Survey and Research
and location of the property: The property known
as the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is located at 700 East Trade
Street in Charlotte, N.C.
and address of the present owner of the property:
The present owner of the property is:
East 4th Street
photographs of the property: This
report contains representative photographs of the property.
map depicting the location of the property: This
report contains a map depicting the location of the property.
deed book reference to the property: The
most recent deed book reference to this property is found in
Mecklenburg County Deed Book 610, p. 62, 70, and 76 and Mecklenburg
County Deed Book 605 at pages 321 and 356.
The Tax Parcel Number of the property is 125-03-201.
brief historical sketch of the property: This report contains
a brief historical sketch of the property prepared by Emily D. Ramsey
brief architectural description of the property: This report contains
a brief architectural description of the property prepared by Emily D.
of why and in what ways the property meets the criteria for
designation as set forth in N.C.G.S 160A-400.5:
significance in terms of its history, architecture, and/or cultural
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission
judges that the Mecklenburg County Courthouse possesses special
significance in terms of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The Commission bases its judgment on the following
Mecklenburg County Courthouse is a representation of
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s economic growth, and the development of
Charlotte as a regional textile hub and the largest city in North
Mecklenburg County Courthouse, erected in 1928 after a fierce battle
between the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, is a tangible
reminder of the separation between the urban community in Charlotte and
Mecklenburg County’s surrounding rural farming communities during the
early twentieth century.
Mecklenburg County Courthouse was designed by noted Charlotte architect
Louis H. Asbury.
Neoclassical design of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, a popular choice
for public buildings during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, served as a fitting symbol of government authority, civic pride
and cultural progress in center city Charlotte.
Mecklenburg County Courthouse, along with its neighbor, C. C. Hook’s
City Hall building, is among the last of center city Charlotte’s
historic public buildings and retains almost all of its original exterior
of design, setting, workmanship, materials, feeling, and/or
The Committee judges that the architectural description
prepared by Emily D. Ramsey indicates that the Mecklenburg County
Courthouse meets this criterion.
Valorem Tax Appraisal: The
Commission is aware that designation would
the owner to apply for an automatic deferral of 50% of the Ad Valorem taxes on all or any portion of the property which
becomes a designated “historic landmark.”
The current estimated value of the building is $6,241,150.
The total estimated value of the 7.072 acres (which also houses two
other government buildings, including the recently completed new
courthouse and jail) is 9,241,690.
of Preparation of this Report:
May 22, 2001
Emily D. Ramsey
745 Georgia Trail
Mecklenburg County Courthouse
East Trade Street
The Mecklenburg County Courthouse, erected in
1928, is a structure that possesses local historic significance as a
reflection of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s tremendous economic and physical
growth during the New South era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries while serving as a tangible reminder of the physical and
ideological separations that existed between the urban community in
Charlotte and the rural farming communities that surrounded the city.
By the 1920s, Charlotte had emerged as the center of a large and
profitable textile region that stretched over a large portion of the
South, while building “a diversified economic base” that included
“banking, power generation and wholesaling.”1
The corresponding boom in population that followed gave Charlotte
the edge over other Carolina cities, and in 1910 Charlotte overtook
Wilmington to become the largest city in North Carolina.
By the early 1920s, Charlotte citizens began a campaign for a new
courthouse and city hall to meet the growing demands of city and county
government and to reflect Charlotte’s new status.
Although the city of Charlotte was developing
economically, commercially and culturally into one of the most important
urban centers in the Carolinas, the rest of Mecklenburg County remained
largely rural, dotted by small farming communities that resisted the
changes occurring in Charlotte – changes that heralded the county’s
shift from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing and commercial economy. The controversy over a proposed new courthouse and city hall
complex in the 1920s, which ultimately resulted in the construction of
C.C. Hook’s City Hall Building and a separate Mecklenburg County
Courthouse, brought the tensions between Charlotte’s urban population
and the county’s rural communities to the surface in heated public
debate, and highlighted the ideological and practical divisions that
separated Charlotteans from area farmers.
Architecturally, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse is
significant as a well-preserved example of the Neoclassical style of
architecture, a popular choice for public buildings in the late-nineteenth
and early twentieth century. The
building was designed by regionally important architect Louis H. Asbury,
whose works include the H. M. McAden House and the Myers Park United
Methodist Church in Myers Park, the Rudolph Scott House in Dilworth, and
the William L. Bruns House in Elizabeth, among many others.
