Applications Videos

Historic Properties

Properties For Sale

About the Commission

Browse By Topic

Local History

Links

Home

Chapter Nine

The Sorted Out City  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

E-mail comments to N4JFJ@aol.com 

     There is a certain monotony to the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in the first half of the twentieth century.  There were consequential developments, not the least being an increase in Charlotte's population from 18,091 in 1900 to 134,052 in 1950 and Mecklenburg County's from 55,268 to 197,052.  Just as in the Civil War, Charlotte-Mecklenburg was the site of important military bases during World War One and World War Two.  Skyscrapers soared over the old center city, beginning with the already mentioned Realty or Independence Building  in 1909 and continuing with the First National Bank Building  and the Johnston Building in the 1920s.  Exquisite suburbs like  and Eastover appeared on the edges of Charlotte.    Banks gradually replaced textile mills as the main component of Charlotte's economy.  In 1917, the City abandoned voting by wards for elections to municipal governing boards, thereby increasing the influence of the wealthy white  elite upon governmental decisions.   The city acquired a municipal airport and endured the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Finally, James B. Duke  provided the capital necessary to make the Catawba River  a generator of hydroelectric power.  But these years nonetheless lacked the drama and passion of the decades that preceded them and that followed them.

This picture of  newly-elected Mayor Douglas and the Charlotte City Council appeared in the Charlotte Observer in May 1935. Seated left to right on the front row are Claude L. Albea, W. N. Hovis, Mayor Ben E. Douglas, L. R. Sides, and John F. Boyd.  Standing left to right on the back row are J. S. Nance, Herbert H. Baxter, J. H. Huntley, Mayor Pro-Tem John L. Wilkinson, J. S. Tipton, W. Roy Hudson, and John F. Durham.  All are white males.  That's the way it was in Charlotte-Mecklenburg for over 60 years.

     The essential dullness of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's history during these years arises from the fact that wealthy white businessmen were in virtual control of all public affairs.  “Most major urban decisions in the early twentieth century,” writes historian Blaine A. Brownell, “and the conceptual context within which these decisions were made, can be traced directly to the socio-economic elite group.”  Men like David Ovens , James B. Duke , Cameron Morrison , and Ben Douglas  succeeded in suppressing all alternatives to their program of continuous economic growth. "Watch Charlotte Grow" became the catch phrase of the chieftains of local industry and commerce.  In this writer's opinion, the clash of ideas and viewpoints is the very lifeblood of democracy. The first half of the twentieth century in Charlotte-Mecklenburg was the very antithesis of the encouragement of such intellectual ferment.   Especially after a bloody streetcar strike in 1919, which threatened to bring class warfare to Charlotte, the moguls of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County sought to exclude all competing viewpoints from the marketplace of ideas. 

     Seeing themselves as defenders of order against unruly blacks and unreliable mill workers, the "commercial civic-elite," says historian Thomas Hanchett, used their political preeminence to reshape the physical form of Charlotte into a network of homogenous districts, including immaculate neighborhoods like Myers Park , Eastover , and the curvilinear section of Dilworth .  In 1875, Charlotte, like most Southern urban centers, "looked like a scattering of salt and pepper." Rich and poor, black and white, storeowner and day laborer frequently lived side by side in the same block.  Homes, craft shops, stores, and livery stables were all mixed in together. The idea that Charlotte would have one district exclusively devoted to business, another to manufacturing, another for laborers, and another for blacks would have been unthinkable in 1875. "The landscape of Charlotte expressed confidence in tradition," explains Hanchett. "Well into the 1870s, Charlotteans organized their city in ways that would have seemed familiar to a time traveler from colonial days or even from Medieval Europe."

     "By the end of the 1920s," Hanchett contends, "Charlotteans had undergone a conceptual shift in their definition of a desirable urban landscape."  Hanchett continues: "Now Charlotteans resided in a patch-work pattern of self-contained neighborhoods, each distinct in its developer-devised street system and each largely homogeneous in its racial and economic makeup."

