room Gable House,
Cost $400" shown in Tompkins' 1899 book. 23
The third textile mill to be built in the survey area was the
Louise Mill between Louise Avenue and Hawthorne Lane on the
Seaboard Railroad. The two-story brick building opened May 31,
1897, and was joined by a second weave building in 1900.
A two-story packing room connected these two large wings, giving
the plant a "U" shaped layout not found in other Charlotte
facilities. A stream which ran along the route of today's Hawthorne
Lane was dammed to provide a mill pond whose water was not used for
power but rather as insurance against fire: water mains ran from
the pond to a pump house, and thence throughout the complex.
25 The facility was known as the Louise Mill, after the
wife of founder H.S. Chadwick, until 1908 when it became Mill
Number Four of the Chadwick-Hoskins chain. 26 Today the
buildings remain in a much-altered state, and are used by a cookie
Until construction of the mammoth Highland Park #3 Mill in North
Charlotte in 1903-1904, the Louise Mill was Charlotte's largest.
27 Seventy-two cottages for Louise Mill workers lined
parallel William (now Pamlico), Louise, and Pegram streets on the
hill above the mill. Their design was quite similar to that seen in
the Alpha Mill village except for minor details. Compact T-plan
cottages like those on Calvine Street line Louise Avenue, while the
slightly larger Caldwell Street-type dwellings are found along
Louise and Pamlico avenues. The Louise cottages often use grooved
"novelty" siding rather than weatherboards, paired rather than
single front windows, and possibly have slightly less
steeply-pitched roofs, but otherwise the designs appear identical.
Today windows, porches, and siding have been changed on many of the
mill cottages, but the village survives essentially intact.
The Louise, Highland Park #1, and Alpha Mills were not the only
industries in this area. By 1911 the Southern Railway was lined
with cotton-related facilities. 28 Going north from
Highland Park #1, one first passed the cotton storage buildings of
the Farmers Union Warehouse Company. Next came the warehouse of the
Charlotte Compress Company. Architecturally, it was composed of a
series of sheet-metal clad wooden storage rooms separated by brick
firewalls that rose above the low-gabled roof line. This design was
typical of the city's cotton warehouses, but the Charlotte Compress
Company was among the largest, stretching some 700 feet between
twin railroad sidings. 29 At the center of the long
structure was the two-story compress itself, the press which baled
the cotton. From the exterior it was a square tower covered in
corrugated iron and topped by a hip roof. Both the warehouse and
compress tower of the Charlotte Compress Company survive in good
original condition today, and are believed to comprise Charlotte's
best-preserved reminder of the city's heritage as a cotton trading
Near the north end of the Charlotte Compress building, between
the warehouse and Brevard Street, was the plant of Sanders and
Smith, Cleaners and Dyers of Damaged Cotton and Batting in 1911.
Further north was the large plant of Swift and Company, where
cottonseed oil was pressed and refined into Sunlight brand
shortening. The main building of the plant was a massive
three-story brick structure with heavy corbelled pilasters and
parapets at each end. Nine large oil storage tanks stood north of
the building. All but one of the terra-cotta block tanks are now
gone, but the original structure remains with later additions,
though it is vacant and heavily vandalized.
At the same time that the factories, textile mills, and
company-owned housing were going up along the railroads, a number
of private developers were building suburban subdivisions between
the industrial sites. The architecture of these streets of
single-family dwellings is surprisingly uniform, a mix of wooden,
one-story blends of Victorian and Bungalow influences. Occasionally
a duplex or quadraplex is added for spice. But the area's many
developers are instantly obvious in a glance at a map of the
district. All the subdivisions follow the grid-street pattern
popular in Charlotte before 1911, but seldom are any two grids
oriented the same way.
The Phifer family initiated private development in the area when
they extended Brevard, Caldwell, and Davidson streets northward
into their farmland sometime in the 1880s or very early 1890s. By
1892 the Belmont Springs Company was making plans for development
of a second tract on a hilltop across Sugar Creek. 30 In
1896 the company formally platted a nine block area that included
the first blocks of Pegram, Allen, and Harrill Street, and parts of
Seigle Street, Fifteenth Street, and VanEvery Street. 31
Belmont Avenue ran through the subdivision's center. The plan's
straight grid of streets resembled those found in the earlier
suburb of Dilworth, and also like Dilworth the Belmont area was to
have a park. Low-lying land between Seigle Street and Sugar Creek
at the western edge of the subdivision was shown on the plan as a
tree-shaded park with a winding drive called McAden Avenue.