Asbury’s design of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, with its
imposing rows of Corinthian columns and pilasters supporting a massive
classical entablature, was a fitting illustration of
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s recent progress and a powerful symbol of
governmental authority. The
courthouse, along with its neighboring public edifice, C. C. Hook’s City
Hall building, remains an integral part of Charlotte’s center city built
environment and one of the few public buildings remaining from the
city’s 1920s building boom.
The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century proved to be a time
of tremendous growth and development for Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Charlotte, a rising star among New South cities, had become, by the
early 1920s, the center of a large textile region that stretched from
Georgia through South Carolina and west through Tennessee. Unlike many textile centers, however, Charlotte had also
fostered a diverse economic foundation that included banking, wholesaling,
and power generation as well as textile manufacturing.
The city was attracting new businesses and residents at such as
rapid rate that, by 1910, it had surpassed Wilmington in population to
become the largest city in North Carolina.
This distinction served to highlight Charlotte’s progress during
the New South era. Charlotteans
responded to the economic success of the 1910s and 1920s by beginning a
building boom that would last until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the
subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s.
“Large portions of Charlotte,” writes historian Thomas Hanchett,
“date from this period of prosperity” – Charlotte’s center city
landscape in particular benefited from the economic boom and newly
attracted businesses. A slew of new buildings rose along Tryon Street, including
the ten–story Hotel Charlotte and the sixteen-story Johnson Building in
1924, topped by the twenty-story First National Bank tower in 1926.
The Wilder Building, also erected in 1926, was followed by the
opening of a branch of the Federal Reserve in 1927.
The following year, Charlotte expanded its boundaries by almost
twenty square miles.
In the midst of such frenzied construction and
expansion, a local government building controversy raged.
The debate centered around a proposal, first suggested by The
Charlotte Observer and taken up by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce
in 1922, to erect a single public building that would serve as
Charlotte’s city hall and the county courthouse, thus taking the place
of the former City Hall at 5th and N. Tryon Streets and the
existing Mecklenburg County Courthouse building at the corner of 3rd
Street and South Tryon. The
concept of a City-County Municipal building appealed to many Charlotteans,
who took the view of prominent local attorney D. E. Henderson,
proclaiming, “ . . . we are acting for the city of Charlotte and . . .
for the county of Mecklenburg. That
which is good for one is good for both.”2
The county population, consisting largely of farmers and rural
workers, felt very differently. Supported by the Charlotte Mayor and the City Council, who
lead the minority of the city’s dissenting vote, they succeeded in
defeating the proposition by a two-to-one margin.
Although supporters of the proposition were enraged that the vote
was decided by those who would rather spend the day “picking cow ticks
and boll weevils,” they were soon placated by the city’s rapid
advancement of plans for a new City Hall.3
The building, designed by prominent local architect C. C. Hook, was
completed in 1923. With the
City Council now housed in a fine, spacious structure on East Trade
Street, the Board of County Commissioner felt the pressure to upgrade
their facilities intensify.
The 1925 debate over the county courthouse reflected,
as the proposition of a City-County Municipal building had just two years
before, the differences that existed between the rural citizens of
Mecklenburg County and the city dwellers in Charlotte.
Proponents of a new courthouse building, led by prominent
Charlotteans who saw the courthouse as a symbol of the city’s progress
and development in the New South era, insisted that the new structure be
placed next to the City Hall building on Trade Street, thus creating a
single governmental complex. Opponents,
largely represented by Mecklenburg’s small farming communities, insisted
that the existing courthouse building on South Tryon Street could be
adequately expanded, and that the logical place for the Mecklenburg County
Courthouse was Tryon Street, the “all-time center of the City,” where
all but one of the previous courthouses had stood.4
Supporters and opponents of the new courthouse building and its
proposed East Trade Street location voiced their arguments at two separate
public hearings. On November
30, 1925, the Board of County Commissioners listened to speeches decrying
the proposed new courthouse. John
P. Hunter, magistrate for the Mallard Creek Township, voiced the concerns
of Mecklenburg’s “country people.”
