A. G. Odell, Jr., the
flamboyant son of a Cabarrus County textile executive, studied
architecture at Cornell University and came to Charlotte in 1939 to
establish a one-man office. By the time of his death in April 1988
Odell oversaw the operations of one of the largest and most
influential architectural businesses in North Carolina. "In a
society where class connection still counted for much, young Odell
had automatic entry to the offices of the area's mill owners and
businessmen," writes historian Thomas Hanchett.1 When Odell arrived,
Charlotte’s buildings were overwhelming conservative and revivalist
in appearance and had been so for decades. "Most architecture in the
area can best be described as pseudo-neoclassical, with elements of
design copied from buildings elsewhere that had already incorporated
copied elements of classic design," remembered M. H. Ward, one of
Odell’s early associates.2 Odell set out to change that circumstance.
Odell took his lead from
the thinking of such revolutionary post-World War One European
architects as Le Corbusier. From about 1920 until shortly before his
death in 1965, Le Corbusier was an untiring proselytizer for what he
called the "Radiant City." To his way of thinking, urban designers
should break completely with the past. Le Corbusier had no sympathy
or interest in the preservation of existing buildings or
neighborhoods. "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new
architecture," he proclaimed.3 Le Corbusier envisioned people living
in high rise apartments surrounded by lustrous skyscrapers separated
from one another by large expanses of manicured open space and
dramatic fountains. Urban cores should be hygienic, antiseptic, and
ordered -- not cluttered, begrimed, and haphazard. The tradition of
mixing functions in a single structure or neighborhood was an
anathema to Corbusier. The city of the future would be divided into
discreet sections devoted to specific purposes – working, living,
leisure – connected to one another by expressways.
Le Corbusier also called
for a new vocabulary of building design. "We must start again from
zero," he insisted.4 His new architecture became known as the
International style. "A house is a machine for living in," said
Corbusier.5 The fundamentals of the International style centered upon
the exploitation of new materials, especially reinforced concrete,
strengthened steel, and large expanses of glass, to create grace,
airiness, and to allow great amounts of sunlight to penetrate the
interior of structures. Some suggest that Corbusier wanted all
buildings to look like luxury liners. The proponents of the
International style "maintained that a well- designed building could
be beautiful without the addition of expensive trim that obscured
its functional shapes and structure," Hanchett explains.6 Another
center of International style philosophy was the Bauhaus in Germany,
where influential designers like Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van
der Rohe held sway.
A. G. Odell, Jr. is
standing in the middle.
A.G. Odell, Sr.
A. G. Odell, Jr. became
Charlotte’s principal champion of the International style and
devoted his considerable talents and energies to reshaping the local
urban landscape. For good or ill, he largely succeeded. Odell
embraced the architecture of "tomorrow" and had nothing but disdain
for the revivalist buildings he observed on the streets of
Charlotte. Describing what he saw when he arrived in Charlotte,
Odell declared: "There was nothing here . . . that illustrated the
honesty of stone as stone, steel as steel, glass as glass. Everybody
was still wallowing in the Colonial heritage."7
In 1965-66 Odell and
Associates developed a comprehensive plan for the remaking of Center
City Charlotte.8 It reflected his iconoclastic philosophy and
established the fundamental parameters of uptown development for
more than two decades. The plan continues to have considerable
impact even today. The initial impetus for the remaking of Center
City Charlotte originated with the Downtown Charlotte Association in
the early 1960s. Convinced that the urban core was spiraling
downward in the face of growing suburbanization, the Association
hired Hammer & Associates, economic consultants, in early 1963 to
study what Center City Charlotte needed. The Hammer Report
determined that new stores, green space, parking garages, and new
entertainment facilities were required. It was this report that
induced the Downtown Charlotte Association to hire A. G. Odell and
Associates in 1965 to devise the Center City Plan, which was
officially released in September 1966.9
Odell benefited from the
temper of his times. The 1960s and 1970s in Charlotte-Mecklenburg
and the United States as a whole were decades of buoyant optimism,
the persisting unpopularity of the Vietnam War notwithstanding. An
eagerness to greet the challenges of the future and an almost total
rejection of history and its architecture dominated elitist
thinking. In a speech to the Charlotte Civitan Club’s 1966
Distinguished Citizens Award Ceremony, Dr. John T. Caldwell,
Chancellor of North Carolina State University, advanced the commonly
held assumption of that day that focusing upon the past was
counterproductive to "progress." Charlotte "is a community filled
with optimism for the days head, or it is a city enjoying a past
that probably never was," he declared. Caldwell continued:
"Charlotte is a city which is captive to the mores and fears of the
past, or it is a community which greets the new demands of
contemporary America with resilience at least and with eagerness at
Observer sounded a similar tone. The newspaper was a consistent
champion of the growth and expansion of Charlotte and its environs.