32 In the park were the spring-fed branches that gave
the development the name Belmont Springs.
About 1900 Charlotte real estate developer Clayton O. Brown
purchased a tract of land north of the old County Home Road (later
renamed Parkwood Avenue) from an A.W. Calvin. 33 This
area was marketed as the Villa Heights subdivision. 34
Like other areas of the period, it had a grid of straight streets,
but the grid was aligned only with the existing County Home Road
and was thus at an angle to surrounding developments. Included were
Grace, Union, Barry, and Lola streets, plus the 1800-1900 blocks of
Harrill, Allen, Pegram, Umstead, and Parson streets. Soon Brown
expanded his holdings south of the County Home Road. In 1902 he
platted a three-block area he called Sunnyside, southeast of the
Pegram Street-Parkwood Avenue intersection. 35 It
included present-day Kennon (originally Arlington), Umstead
(originally Wilkinson after William Wilkinson from whom Brown
purchased the tract), and Parson streets, plus the 1600-1700 block
of Hawthorne Lane. Again the streets were straight, but Brown made
no effort to align them with either the Villa Heights grid or with
Members of the Phifer family continued to hold land in the area,
and on May 8, 1903 George M. Phifer filed a plat for the
subdivision of East End. 36 It extended west of Pegram
Street from the boundary of Belmont above Fifteenth Street,
northward all the way to Parkwood Avenue. As determined an
individualist as any of his predecessors in the area, George Phifer
used a grid that managed not to align with any of the earliest
subdivisions. He continued the use of the names Pegram, Allen,
Harrill, and Seigle for the north-south streets that tied into
Belmont, but for the cross streets he chose proper names that were
designed to set East End off from the rest of the city. Today these
streets have been renamed as part of the area's overall system:
Sixteenth Street (originally St. George Avenue), Seventeenth Street
(Charlotte Avenue), Eighteenth Street (Jackson Avenue), Nineteenth
Street ( Avenue), and Twentieth Street (Lee Avenue).
Three other developments filled out the area. The
Pegram-Wadsworth Land Company purchased most of the remaining
Phifer land from Twentieth Street north to present-day Matheson,
and extending from Brevard to The Plaza. 37 Catawba
Street and Twentieth through Twenty-fourth streets in the survey
area are Pegram-Wadsworth developments. Pegram Street,
incidentally, was not developed by the company, but evidently was
so named because it led to the company's property. The Phifer
family continued to plat houselots in the land they retained north
of the Highland Park #1 Mill. 38 Sixteenth through
Twentieth streets were officially mapped from Brevard to Davidson
in 1906, though in actuality there were already houses in place in
some of the blocks. And finally in 1910, the last section of the
survey area was laid out. Called Phifer Heights, the small tract
included the 1800 block of McDowell Street and the 1800 block of
Seigle Avenue (originally Springs Street) just north of Parkwood
Avenue. 39 At the heart of the subdivision was a small
hillside park with a spring at its center, surrounded by a narrow
curving Park Drive. The greenspace was to be called Cordelia Park,
probably after W.F. Phifer's stepdaughter Cordelia White. It is the
antecedent of today's Cordelia Park, a large city-owned park that
includes the site of the original spring.
When the United States Geological Survey mapped the area for its
topographic map series in 1905, there was already more than a
scattering of dwellings on most major streets. 40
Harrill, Seigle, McDowell, Alexander, and Sixteenth through
Twenty-fourth streets did not yet exist, but elsewhere the Belmont
subdivision now had some seventy houses. East End had slightly more
than twenty, Villa Heights boasted thirty-two, Sunnyside had
fourteen grouped mainly along Kennon Avenue, and the district near
the Alpha and Highland Park #1 mills was thick with dwellings.
