Charlotte High Rise
This is the cover of a
promotional booklet produced by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce in
1930. It demonstrates the importance of skyscrapers as symbols
High rise buildings were a significant
part of Charlotte’s man-made or built environment throughout the twentieth
century. Beginning with the Realty or Independence Building in
1908-1909, designed by architect Frank Milburn, Charlotte business leaders
showed a persistent interest in the construction of skyscrapers.
According to the authors of Architects and Builders in North Carolina.
A History of the Practice of Building, the “symbolic importance” of
skyscrapers as a “sign of progress, permanence, and prosperity was
The people of Charlotte took great pride, for example, in the fact that
they would soon have the tallest edifice in the state. To them the
Realty or Independence Building symbolized the strength and vitality of
the commercial and industrial base of the community. The
Charlotte Observer spoke to this point on several occasions while the
Realty Building was being built. Particularly illuminating were the
comments of two reporters who visited the top of the still-unfinished
skyscraper in October 1908. “Appreciation of what the city is,” they
asserted, “comes only to those who view it from this aerial spot.”
Only from the top of the “most magnificent building of the Carolinas”
could one appreciate that “Charlotte assumes the nature of a mining-town
in western Pennsylvania, everlastingly enwrapped in clouds of smoke.”
So proud were the local residents of the emerging skyscraper that they
persuaded the J. A. Jones Company, contractors for the building, to “shove
the towering structure 30 feet further (sic.) up” by putting the first
column of the final portion of the steel framing into place, thereby
letting the delegates to the Democratic State Convention in June 1908 see
the extra height of the building.
The Federal style Osborne
House stood on the northwest corner of the Square until 1908.
The Realty or Independence
Building brought an entirely new scale to the skyline of Charlotte.
The pace of high rise construction in Charlotte during the first sixty
years of the twentieth century peaked in the 1920s and the 1950s – both
being decades of expanding economic activity. A 1927 publication of the
Charlotte Chamber of Commerce reported that the amount of money invested
in new buildings more than tripled between 1920 and 1926.
Although distinctly different in terms of their predominant architectural
styles, the skyscrapers of these two decades shared the common purpose of
demonstrating that Charlotte was “up-to-date” with respect to its business
practices. The Barringer Hotel, erected in 1940, is anomalous.
First, it was the only high rise building constructed in Charlotte between
the 1920s and the 1950s. Secondly, local interests played no part in
bringing it about.
Click here for details about the Barringer Hotel.
The Independence Building was
reduced to rubble in September 1981.
The favored style of the 1920s was Neo Classical, although one high rise,
the Builders Building, belongs most readily to the Commercial style.
The center city has four examples of skyscrapers that survive from the
1920s – the Johnston Building, the First National Bank Building, the
Builders Building, and the Mayfair Manor Hotel. Such notable
buildings as the Hotel Charlotte (1924) have been destroyed.
In the 1950s, led by
A. G. Odell, Jr., Charlotte architects abandoned traditional ornamentation
and adopted the International style. Two modernist high rises
survive from this decade. They are the Jefferson Standard Building
(1953) at 301 S. Tryon St. and the Wachovia Bank and Trust Company
Building at 129 W. Trade St (1957). Two others, the North Carolina
National Bank Building (1961) and the Cutter Building (1961) were
built just beyond the scope of this survey; and they have both
experienced substantial alteration. An especially significant example of a
mid rise Modernist office building in center city Charlotte is the 7-story
Home Federal Savings and Loan Building (1967).
This photograph of Center City
Charlotte was published in 1930. It shows the results of the
building boom of the 1920s. You are looking toward the
northeast. Along Tryon St. you see from top to bottom the Realty
or Independence Building (destroyed), the First National Bank
Building, the Commercial National Bank Building (destroyed), the
Johnston Building, and the
Wilder Building (destroyed).