Predictably, it issued a call for aggressive implementation of
Odell’s Center City Plan when it was presented to the Charlotte City
Council in March 1966. The editorial page contended that "Charlotte
. . . has been studied enough. Those concerned about making this a
more functional, more attractive city will now begin to act."11 The
Charlotte Observer chided City leaders again in July 1966 for
their alleged record of sluggishness in moving ahead with daring
innovations. "Past councils have been much too reluctant to act with
boldness and determination in redevelopment," the newspaper
On March 2, 1966, James
Rouse, the visionary developer of the planned community of Columbia,
Md., trumpeted the same message in a stirring address he gave to
attendees at the first annual UNCC Forum. He argued that unless
Charlotte acted quickly and boldly it could squander its chances for
becoming "one of the country’s most glorious cities." According to
Rouse, the people of Charlotte stood "on the threshold of
opportunity." To step back from the challenge, he insisted, would
propel Charlotte in the wrong direction. "You can also succeed in
reaching the point where the big, ugly cities are now. And you will
surely get there if you don’t plan with boldness and vision," Rouse
maintained.13 Not surprisingly, the Charlotte Observer rushed
to endorse Rouse’s remarks. "Charlotte, as the major city of the
Carolinas, can plan, can grow in an orderly manner, can become a
city of the future," the editors declared. "But its citizens will
have to have their minds stretched again and again."14
This is Odell's
vision of Center City Charlotte. You are looking toward
the Center City from the west.
Odell’s Center City Plan
was bold and visionary. Voters had approved a bond referendum the
previous year to fund street improvements in the Center City; and
the leveling of virtually every structure in the Second Ward or
"Brooklyn" neighborhood, a large African American enclave, was
already proceeding apace.15 Building upon these initiatives, Odell
proposed a series of audacious initiatives. Like Le Corbusier, Odell
embraced the philosophy of the "Radiant City." His plan predicted
that visitors would "be coming to a new Charlotte, a Charlotte built
anew with imagination, with sound economic reasoning, with a full
knowledge that Charlotte’s position of leadership in the Carolinas
and in the Southeast is one which the city deserves."16 What the
Charlotte Observer called "swaths of expressway construction"
would enable suburbanites to drive their automobiles more easily to
the urban core.17 Parking decks would be built to house all the
additional cars coming to the Center City, and all curbside parking
would be eliminated. The intersection of Trade and Tryon Sts. would
be transformed into a true "Square" by creating a plaza at the
southeastern corner bordered by a hotel and retail shops.
This was the concept for
connecting the Government Center of East Trade St. with
Independence Square. Clean, even clinical.