In the early 1910s the area had grown to the point where major
streets were included in the city directory, giving us a glimpse of
the occupations of the residents. 41 The vast majority
worked in the nearby factories as mill workers, molders,
machinists, or overseers. A much smaller, but still significant,
number worked in the building trades. Most of the earliest
residents of Parkwood Avenue, for instance, were carpenters,
bricklayers, or plumbers, and other streets usually had one or two
A third occupation was storekeeper. In all of Charlotte's
working-class neighborhoods in the early twentieth century, there
were grocery stores and small general merchandise stores on almost
every corner. Mill workers and others who spent ten to twelve hours
per day at their factories, six days a week, seldom had time,
energy, or means to travel downtown to the groceries and department
stores patronized by more wealthy suburbanites. Dozens of small
shops originally stood in the survey area. Most of the wooden ones
are gone, but several substantial brick structures may still be
seen, such as the two-story Belmont Pharmacy Building at Belmont
and Pegram streets. Storekeepers almost invariably lived close to
their stores, and an assistant clerk or two might live nearby as
The survey area was already well established before trolley
lines reached it around 1910. This was unlike the pattern observed
in middle- and upper-class streetcar suburbs, where few houses were
built until streetcar service began. The earliest line in this
working-class district began service shortly before 1910.
42 It ran from downtown out Brevard Street past the
Highland Park #1 Mill and onward out to North Charlotte. Two others
were added before 1914. 43 One branched off the Central
Avenue line at Hawthorne Lane. It ran north past the Louise Mill,
then up Pegram Street all the way to Parkwood Avenue. The second
line ran along The Plaza in neighboring Chatham Estates
(Plaza-Midwood today). Its terminus at Parkwood Avenue put most of
the Villa Heights and Sunnyside subdivisions within an easy walk of
the streetcar. By the mid 1910s, then, almost all of the survey
area was no more than a three-block walk from mass transit, and the
last remaining vacant lots filled with houses.
In addition to the factories and stores, a handful of other
substantial brick buildings stood out in the sea of wooden workers'
cottages. There was Tech High School, established in the early
1920s on a five acre campus on Pegram Street at Eighteenth Street.
It was one of a group of three buildings -- the others were white
Central High School in the Elizabeth neighborhood and black Second
Ward High School -- all built circa 1920 as Charlotte's first
secondary education structures. 44 It was not surprising
that the most working-class of the trio was located in the
Belmont-Villa Heights area, Charlotte's largest and most
homogeneous concentration of working-class residents.
This consideration was likely instrumental also in the city's
decision to locate its first public housing project on the edge of
the survey area. Piedmont Courts opened in 1940 at Seigle Avenue
and Tenth Street. 45 The location in a hollow along
Sugar Creek in the shadow of the Seaboard Railroad embankment had
long been a notorious shanty-town. The new housing designed by
architect Martin Boyer was almost elegant in its use of historic
motifs, including rounded dormers and red-tile roofs above brick
exteriors. The long rows of town-house style apartments were sited
so as to provide interior play yards and walkways shielded from the
street. These ideas were at the forefront of residential design at
the time, and they were brought to Charlotte by landscape architect
Harold Bursley who had recently helped plan the federally-funded
new town of Greenbelt, Maryland, considered a landmark in city
planning. 46 Piedmont Courts was originally designed for
indigent whites; a less elaborate project named Fairview Courts
opened for blacks off Statesville Avenue across town at the same
There were a number of handsome brick churches scattered
throughout the survey area. Early structures include the striking
blond brick Gothic style Belmont Park United Methodist Church
(original sanctuary, occupied by Northside Nazarene Church since
1968), built at Pegram and Fifteenth streets in 1909. 47
The small brick chapel now known as Christ the King Center was
erected by the Episcopal Church in 1920 at Caldwell and Seventeenth
Streets. 48 It replaced an earlier wooden structure that
had been built as a company church for the Highland Park #1 Mill.
Perhaps the area's largest church is the handsome Palladian
Neoclassical style Allen Street Baptist Church (St. Paul Baptist
since 1969), which opened at 1401 Allen Street in the late 1910s or
early 1920s. 49 Of more recent vintage are the 1934
First Church of God at 1501 Pegram Street (now a United House of
Prayer), the 1950 Duncan Memorial Church at the corner of North
Caldwell and Fifteenth streets, and the new 1952 sanctuary of the
Belmont Park United Methodist Church on Hawthorne Lane.