High Rise Buildings of the
Revivalist styles dominated
Charlotte’s skyscrapers of the 1920s. Architectural historians ascribe the
business elite’s preference for traditionalist designs to the conservative
political, social, and economic values that dominated the era of White
Supremacy in North Carolina. ”Political power and legal control remained
in the hands of the wealthy—whether former landed gentry or the newly rich
industrialists—who hired architects and general contractors to create a
fabric of building that was consonant with their values,” assert Catherine
W. Bisher, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III.
Architects and builders “attempted to meet the needs of the conservative
capitalists and urban dwellers who swelled the population and the gross
national product in a society that remained conservative politically and
Most of the skyscrapers of the
1920s, like the Commercial National Bank Building, have been
Historian Thomas W. Hanchett contends that the local penchant for
traditional styles, especially Neo-Classicism, resulted in part from the
emergence of business leaders in Charlotte in the 1920s who were less
willing than their predecessors to take risks. “The generation of
New South leaders, including D. A. Tompkins, Edward Dilworth Latta, and
George Stephens, who had taken enormous risks to turn the Piedmont into a
major industrial region, were passing their power on to a new generation”
says Hanchett. “The new leaders seemed much less adventuresome, willing to
follow in the directions set by their predecessors. Their homes and
offices reflected this increased interest in tradition over innovation, in
social correctness rather than risk-taking.”
The Johnston Building
Local architects were primarily responsible for the design of the high
rise buildings erected in center city Charlotte during the 1920s.
The only exception is William L. Stoddart (1869-1940) of New York City,
the architect of the Johnston Building (1924). The designer of such
notable Atlanta structures as the Winecoff Hotel, the Georgian Terrace
Hotel, and the Ponce de Leon Apartments, as well as the Battery Park Hotel
in Asheville and the Hotel Charlotte in Charlotte, Stoddart rendered the
Johnston Building in the Neo Classical style.
The man who provided the money for this imposing edifice was local textile
magnate Charles Worth Johnston (1861-1941), a native of Cabarrus County
who graduated from Davidson College and eventually became president of the
Highland Park Manufacturing Company. Charlotte's tallest and
newest office building is attracting favorable comment
as it nears completion because of the beauty and attractiveness of its
exterior," stated the Charlotte News on January 13, 1924.
The Johnston Building’s original tenants included architect Charles
Christian Hook, the E. C. Griffith Co, and former Governor Cameron
photograph of 3rd and S. Tryon shows the Wilder Building on the left
and the former Lawyers Building on the right. Note the railroad
freight yard in the background that separated 2nd Ward of "Brooklyn"
from the rest of Center City Charlotte.
Louis H. Asbury (1877-1975) designed the First National Bank Building
(1926) and the Mayfair Manor Hotel (1929). Asbury was the son of S.
J. and Martha Moody Asbury of Charlotte. In addition to being one of the
first carriers of the Charlotte Observer, the young Asbury assisted
his father, who was a builder of houses in Charlotte
Louis H. Asbury
in the 1890s.
He subsequently matriculated at Trinity College, now Duke University, and
graduated from that institution in 1900. Having acquired his professional
training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Asbury returned to
Charlotte and established his architectural practice in 1908.
In the succeeding decades, Louis H. Asbury assumed a position of
prominence and leadership in the architectural profession. He was the
first North Carolina member of the American Institute of Architects and
played a leading role in organizing the North Carolina Chapter of the
But his greatest contributions to the built environment of Charlotte were
the many buildings which he fashioned over the years, beginning with the
residence of R. M. Miller, Jr. on N. Tryon St. (1908).
Among his more noteworthy designs were the Mecklenburg County Courthouse
on East Trade Street, the First National Bank Building, the Montaldo's
Building, the Law Building, the Mayfair Manor Hotel, and several of the
imposing edifices in Dilworth and Myers Park.
First National Bank Building
The First National Bank Building was the tallest skyscraper in the two
Carolinas when it opened in 1926 on the Tryon Street edge of Third Ward.