    Hanchett singles out Piedmont Park , which opened soon after 1900, as the suburb that led the way in showing how to keep "undesirable" elements away. Situated on both sides of Central Avenue between Kings Drive and Louise Avenue, Piedmont Park was the brainchild of two of Charlotte's most influential developers , F. C. Abbott  and George Stephens . The pastor of Second Presbyterian Church  called the location of the proposed residential district "an old hillside farm covered with sage grass and inhabited by nothing but jackrabbits."  Piedmont Park, however, was to become the first neighborhood in Charlotte to abandon the city's grid street pattern. This helped make it feel like a realm set apart.

Rev. George H. Detwiler House

Jake Newell House

     A striking example of an early Piedmont Park  residence is the Reverend George H. Detwiler House  at 801 Sunnyside Avenue.  Built in 1903 as the home of a Methodist minister and lovingly restored in recent years, the Queen Anne style  abode bespeaks of the tranquility and repose that white suburbanites were seeking to find in Charlotte's peripheral neighborhoods.  Also on Sunnyside Avenue is the.  Newell, a prominent Republican lawyer, hired architect Fred Bonfoey   in 1911 to design his Rectilinear Four Square style  home.  Bonfoey had come to Charlotte from Connecticut about 1908.  “By May, 1911,” writes historian William H. Huffman, “Bonfoey had designed over fifty bungalows, a style in which he specialized, and these and others were built in various parts of the city, including Dilworth , Belmont Villa Heights, Elizabeth , and, of course, Piedmont Park.”

     Deed covenants were the most innovative tools that Abbott and Stephens introduced to exclude people of the "wrong" race or poor whites from Piedmont Park .  " . . . the covenants provided a bulwark against a society that seemed to be growing more and more topsy-turvy," Hanchett contends. "In such a district the 'best population' would suffer no intrusions from people who did not 'know their place.'" Deed covenants, explains Hanchett, "hammered home three essentials of the sorted-out city." First, Piedmont Park would be exclusively residential, meaning that workplace and domicile could no longer exist side by side. Second, deed covenants stipulated that African Americans could not own or rent homes in Piedmont Park. The era of racially segregated neighborhoods mandated by law was at hand. Finally, houses had to cost at least $1500, a substantial sum in that day. This meant that poor whites could not afford to own homes in Piedmont Park.

    The same principles of exclusion governed the character of  Charlotte's other streetcar suburbs, including Elizabeth , Chatham Estates , Wilmore , Dilworth ,  and  Myers Park , and its first automobile suburb, Eastover .  Clearly, the underlying desire of the New South leaders was to seal themselves off in homogenous, secure enclaves to which they could retreat after working hard all day to advance the economy of Charlotte and its environs and thereby justify their control of local politics.  Edward Dilworth Latta , for example, built an elegant Neo Colonial Revival style  mansion on East Boulevard in Dilworth.  Cotton broker Ralph VanLandingham  and his rich wife Susie had architect C. C. Hook  design a Bungalow style  residence for them on The Plaza in Chatham Estates.   

VanLandingham Estate

        In summary, knowing that racial and class tensions were an inevitable consequence of their actions, people like the Lattas and the VanLandinghams, unlike Charlotte leaders of early generations, were apprehensive about residing in close proximity to those of lesser economic or social standing.  Consequently, wealthy whites migrated to the edges of town in increasing numbers after the advent of the electric streetcar and the automobile made suburban life more feasible.  

McManaway House

Withers-Efird House

      Sometimes owners went as far as to take their houses with them.  In 1916, Dr. Charles R. McManaway  had his elegant Italianate style  mansion moved from West Trade Street to Queens Road in Myers Park .  Ten years later Benjamin Withers , founder of a building supply business, moved his imposing home from East Trade Street to Selwyn Avenue, also in Myers Park.  Joseph Efird  became Withers’s son-in-law when he married Elizabeth Withers in 1917.  A native of Anson County, Efird eventually acquired the family home on Selwyn Avenue, and from 1909 until his retirement in 1956 he headed a department store empire that at its height contained over 50 stores.   