The most architecturally noteworthy church in the area is the
former Villa Heights Associated Reform Presbyterian Church
(Parkwood Institutional AME Church since 1968). 51
Located on a hilltop at 1021 Parkwood Avenue, it is an unusual
blend of Gothic and Prairie Style motifs. A wide-eaved hip roof, a
parapet-roofed front entrance, and very geometric use of
buttress-like shapes show strong influence of the Prairie School of
architecture popularized by Chicago architects and found in many
parts of the United States in the early years of the twentieth
century. The architect of the Villa Heights structure, which opened
about 1910, hedged on total acceptance of the new style. He used
Gothic blind arches on the side windows. Even so, he was one of the
boldest designers around, for today the former Villa Heights ARP
Church is Charlotte's only real example of pre-World War II Prairie
A close look at the church cornerstones reveals a major change that
the survey area experienced in the mid 1960s. Belmont, Villa
Heights, and the other subdivisions in this area were built during
the era of Jim Crow. Like most other Charlotte suburban areas, this
area had only white residents. In fact, as late as 1962 there were
virtually no black residents in the survey area north of Belmont
This changed radically by 1970. Urban Renewal-funded demolition
destroyed thousands of housing units in Brooklyn, Greenville, and
other historically black sections during the decade of the 1960s.
These changes created a tremendous demand for affordable housing by
black renters and former homeowners. Today the survey area's
residents are almost entirely black.
To the historian or architectural historian, the area covered by
this survey is a unified whole. It is full of housing of the same
vintage and economic level, and is bounded on the south, east, and
west by bands of non-residential land use. To the north is the
later, World War II-era, development known as Plaza Hills, created
from land once held by the Pegram-Wadsworth Company.
Planners, however, consider the area to be part of three
neighborhoods. 53 The primary one is known as Belmont,
including the old Belmont Springs, East End, and Sunnyside
subdivisions, and extending roughly from Tenth Street north to
Parkwood Avenue between Sugar Creek and Hawthorne Lane. The Villa
Heights subdivision is still unofficially known by its original
name, due to the presence of the Villa Heights Elementary School
near its edge. But officially it is considered part of the Plaza
Hills neighborhood. The third neighborhood is just beginning to
develop a conscious sense of identity in the 1980s. It is Optimist
Park, consisting of Brevard, Davidson, Caldwell, Alexander, and
North Myers streets from Twelfth through Twenty-third streets. With
the help of an organization called Habitat for Humanity, sponsored
by area churches, houses in this area are being rehabilitated with
private funds and new units constructed for low-income
With the demolition of most housing in Charlotte's center city,
the Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park area has become the city's
most important early working-class residential district. Its
streets of humble homes are a reminder of the thousands of laborers
who helped built up Charlotte to be the largest city in the
Carolinas by 1930.
1 The later Norfolk and Southern line, built in 1911 and
not to be confused with the present-day Norfolk Southern, ran right
along the west side of Brevard Street and provided additional
service to many of the industries.
2 Dan L. Morrill, "A Survey of Cotton Mills in Charlotte,
North Carolina..." (Charlotte: Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic
Properties Commission, 1979). This brief study was the pioneer
effort in uncovering Charlotte's textile heritage.
3 Such working-class suburban areas are recognized by
urban historians as quite different from the more well-known
"streetcar suburb" phenomenon. Sam Bass Warner's classic study
Streetcar Suburbs: the Process of Suburban Growth in Boston,
1870-1900 (New York: Atheneum Press, 1973), pp. 9, 53-57, found
that streetcar suburbanites came from "the upper-income half of
Greater Boston's population." This included the wealthy ("large
storeowners, successful manufacturers, brokers, wholesalers, and
prosperous lawyers"), the central middle class ("owners of small
downtown stores, successful salesmen and commercial travelers,
lawyers, schoolteachers and large contractors"), and the lower
middle class ("small shopkeepers, skilled artisans, the better paid
office and sales personnel, and the like"). There are, however,
some well-known suburban working-class districts from this period,
such as the "Back of the Yards" district in Chicago.
4 Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and
Printing of the State of North Carolina, 1894, 1899.
5 William H. Huffman, "Old Alpha Mill: Survey and Research
Report" (Charlotte: Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties
7 Ibid. The Calvine name is said to honor founder
Calvin Scott's daughter.