The president of First National Bank was H. M. McAden. Like so many of
Charlotte's New South business leaders, including Charles Worth Johnston,
McAden had made his money in the textile industry. That he went into
banking is no surprise, because the rise of Charlotte as a banking center
was tied directly to the emergence of Charlotte and its environs as a
major cotton mill region at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of
the twentieth century. Indicative of Charlotte's importance as a financial
center was the establishment here of a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Its initial location was on the top floors of the First National Bank
The Mayfair Manor Hotel, also designed by Louis H. Asbury, was built on
the corner of West Sixth Street and North Tryon Street in 1929 by Drs.
J.P. Matheson and C.N. Peeler, who were perhaps better known as two of the
founders of the Charlotte Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital.
The ten-story, 100-room hotel was intended for use by permanent and
transient guests, with fifty rooms reserved for permanent residents.
Hotels were essential to Charlotte’s emergence as a warehouse and
distribution center for the two Carolinas in the late 1800s and early
1900s. Manufacturer’s representatives, salesman, buyers, and others
who came to town to do business needed a place to stay. In 1930,
there were nine major hotels in Charlotte – the Mecklenburg, Central,
Piedmont, Selwyn, Walton, Clayton, Hotel Charlotte, Stonewall, and Mayfair
Manor. Only the building that housed the Mayfair Manor remains.
The Builders Building was designed
by Charlotte architect and engineer Marion Rossiter “Steve” Marsh
(1901-1977) and constructed in 1926-27 in response to the building boom
that was occurring in Charlotte and its environs during the years
immediately following World War One. Its purpose was to provide a
single home for the principal participants in Charlotte’s building trades.
The bringing together of firms involved in the building trades was
especially popular in those communities, such as Charlotte, that were
dedicated to unremitting growth and expansion. This concentration of
architects, general contractors, and components manufacturers, it was
argued, would allow construction professionals to respond more effectively
to the increasingly complex building systems that were appearing in urban
centers of the United States, including those in North Carolina, in the
early twentieth century.
Lambeth was instrumental in bringing the Builders Building to fruition. A
native of Fayetteville, N.C., Lambeth had located here after graduating
from the University of North Carolina. Like so many Charlotte businessmen
of his era, Lambeth was a champion of entrepreneurial enterprise. He
wanted Charlotte to become a truly substantial place and believed that
locating construction businesses in a single edifice would advance that
M. R. “Steve” Marsh, a native of
Jacksonville, Fla., came to Charlotte in 1916 as chief draftsman for the
architectural firm headed by James Mackson McMichael (1870-1944). In 1922
Marsh opened his own architectural and engineering company in Charlotte
and continued to head the firm until his retirement in 1964. That Marsh
received the contract to design the Builders Building was a real feather
in his cap, so to speak, because the new edifice was to be a showcase of
what construction professionals could accomplish. The design
philosophy for the Builders Building emphasized modernity.
Stylistically, the Builders Building
appealed to the business elite’s preference for traditionalist designs.
Newspaper articles published at the time the Builders Building was
completed in July 1927 express the New South creed of urban “boosterism”
that held sway in Charlotte. If the architects, painters,
plasterers, electrical men, and others, had not been the type of men to
develop with the city it is extremely doubtful if Charlotte could have
grown,” proclaimed the Charlotte Observer. The newspaper
continued: “Every year the number of new constructions in the city has
grown. Each year the aggregate figures for building permits has
Rise Buildings of the 1950s.
The 12-story Jefferson Standard Building (1953), later Union National Bank
Building, although significant as Charlotte’s first modernist high rise,
has lost much of its original integrity. Three stories have been
added to the original building, and the exterior curtain walls of the
building have been completely replaced.
The North Carolina National Bank Building at 200 South Tryon St., erected
in 1961 and perhaps North Carolina’s first Miesian style, glass-and-steel
skyscraper, has also experienced insensitive updating. The Cutter
Building, also erected on South Tryon St. in 1961, has been altered even
The Wachovia Bank and Trust Company Building (1958), however, retains its
Building under construction in 1953
Hour-long dedication ceremonies for the $5 million Wachovia Building were
held on February 16, 1958. Charlotte Mayor James S. Smith spoke, and
the Queens College Choir and the Davidson College Male Chorus performed.