William Henry Belk

Merchants played a significant role in Charlotte’s economic growth in the early 1900s.  Known  to be hospitable to enterprising businessmen and still benefiting from its excellent railroad connections, Charlotte continued to be a mecca of sorts for ambitious  young men who sought to make more money.  William Henry Belk , a South Carolinian,  established a store here  on September 25, 1895, in a rented building just off the Square on East Trade Street.  A talented retailer, Belk acquired his own building in 1905 and by the time of his death in 1952 headed the largest and most successful chain of department stores in the two Carolinas. “He enjoyed the very scent of quality merchandise freshly unpacked and shelved and stacked,” says Belk’s biographer.

      Another of Charlotte’s major turn-of-the-century merchants was Joseph Ivey. Joseph Benjamin Ivey , the handsome son of a Methodist preacher, opened a small storeroom in rented space near the Square on February 18, 1900. Ivey's first day's sales totaled $33.18. "We had to study carefully and push the lines that the other merchants did not make a specialty," the enterprising merchant explained many years later. "For instance, at one time brass buttons were quite the rage. I was careful to keep in a supply all of the time while the other merchants were not noticing and allowed their stock to get low." Among  Ivey's early employees was David Ovens , who joined J. B. Ivey & Company  in 1904. "I would probably have been satisfied with a moderate business that would make something over a living," said Ivey, "but Mr. Ovens was ambitious to make J. B. Ivey & Company a big store and the business grew rapidly under our combined efforts."

J. B. Ivey

 A devout Methodist, Ivey insisted that the curtains be drawn in his store windows on Sundays, so that the pedestrians would not be tempted to consider matters of this world on the Lord's day. Can you imagine a merchant doing such a thing today? Hardly. Our cultural values have undergone radical change since Ivey's day.

     J. B. Ivey had a wide range of interests. He was an avid traveler. He also devoted great amounts of time and energy to growing flowers, especially tulips, dahlias, and gladiolas at his home in Myers Park , near the intersection of Queens Road and East Morehead Street. Many people remember that the restaurant in Ivey's Department Store was named the Tulip Terrace. Gorgeous tulip beds surrounded Ivey's home in Myers Park. There was even a miniature Dutch windmill in the yard.

This 1939 photograph shows the tulip garden at Ivey's home.  It illustrates the idyllic suburban retreat Charlotte's New South elite sought to create.

The Ivey's Department Store at Fifth and North Tryon Streets was designed by English architect William H. Peeps and opened as the new home of J. B. Ivey & Company  in 1924. The store was renovated and enlarged in 1939. On May 4, 1990, Ivey's was purchased by Dillard's, another department store chain. The building has recently been converted into luxury condominiums.

     Myers Park  is the most historically significant of Charlotte's streetcar suburbs.  Thomas Hanchett and Mary Norton Kratt  ably tell the neighborhood's history in their book, Legacy:  The Myers Park Story.  The events leading up to the founding of Myers Park in 1912 bear dramatic testimony to the positive consequences of New South leadership.  The simple truth is that the business elite of Charlotte, undistracted after 1900 by the complications associated with genuine democratic processes and intrusive government, could act quickly and decisively, and sometimes the results of their actions were stunning.  Myers Park is a case in point. Largely because of its bold and innovative design, Myers Park became the place where most of Charlotte's powerful and influential citizens decided to live.  Lining its cathedral-like streets like pearls on an expensive strand are the pretentious homes of most of the men who shaped Charlotte in the first half of the twentieth century.    