8 Sanborn Insurance Map of Charlotte, 1911, plate 41.
No earlier building map of the city covers this area in detail,
9 Dan L. Morrill, "Atherton Mill House: Survey and
Research Report" (Charlotte: Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic
Properties Commission, 1981). For more on Tompkins' role in
Charlotte history see the section of this manuscript entitled "The
Growth of Charlotte: A History."
10 Ibid. The stuccoed structure stands at the western
end of McDonald Street, just south of Tremont Avenue.
11 Reproduced in Brent Glass, "Southern Mill Hills:
Design in a 'Public' Place," in Doug Swaim, ed., Carolina
Dwelling: Towards Preservation of Place... (Raleigh: North
Carolina State University, 1978), p. 148.
12 Charlotte Democrat, January 6, 1888, as
quoted in Huffman, "Old Alpha Mill...."
13 Morrill, "Charlotte Cotton Mills...."
14 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office:
records of corporations book A, p. 221.
15 Highland Park Manufacturing Company memo, with
penciled date July 25, 1964, in the files of the Carolina Room of
the Charlotte Public Library.
16 Ibid. The spinning mill is the building closest to
North Brevard Street, and the original weaving mill is immediately
west of it.
17 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Charlotte, 1900,
plate 20; 1911, plate 80. Portions of the floor and walls of the
demolished finishing building were still visible in 1985.
18 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office: Map
Book 7, p. 25.
19 J.B. Alexander, The History of Mecklenburg
County From 1740 to 1900 (Charlotte: Observer Printing House,
1902), p. 169.
20 Ibid., p. 170.
22 Based on the holdings of the company when it sold
its non-industrial real estate in 1953. Mecklenburg County Register
of Deeds Office: Deed Book 1580, p. 499.
23 Glass, "Southern Mill Hills...," p. 144.
24 Morrill, "Charlotte Cotton Mills...."
25 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Charlotte, 1900,
plate 22; 1911, plate 76.
26 Morrill, "Charlotte Cotton Mills...."
27 Charlotte Daily Observer, August 31,
28 Sanborn Insurance Maps of Charlotte, 1911, plates
41, 78, 80.
29 Ibid., plates 78, 80.
30 Butler and Spratt, "Map of Charlotte Township,
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, From Recent Surveys ... 1892."
Copies are in the collections of the History Department of the Mint
Museum, Charlotte, and the City of Charlotte Historic Districts
31 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office: Deed
Book 112, p. 8.
32 This was replatted with straight streets in 1900.
Deed Book 151, p. 43.
33 The shape of the farm tract and the identity of
its owner are recorded on the Butler and Spratt, "Map of Charlotte
Township ... 1892."
34 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office: Deed
Book 146, p. 59.
35 Ibid.: Deed Book 173, p. 377.
36 Ibid.: Deed Book 173, pp. 582-583.
37 For the plat of this area see Ibid.: Map Book 230,
p. 1. Most of these streets were not actually built up for several
38 Ibid.: Deed Book 209, p. 458.
39 Ibid.: Map Book 230, p. 78.
40 United States Geological Survey, "Charlotte
Quadrangle, 1:62500," surveyed 1905, printed 1907, reprinted
41 Streets studied include Belmont Avenue (first
appeared 1913), North Davidson Street (1903), Harrill Avenue
(1915), Parkwood Avenue (1915), Parsons Street (1915), Pegram
Street (1912), and Fourteenth Street (1902).
42 The line is not shown on the 1905 U.S.G.S.
topographic map, but does appear on a later map circa 1910 in the
collection of the Charlotte City Engineer's Office.
43 Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office: Deed
Book 325, p. 330. This sale of the Charlotte Electric Railway to
Southern Public Utilities Co. sets forth the existing routes in
detail. Information courtesy of Gaston County rail historian Earl
44 Harry P. Harding, "The Charlotte City Schools"
(Charlotte; typescript by Charlotte Mecklenburg School System,
1966), pp. 64-65. A photocopy of this report is in the Carolina
Room of the Charlotte Public Library.
