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Churches and Schools

As uptowns grew so did their churches and schools. Standing like sentinels at the borders of town centers, these institutions were signs of local progress as well as symbols of a shared moral authority. In the early years churches and schools were often intimately related. In 1878 members of the Huntersville Presbyterian Church began worship in the McClintock Academy, a small presbyterian school. The following year the pastor of the local Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Dr. William W. Orr, founded the Huntersville High School Academy and built a schoolhouse adjacent to the church. In the Catalogue of the Huntersville High School, 1882-1883, under the heading "Morals," Dr. Orr confidently proclaimed:

We can safely say that Huntersville has few superiors in point of morals. . . .We have no drinking saloons, no billiard tables, no gambling rooms, no cockpits, and no race paths. . . But we have TWO good churches--one U.S. Presbyterian, the other A.R. Presbyterian--in which services are held every Sabbath. . . .We can see without fear of successful contradiction, that no town has as few temptations to idleness and vice as our little village, and there is no place of its size where there is so much moral and religious restraint brought to bear on on its citizens. 39

The author's perceptions of Huntersville's lofty morality aside, the townspeople created religious buildings in a fashion typical of uptown churches throughout the county. The major churches--Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist--first appeared in the small towns amid renewed church construction in the post-Civil War decades. While in larger urban places, innovative church plans with elaborate Gothic Revival treatment became landmarks of postwar recovery, in the small towns and countryside churches tended to follow a popular antebellum form. These small churches conveyed religious respectability and practicality of purpose through a gable-front design, usually equipped with a gallery, one or two main aisles, and a platformed altar and pulpit opposite the entrance.40

In Huntersville, the congregations of both Presbyterian churches probably held worship services in such a building during their formative years. A rare photograph of the first Huntersville Presbyterian Church, erected by church members about 1881, depicts a simple white-frame, rectangular structure oriented gable end to the front. The center doorway is framed by tall shuttered windows designed to light the gallery, which spanned the front of the sanctuary. Similarly, the initial Methodist church building in Matthews, erected in 1877, followed this accepted gable-front form, with a foundation of rock piers, and two front doors. Two aisles led to the pulpit on its raised platform, with an Amen Corner on either side. Like most small-town and rural churches organized in this period, Matthews Methodist Church was situated on land donated by a founding member and constructed by a band of congregants.41

None of the nineteenth-century churches survives in the small towns, for during the early decades of the new century expanding memberships led to a wave of rebuilding. The new church buildings were larger and more architecturally polished than their predecessors. They made use of mass-produced building materials; were sheathed with brick veneering; and often constructed by professional contractors. The popular stylistic choice among the various denominations was the Gothic Revival, clearly signified by rooflines, arched windows and doors, and corner towers that pointed sharply heavenward, and pointed-arched windows.42

In 1901 members of Huntersville's Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church selected this style for its new building at the north end of town. The handsome brick edifice follows a cruciform plan, featuring four broad gabled wings, each pierced by a round louvered opening and Gothic-style windows, and a steepled corner entrance tower.

Although the church's 1969 sanctuary faces motorists on Highway 115, the original building was oriented towards Church Street and the railroad tracks, serving daily notice to turn-of-the-century train passengers that Huntersville was a progressive, and Presbyterian, town. 43

For more than four decades into the twentieth century, as membership levels and fund-raising drives allowed, the county's small-town churches turned to the Gothic Revival. The style might be interpreted with two flanking towers, as at the 1903 Matthews Methodist Episcopal Church (no longer standing), or accented with concrete trimming and a striking rosette window in the center gable, as at the Matthews Presbyterian Church, completed in stages between 1929 and 1942. 44

Not every new church, however, reflected this penchant for the Gothic. A significant exception is the Matthews Baptist Church, constructed in 1929 in the Neoclassical Revival style. Whereas the towns' nineteenth-century churches might have suggested the classical temple idea in their gable-front forms and occasional use of cornice returns, the Matthews Baptist Church is a more literal version. The brick building is dominated by a full projecting (prostyle) portico with large columns and a fanlight in the pediment.45 In its small-town setting it is an especially forceful design that commands attention and verifies the Baptist church's solid standing in the community.

The symbolic power of pillared temple-form architecture was not new to the county's towns. When, in the 1880s, Huntersville High School Academy was rebuilt on present-day Gilead Road, the ambitious new facility was rendered in a two-story temple form. No longer in existence, the structure was most likely inspired by Eumenean and Philanthropic Halls, the pair of handsome Greek Revival debating halls erected at Davidson College in 1849-1850. Like these buildings, it featured a prostyle pedimented portico, with four colossal pillars that enclosed twin stairways rising to the auditorium. The academy, to be sure, was a far less refined version of these collegiate temples, substituting, for instance, functional, square brick posts for the elegant stone columns that grace the Davidson College buildings. Nevertheless, it presented the town of Huntersville with its first architectural landmark, that was hailed as "one of the largest and most modern school structures in the western North Carolina region. " 47

Eumenean Hall at Davidson College

Philanthropic Hall at Davidson College

"The Academy," as it was known locally, was the most significant of a host of private academies that existed in the small towns during the late nineteenth century. Huntersville alone contained three at various times before 1900, and Matthews and Pineville had at least one apiece. 48 The role of the private school, however, began to diminish when Mecklenburg County instituted public education in 1895.

While local communities funded modest weatherboarded public schoolhouses shortly thereafter--Matthews, for example, had a three-room school with a two-person staff in 1895--it was not until 1907 that large and stylish public schools appeared. In that year the General Assembly passed a bill to help finance rural high schools for white students throughout North Carolina, and Matthews and Huntersville were designated as the Mecklenburg sites. In Huntersville Orr's academy was expeditiously converted to a state high school. But in Matthews a "modern brick building" was planned, one that would stand out as the town's largest structure. Completed in 1907, the impressive two-story schoolhouse, crowned by a cupola that rose above the treetops, was a pledge to Matthews' white citizens of quality public schooling.49

Currently a community center, the Matthews School exists largely as it appeared following remodelings and expansions that occurred in 1912 and the mid-1920s. The building's facade features an impressive entrance portico, with hollow fluted columns supporting a broad cornice and pediment. Added during the latter phase of renovations, it attests to the enduring appeal of classically inspired scholastic architecture in the county. Other elements reflect more practical considerations in the planning of the modern public schoolhouse.

Matthews School

The banks of large multi-paned windows across the facade provided natural light and ventilation for the classrooms and main stairway. The interior of the main block consisted of classrooms, restrooms, and offices conveniently arranged along center and side halls. At the back, a substantial multi-purpose auditorium wing was constructed to serve the needs of the school as well as the community.