George Stephens

The individual most responsible for the creation of Myers Park  was George Stephens , the co-developer of Piedmont Park .  A native of Guilford County and an 1896 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Stephens  had come to Charlotte to join the insurance agency headed by Walter Brem , the father of Stephens's roommate at Chapel Hill.  In 1899, Stephens became a partner with F. C. Abbott  in the real estate firm of Abbott and Stephens, the first seller of homes  to use "For Sale" signs in the city.  "George was ten years my junior in age," Abbott remembered, "a fine genial fellow . . .  a  great athlete . . . and very popular with his many friends."  Abbott and Stephens also organized the Southern States Trust Company , which has evolved into the Bank of America of today.

The Colonial Revival George Stephens House on Harvard Place, designed by Hunter and Gordon.

Obviously a man of considerable ambition and talent, Stephens in 1902 married Sophie Myers , daughter of John Springs Myers , whose father had donated the land for Biddle Memorial Institute .  Myers had inherited a large farm on Providence Road about three miles southeast of Charlotte.  He sold it to his son-in-law's new company, the Stephens Company , on July 15, 1911.  This land and adjoining parcels that Stephens  had purchased would become the location for Myers Park .  To design his new subdivision Stephens hired a young landscape architect named John Nolen,  whom Stephens had met while serving on  Charlotte's Park and Tree Commission during the planning and construction of Independence Park .  It was the indefatigable New South  booster  D. A. Tompkins  who made Stephens aware of Nolen.

taylor.JPG (90504 bytes)

This early photograph of Myers Park shows the newly-planted street trees along Ardsley Road, looking toward Providence Road from Harvard Place.  The Duke Mansion is on the left.

As early as 1894, when Edward Dilworth  Latta  had offered Latta Park  in Dilworth for sale to the City, the Charlotte Observer  had supported the establishment of a municipal park system.  In August 1901, the newspaper renewed its commitment, declaring that "all cities of consequence own their parks." On March 7, 1904, D. A. Tompkins  appeared before the Board of Aldermen in his capacity as president of the Southern Manufacturer's Club. In keeping with his reputation as an effective and resourceful advocate, Tompkins amassed an impressive aggregate of materials and arguments in favor of his contention that Charlotte needed a public park.

      No doubt aware that the Board practiced frugality in all financial matters, Tompkins suggested that the park be placed at the former site of the municipal waterworks, thereby eliminating the need for the City to purchase land. He pointed out that the property would be served by two trolley  lines, the Piedmont Park  line and the Elizabeth College  line and, therefore, would be readily accessible to the rank-and-file citizens of Charlotte. The most compelling argument that Tompkins advanced was that public parks were a prudent and wise investment because they improved the moral and economic climates in cities. In support of this claim, Tompkins quoted from letters that elected officials in several communities had written to him such as Savannah, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina,  Mobile, Alabama, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Toledo, Ohio.

      At its meeting on March 7, 1904, the Board of Aldermen responded affirmatively to Tompkins's proposal and appointed Tompkins to head a special committee to oversee the project. He toured the site on April 23, 1904, with engineers from the City and discussed preliminary plans for the park. During the summer of 1904, Tompkins also negotiated with the owners of nearby property to secure the donation of additional land. He was successful. On August 1, 1904, Tompkins presented the deeds for approximately 47.5 acres of land to the Board of Aldermen, including 12.85 acres from the Highland Park Realty Company, developers of Elizabeth , and 5.57 acres from the Piedmont Realty Company, developers of Piedmont Park .

     The acceptance of this property by the City assured that the park would become a reality. The Charlotte Observer  greeted this news joyously. "It will unquestionably prove a blessing to the community, and public spirited men are unsparing in the gratification of its assured certainty," the newspaper proclaimed.  D. A Tompkins explained at length the benefits which he believed the park would provide for Charlotte and especially for the industrial laborers who resided there. "We are increasing our industrial population, and many of our laboring men do not have an opportunity to get out into the country but once a week, on Sundays," he explained. "It is a good thing for them to have a park such as this will be."