45 LeGette Blythe and Charles R. Brockman,
Hornets' Nest: the Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County
(Charlotte: McNally of Charlotte, 1961), p. 181. See also William
A. Simmons and John G. Hayes, "Fairview Homes Modernization: A View
from the 1940s to the 1980s" (Charlotte: Charlotte Housing
46 Bursley is identified as planner of Greenbelt (in
partnership with Hale Walker) in Arthur C. Comey and Max S. Wehrly,
"Planned Communities," in Urban Planning and Land Policies:
Volume Two of the Supplementary Report of the Urbanism Committee to
the National Resources Committee (Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O.,
1939), p. 75. For a sampling of Bursley's subsequent designs in the
Carolinas, see photocopies of his professional portfolio in the
archives of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at
47 Information from cornerstones of new and old
48 Information from church cornerstones. See also
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps on microfilm at Charlotte Public
49 Information based on the city directory collection
in the Carolina Room of the Charlotte Public Library.
50 Information from church cornerstones.
51 Information from church cornerstone.
52 Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission,
"Residential Blight in Charlotte, September, 1962" (Charlotte:
Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission, 1962).
53 See 1980 map of city neighborhoods prepared by the
Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission and published in James W.
Clay, ed. Atlas of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, 2nd ed.
(Charlotte: University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 1981), p.
In the Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park Survey Area
|1313 N. Brevard Street
||Charlotte Cotton Compress Co. Building (c.1891)
|900 blocks of Calvine and Caldwell streets
||Alpha Mill cottages (1888?)
|1021 Parkwood Avenue
||(former) Villa Heights ARP Church (1910)
|Tenth & Seigle Streets
||Piedmont Courts (1940)
|311 E. Twelfth Street
||Alpha Mill (1888,
|412-426 E. Sixteenth St.
||Highland Park tenements (1910s?)
CHARLOTTE COTTON COMPRESS CO. BUILDING
1313 N. Brevard Street
Charlotte's rise to prominence as a southern city began with its
development as a major regional cotton trading market during the
second half of the nineteenth century. Within months of the opening
of the area's first railroad in 1852, Lincolnton diarist Robert
Hall Morrison wrote:
I was in Charlotte last week. You would be surprised to
see its change. It has become the market for the whole country
around. I went down and sold two loads of cotton and bought all my
groceries for the year on as good terms as we could formerly in
Columbia or Cheraw.
By the 1870s the town's population had quadrupled and Charlotte
had "reached the exalted position of being the first and principal
cotton market in the state," according to local boosters. It was
the booming source of income that allowed Charlotteans to begin
banking and industrial development in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Charlotte Cotton Compress Company Building, located between
the Southern Railway mainline and Brevard Street opposite Seventh
Street, is Charlotte's most important nineteenth century relic of
this cotton trading heritage. The structure consists of a long
string of cotton warehouse units with the press tower near the
center. Extending some 700 feet, it must have been one of the
city's biggest buildings when it was built. Each warehouse unit is
approximately 140 feet long and 80 feet wide, and is of wooden
construction with a gable roof. The wood is sheathed in corrugated
sheetmetal, originally due to danger of fire from sparks produced
by steam locomotives on the Southern Railway. There is a brick
firewall between each unit which extends above the roofline, a
standard practice throughout this region. In the middle of the
structure is a hip-roofed unit with a hip-roofed square tower at
its center, also covered in corrugated metal. Here was located the
massive press that squeezed cotton into compact bales for shipment
The Cotton Compress building is believed to have been built in
the early 1890s. It was only the city's second such facility,
joining the original Charlotte Cotton Compress which was located in
the downtown block bounded by Brevard Street, Fourth Street,
College Street, and Third Street. The new compress on the northern
edge of the city was built and operated by the Richmond and
Danville Railroad and its successor the Southern Railway, major
shippers of cotton in the region. It was built shortly after 1889
but before 1892, when it appeared on Butler and Spratt's "Map of
Charlotte Township." The 1893 city directory lists G.H. Rutzler
managing the facility.
About 1920, the downtown compress closed, and a private
Charlotte Compress Company was formed by Charlotteans C.B. Bryant,
L.W. Sanders, and H.H. Orr to acquire the newer suburban facility
from the railroad. Sanders had been active in running the old
compress, and he chartered his new company "to compress and store
cotton, and to buy and sell cotton, cotton seed and products." On
October 3, 1919, the Charlotte Compress Company leased the building
and business from the Southern Railway. In 1926 University of North
Carolina economist Edgar T. Thompson noted the facility's
importance to the region:
This is the only Compress in Charlotte .... Sixty
colored men are employed to compress cotton in order save space in
the warehouses and to facilitate handling. About 75,000 bales are
compressed each year.... Cotton is sent up from the ginneries and
cotton buyers in the Carolinas to be pressed and thence sent to the
mills or exported.