Odell, much in the
tradition of the International style, advocated the creation of
residential districts defined by parks and high rise apartment
buildings. The plan called for the destruction of all the older
homes in Fourth Ward, which the Charlotte Observer termed a
"slum."18 Edwin Towers, a high rise apartment building for the
elderly, was then under construction and apparently was the type of
structure Odell envisioned for much of Fourth Ward.19 The plan
advocated the burial of all utility lines and the removal of the
railroad tracks between College and Brevard Streets and the turning
of the rail line into a "Convention Boulevard."20
The most crucial element of
Odell’s Center City Plan, what the Charlotte Observer called
its "spark," was the construction of a Convention Center at the
corner of South College St. and East Trade St.21
John A. Tate, Jr.,
Chairman of the Committee for the Master Plan, underscored the
urgency of proceeding with the building when he spoke to the
Charlotte Rotary Club on June 14, 1966. "The convention center is
the ‘heart’ of the master plan for downtown revitalization," Tate
insisted. "It is the ‘trigger’ and the ‘stimulant’ for redevelopment
of the first block of South Tryon Street."22
The story of how the
Convention Center got built is a tortuous and twisted tale The
schedule for erecting the Convention Center was sidetracked on
several occasions, but the City finally began constructing the
facility in October 1971.23 "We’re concerned that this building will
have a character of its own that will symbolize Charlotte in the
eyes of the nation," said A. G. Odell. Odell promised that the
Charlotte Civic Center, as it became called, "will compare with any
in the country."24 The building opened with great fanfare on September
9, 1973. Ironically, the Charlotte Civic Center, which has been
replaced by a new, larger convention center, stands empty today; and
its future is in great jeopardy.
In this writer’s opinion,
the 1973 Charlotte Civic Center demonstrates a major weakness of the
International style.25 The building’s most distinctive features are
large pyramidal skylights that are only visible from a perspective
several hundred feet in the air. While perhaps impressive as part of
an architectural model, the Charlotte Civic Center presents blank
brick walls to the pedestrian and provides no vitality or life to
the streetscape. This criticism in no way detracts from the historic
importance of the building, however. The Charlotte Civic Center did
stimulate large-scale real estate developments on adjacent parcels,
specifically the North Carolina National Bank Complex and the Radisson Hotel.
The building was also the most crucial element in the implementation
of A. G. Odell Jr.’s seminal 1966 Charlotte Center City Plan.
Special Note: The
Charlotte Civic Center was imploded on June 19, 2005.
1. Hanchett, Thomas W.
n.d. Charlotte Architecture: "Design Through Time Part 2."
Observer, April 22, 1988.
3. Rybczynski, Witold.
n.d. "The Architect Le Corbusier." time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/lecorbusier.
4. Quoted in Rybczynski.
5. Quoted in Rybczynski.
6. Quoted in Rybczynski.
8. Economic consultant
for the plan was Hammer, Greene, Siler Associates. Wilbur
Smith and Associates was the traffic consultant.
9. Charlotte Observer,
March 9, 1970.
Observer, May 2, 1966.
Observer, June 1, 1966.
Observer, July 12, 1966. Charlotte demolished an average
of 1100 black-occupied housing units per year between 1965 and 1968.
Goldfield, David R. Cotton Field And Skyscrapers. Southern
City and Region. 1989. Baltimore and London:
The John Hopkins University Press. 168.
Observer, March 3, 1966. The first UNCC Forum at the
University of North Carolina at Charlotte was entitled "The
University and the Development of the Modern City." Professor
Edith Winningham was the organizer of the Forum.
Observer, March 4, 1966.
Observer, June 6, 7, 1966.
16. A. G. Odell and
Associates Architects, n.d. "Greater Charlotte Central Area Plan."
Observer, March 4, 1966.
Observer, May 27, 1966. The park would have embraced the
land now bordered by Seventh, Ninth, Poplar, and Pine Streets.
That land is now at the heart of the Fourth Ward historic district.
Observer, June 22, 1966. Edwin Towers was designed by J.
N. Pease Associates.
Observer, March 4, 1966.
Observer, June 16, 1966.
Observer, June 15, 1966. The members of the Committee for
the Master Plan were John A. Tate, Jr., Chairman, William T. Harris,
George M. Ivey, Jr., Sandy R. Jordan, W. E. McIntyre, Arthur R.
Newcombe, Marshall I. Pickens, Elmer E. Rouzer, Jerry C. Tuttle, E.
L. Vinson, J. Mason Wallace, Jr., Paul R. Younts.
Observer, October 17, 1971.
Observer, February 2, 1970. For a photograph of the
Charlotte Civic Center under construction, see Charlotte Observer,
February 28, 1972.
25. New York architect
Robert Stern visited Charlotte in 1986 and called Center City
Charlotte "the ugliest collection of third-rate buildings in
America." Charlotte Observer, May 17, 1986.