      On October 21, 1904, the Charlotte Observer  reported that the City had selected the name Independence Park , no doubt in tribute to the alleged Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence  of 1775. The Board of Aldermen created a Park and Tree Commission on November 7, 1904, to supervise the construction of the facility. Not surprisingly, Tomplins became chairman.  The Commission moved ahead with dispatch.  By June 1905, it had established contact with several landscape architects for purposes of soliciting proposals.  The winner of this competition was Nolen. The design of Independence Park was the initial commission in what would become an illustrious career. Nolen earned a reputation for being one of the premier landscape architects and comprehensive planners in the United States. It is noteworthy that Tompkins and his associates would demonstrate such care in selecting the designer for Independence Park. This scrutiny was a manifestation of the New South leaders' commitment to making Charlotte a grand and majestic city, at least as long as such initiatives did not conflict with their economic agenda. In the opinion of the Charlotte News , it was the duty of the Park and Tree Commission "to make Charlotte famous for the beauty of its parks."

     John Nolen  came to Charlotte in 1905 to supervise the implementation of his plan. During his sojourn in this community, Nolen explained the theories and concepts which underlay modern landscape architecture. "It is a pleasure to talk with Mr. Nolen," the Charlotte Observer  asserted. "He lives close to nature. His ideas and ideals are fresh and clean." On April 7, 1906, the Charlotte Observer reported that a "handsome driveway" at the upper and at the lower end of Independence Park  had been built. The completion of these improvements, however, did not terminate Nolen's association with the Park and Tree Commission. He returned to Charlotte on several occasions to advise the Commission and to give public lectures and eventually developed an overall plan for Charlotte's development, which was never implemented.  It is not surprising that George Stephens  selected Nolen to fashion Myers Park .

     Stephens recognized that only a high-quality planned community  would be able to lure Charlotte’s affluent residents from their center city estates.  Nolen  later wrote that  Myers Park  was "designed right from the first, and influenced only by the best practice in modern town planning."  In keeping with his philosophy that the fashioning of neighborhoods should be approached holistically, Nolen oversaw every detail of planning, including the layout of streets, the selection of trees and shrubs for street plantings, and even the drafting of  individual landscaping schemes for the buyers of houses. “It is the painstaking work of this pioneer city planner and his successor Earle Sumner Draper  that sets this area off from others where the wealthy lived in the same period, and that has made Myers Park Charlotte's most lastingly successful early suburb,” writes Hanchett.

     Although some streets in Myers Park   were reserved for moderate price homes, such as Amherst, Colonial, and Hermitage Court, most of the neighborhood had houses for the affluent.  Also, as in Piedmont Park , deeds contained covenants setting forth a wide range of regulations, including the kind of fences, the minimum allowable home prices, and the exclusion of all people except members of the white race. Houses in Myers Park mirror "the changing national fashions in architecture from the 1910s to the present," explain Kratt and Hanchett.  There are no Victorian homes, such as the Reverend Detwiler House in Piedmont Park or the Liddell-McNinch House  in Fourth Ward.  They were passé by the 1910s.  Most prevalent in the neighborhood are examples of  Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Bungalow, and Rectilinear or Four Square. 

David Ovens House in Myers Park

According to Kratt and Hanchett, the best example of the Rectilinear or Four Square style in Myers Park  is the David Ovens House  built in 1916 at 825 Ardsley Road.   Houses of this genre retain Victorian-like floor plans but have box-like, unadorned exteriors.  The original landscaping was by Earle Sumner Draper  for the John Nolen  firm. The home and its surroundings are suggestive of the straightforward pragmatism that formed the core of David Ovens 's being. This man, now forgotten by most Charlotteans, is one of many individuals who have demonstrated the pivotal importance of leadership in making Charlotte the city that it is today.

 

Click here to continue to Chapter Ten