In the 1980s the Charlotte Cotton Compress Co. Building is used
for warehouse space by a firm which manufactures cotton bagging.
All pre-1900 downtown buildings associated with the cotton trade
are gone, and this "suburban" structure is believed to be the last
nineteenth century reminder of this vital era.
ALPHA MILL COTTAGES
900 blocks of Calvine and Caldwell streets
The remaining three rows of wooden mill houses just north of
Twelfth Street near the Alpha Mill constitute Charlotte's oldest
surviving mill village. There are twelve one-story wooden
structures: four on the west side of Calvine Street, three on the
east side of Calvine Street, and five along the west side of
Caldwell Street. The cottages are believed to date from
construction of the original Alpha Mill building in 1888-1889, an
early project of industrial innovator D.A. Tompkins.
Tompkins was one of the most important figures in the
late-nineteenth century campaign to "Bring the Mills to the
Cotton!" of the South. The Atlanta Constitution wrote that
Tompkins "did more for the industrial south than any other man."
Among his many accomplishments was establishment of the D.A.
Tomkins Company in Charlotte in 1884, which designed and built all
or part of more than 100 cotton mills throughout the region.
Tomkins also published numerous books on mill financing and design
which helped set trends in factory and mill village layout.
The design of the Alpha Mill, which began construction in 1888,
was among the Tompkins Company's early projects. Presumably the
mill village was built at the same time, because the mill site was
then beyond the edge of Charlotte settlement, and there was no
existing housing for workers near the factory. The design of the
cottages on Calvine Street appears to be the prototype for the
"Three-room Gable House, Cost $325" illustrated in Tompkins 1899
book Cotton Mills: Commercial Features.
The Calvine Street dwellings are weatherboarded, one-story
cottages with gable roofs. They are absolutely identical. Each is
planned in the shape of a "T" with its side to the street. A front
porch nestles into the front crook of the "T", matched by an
enclosed "shed room" nestled into the back of the "T". Trim is very
simple, with narrow corner-boards and window surrounds, plain boxed
eaves, and six-over-six pane double-hung sash windows. There is a
brick chimney with a corbelled cap at the center of the "T", and
each house originally rested on brick piers.
The third row of cottages, on Caldwell Street, consists of
slightly larger dwellings. They share the same gable roofs,
weatherboarding and trim, but were built with an additional full
room to the rear. Trees planted along Calvine and Caldwell streets
in front of the houses in their early years are now at maturity,
providing a handsomely-shaded residential setting.
(FORMER) VILLA HEIGHTS A.R.P. CHURCH
1021 Parkwood Avenue
By the late 1900s the Villa Heights and East End subdivisions
along Parkwood Avenue were beginning to fill up with houses. In
1910 the Villa Heights Associated Reform Presbyterian Church opened
under the leadership of pastor E.G. Carson. This handsome church
building was presumably built at that time. It commands a hilltop
site looking back toward downtown Charlotte.
The church building shows influence of the Prairie School of
architecture. The style was developed by master designer Frank
Lloyd Wright and his colleagues in the Chicago area during the
1890s and 1910s. It spread all across the United States, though it
never achieved the popularity of the contemporaneous Colonial
Revival or Rectilinear styles. The style used wide eaves to give
structures a ground-hugging horizontality, and it called for the
abandonment of all historic ornament in favor of
The architect of the Villa Heights A.R.P. Church used
straightforward massing and geometric, though historically
inspired, detailing. The building is a simple rectangular block
with a hip roof that has wide, plain eaves, a massing found in no
other Charlotte church. A parapet section marks the front entrance.
The main decoration of the brick exterior consists of buttress-like
brickwork that recalls both Gothic precedents, and also some of
Frank Lloyd Wright's detailing. The architect of this building used
Gothic blind arches above his rectangular side windows, an overt
bow to tradition. Though the building is not a pure example of the
Prairie School, it is Charlotte's only early specimen of America's
first "modern architecture."