The event took on the form of a religious service. Prayers were offered by
Reverend Lawrence I. Stell of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Monsignor John
P. Manley of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, and Rabbi E. A. Levi of
Temple Israel. Called a "15-story colossus of stone and steel" by
the Charlotte Observer, the new high rise building represented a
major addition to the Charlotte skyline. "I want you to make the
most beautiful building in the South," Wachovia president Robert Hanes of
Winston-Salem told New York interior designer Dan Cooper. "We let it
have the look of a well-tailored suit -- neatly done, beautifully
detailed," said Cooper. According to promotional brochures, the
Wachovia Building was the first structure in the United States to use
"prismatic, pre-cast concrete panels in its construction." The architect was
A. G. Odell, Jr. in association with the New York architectural firm of
Harrison and Abramovitz. Odell, the
flamboyant son of a Cabarrus textile executive, studied architecture at
This 1966 photograph shows the
North Carolina National Bank Building and the Cutter Building before
they were altered. The Wachovia Bank and Trust Company Building
looms over W. Trade St. The arcade portion of the Builders
Building is clearly visible.
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 Hanchett.
When Odell arrived, Charlotte’s buildings, as noted above, were
overwhelming conservative and revivalist in appearance and had been so for
decades. M. H. Ward, one of Odell’s early associates, stated: "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."
Odell set out to change that circumstance.
This sketch of the
Wachovia Building speaks to the ebullient optimism of the future that
characterized that decade.
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.
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.
This photograph of
the Wachovia Building appeared in the Charlotte Observer on
February 19, 1958. The view is looking east. The
Independence Building is just to the left of the Wachovia Building.
The Johnston Building is to the right. This photograph
demonstrates how the Wachovia Building transformed the scale of
Charlotte's skyline. The same issue of the newspaper noted that
Charlotte was entering the "auto age." It predicted that by 1978
"three and four car families may be as common as two-car families were
in 1958." The newspaper regarded "urban sprawl" as a positive,
"as families rush to move out to the green grass and trees in the
suburbs and commute to work by car."
Le Corbusier also called for
a new vocabulary of building design. "We must start again from zero," he
His new architecture became known as the International style. "A house is
a machine for living in," said Corbusier.
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,"
A. G. Odell's
Plan For Center City Charlotte. Devised in 1966, it was to
have a major impact in shaping Charlotte's center city.
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. Historians Sherry Joines Wyatt and Sarah
Woodard explain: “The basic
tenets of Modernism emphasized function and utility; abstract beauty,
sculptural form, and symbolism; honesty in materials and honesty; and the
use of modern materials and technology as well as an emphasis on the use
of natural materials.
The original banking
lobby of the Wachovia Building
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."
The Center City
once contained many of Odell’s designs.
Unfortunately, except for the Second Ward High School Gymnasium and the
Wachovia Bank and Trust Company, all of his pre-1960 projects have
disappeared or have been so modified as to lose their essential integrity,
such as the Charlotte Public Library. The Wachovia Bank and Trust Company
Building is the only Odell-designed high rise that survives in Charlotte
from the 1950s.
This October 1957 photograph
of A. G. Odell, Jr. shows the Wachovia Building under construction in
The Home Federal
Savings and Loan Building, like the great majority of office towers
constructed in uptown Charlotte, illustrates the growing importance of
Charlotte as a banking center in the twentieth century. According to
Dr. Richard L. Mattson, the structure has “exceptional
architectural significance as a rare surviving and outstanding example of
a small-scale, Modernist office building from the postwar period in
Home Federal Savings and Loan was founded in 1883 as the Perpetual
Building and Loan Association by Samuel Wittkowsky, a Jewish immigrant
from Poland who became a leading New South businessman in this community.
“The completion of the Home Federal Savings and Loan Building in 1967
reflected not just the growth of the bank but also the prominence of
Charlotte, and South Tryon Street in particular, as a financial hub,”
Home Federal Savings and Loan