Tenth and Seigle Streets
Piedmont Courts is Charlotte's first public housing project. It
was constructed in 1939-1940 by the Charlotte Housing Authority,
and funded by a loan from the then-new United States Housing
Administration. Piedmont Courts was intended for white residents,
and opened a few weeks before Fairview Homes opened across town for
blacks. Both developments shared the $2,104,000 federal loan, and
also a "Garden City" design approach.
Architects for the massive housing project were Martin Boyer,
the city's most skillful "revivalist" designer, and J.N. Pease
Associates, best-known for its ability to carry out large projects
smoothly. The team created a prototype rectangular block of
townhouse apartments. Each two-story brick unit had a gabled slate
roof and massive chimneys to recall the popular Colonial-Revival
residential style. Large double-hung sash windows provided
plentiful light and air, and small metal-columned porches shielded
the paired entryways. The design was both solid and very home-like,
quite similar to middle-class apartment blocks of the day (for
instance, see the Myrtle Apartments on Myrtle Avenue in the
After the prototype building had been drawn up, numerous
replicas were scattered around the site on Sugar Creek at Tenth and
Seigle streets, formerly occupied by shanties of the poor. The
arrangement was far from random, however. It was carefully thought
out to provide interior walkways and play areas separate from
automobile driveways and parking lots. This site planning is
believed to have been carried out by Charlotte planner Harold
Bursley, who had just returned from designing the federally-funded
New Town of Greenbelt, Maryland, a national showplace for such
311 E. Twelfth Street
The Alpha Mill complex holds an important place in the history
of Charlotte and of the entire Piedmont textile-manufacturing
region. Erected in 1888-1889, it was one of the city's first mills,
and marked the beginning of a movement that would see Mecklenburg
County become North Carolina's second largest producer of cotton
yarn by 1900. It was one of three built at the same time for
different investors by D.A. Tompkins, who stood at the dawn of a
career as one of the New South's leading mill builders and
promoters of industrial growth. Only the Alpha Mill, founded by
Charlotte political leaders E.K.P. Osborne and Calvin Scott,
remains of those three 1888-1889 facilities, and it has been much
The most noteworthy aspect of the Alpha's founding was the
method which Tompkins developed to fund it. Stock was sold to the
general public under an installment plan of twenty-five cents down
and twenty-five per week. Tompkins later championed this method
throughout the South to great effect. "So far as is known," writes
historian William Huffman, the Alpha "was the first mill in the
region to offer its stock on a weekly installment plan."
Subsequent owners greatly expanded the Alpha over the years, and
today only the original chimney stack and boiler room remain. The
present main building was constructed by Orient Manufacturing in
1901, a two-story brick building with a castellated corner tower.
In 1985 this structure retains its huge triple-hung windows, and is
one of the city's few well-preserved early mills. When the mill
became part of the Chadwick-Hoskins chain in 1908 -- then North
Carolina's largest textile corporation -- additional structures
were added to the rear of the Orient building.
HIGHLAND PARK # 1 MILL TENEMENTS
412-426 East Sixteenth Street
It is difficult to date this row of sturdy two-story brick
apartments. They are believed to have been erected in the 1910s,
and are definitely known to have been built after founding of the
Highland Park Mill #1 on Brevard Street in 1892, but before
publication of the 1929 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the district,
which shows the building in place. Earlier maps indicate that the
Highland Park Manufacturing Company built a number of so-called
"tenements" -- then the common name for apartment quarters -- on
the west side of Brevard Street close to the cotton mill, but today
only this one structure survives surrounded by one-story wood-frame
single-family mill cottages.
Company-owned housing was the norm in the boom decades of the
Piedmont textile region. Workers flocked from the farms to live and
work in newly-built mill villages located outside existing towns.
While the one-or-two-family cottage was most common, most villages
also had a "hotel" or rooming house for transient and unmarried
laborers. Few, however, were as substantial as this Highland Park
The Alpha Mill tenement building takes up almost one whole side
of a block on a side-street just east of the mill. It is a long
rectangle of brick with a gable roof. Three two-level porches with
gable-roofs and square wooden columns add interest to the main
facade. A pair of front doors opens onto each porch level. Window
and door openings on the front facade have flat arches, while side
windows have segmental arches. There is also a corbelled brick
water table. Six brick chimneys pierce the front roof. Windows are
double-hung sash units with twelve panes in the upper sash over a
large single pane in the lower sash, a popular residential motif in
the 1910s and 1920s.