The county’s rural population, Hunter argued, consisting of
farmers who rarely ventured into the city and who relied on the familiar
Tryon Street location, would never be able find the new courthouse if it
were placed on East Trade Street, far from the center-city square.
If the Board insisted on pursuing the new location, Hunter
declared, officials would have to “place a big sign at the square
showing the rural people how to reach it.”5
Mecklenburg County’s farming communities found an
unlikely ally in the lawyers of Charlotte.
A majority of the city’s lawyers also opposed the new courthouse
– the proposed East Trade Street location would prove to be a major
inconvenience for attorneys, most of whom worked out of the Lawyers
Building (itself less than twenty years old) on South Tryon Street.
Several lawyers, including W. C. Dowd, Sr. and A. R. Justice, spoke
out against the new courthouse during the hearing, insisting that the
existing courthouse could “provide enough space for adequate facilities
for one thousand years.”6
Five days later, on December 5, 1925, proponents of
the new courthouse turned out in record numbers (thanks in large part to
the efforts of the Charlotte Woman’s Club) to advance the position of
many of Charlotte’s leading New South citizens, who saw the courthouse
as a symbol of the city’s recent progress and a reflection of its new
status as the largest city in the state.
Judge Wade W. Williams asserted that the County Commissioners had
an obligation to follow “the urge and surge of present day progress and
development” by building a new courthouse.
The Charlotte Woman’s Club argued that the new courthouse
building would benefit both city and county citizens by providing space
for local organization meetings, agricultural workshops, and a produce
market. All at the hearing
maintained that the courthouse was a long overdue addition to the city
landscape, and would be “in keeping with the dignity of the County.”7
In the end, the new courthouse’s urban supporters
proved more convincing than its rural opponents. On December 7, 1925, the Board of County Commissioners voted
unanimously to construct a new courthouse on East Trade Street.
As with the new City Hall, the courthouse project, once decided,
moved forward quickly. Within
a month of the final vote, the Board commissioned Charlotte-native
architect Louis H. Asbury to design the building. Asbury’s plans for the building were approved by the Board
in May of 1926, and Charlotte-based contractor J. J. McDevitt Company was
awarded the general construction contract in June.
The $1,250,000 Neoclassical courthouse building was completed by
January of 1928, and formally and extravagantly dedicated on March 10 of
that year. County officials
and members of the Board of County Commissioners greeted curious citizens,
including many one-time opponents of the new building, as they toured the
courthouses, offices, meeting rooms, and the rooftop jail, which The
Charlotte Observer reported was “the most popular part of the
courthouse,” which “every caller was anxious to visit.”8
Asbury’s Mecklenburg County Courthouse served as
the main courthouse building until 1977, when a new courthouse building,
designed by Charlotte architect Harry Wolf, was constructed at 800 East 4th
Street.9 During the 1970s and
1980s, the area bordered by 3rd and East Trade Streets became a
center for government and court buildings, including the 1989 14-story
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, a civil courts building, a
criminal courts building, and an underground intake center (now the
Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office) adjacent to the Mecklenburg County
Jail at 801 East 4th Street.
In the late 1980s the area was officially named the Mecklenburg
County Courthouse Complex – the 1928 Mecklenburg County Courthouse
Building, renamed the Mecklenburg County Courthouse Annex in 1977, once
again became the official Mecklenburg County Courthouse building.10 The
1928 Mecklenburg County Courthouse continues to serve as offices for
Mecklenburg County but not for the courts.
Architectural Description and Contextual Statement
The Mecklenburg County Courthouse is locally significant as an
excellently preserved example of the Neoclassical style of architecture
and as a representation of the changing styles of architecture in the
early twentieth century “The
1900s and 1910s,” Thomas Hanchett states, “saw a revolution in
architectural taste” in Charlotte and across the United States.
The Victorian aesthetic, with its “complex decoration, eclectic
combinations, colors, shapes, and historical motifs,” was overshadowed
by a resurgence in the clean lines and simple forms of the Colonial
Revival, the Bungalow, and the Neoclassical styles.11
The Neoclassical style became particularly popular for government,
commercial and institutional buildings.
It provided a clean break from the lighthearted Victorian style,
while still conforming to the fundamentally conservative “political,
social, and economic thinking of Charlotte’s business elite.”12
During the early 1900s, professional architects,
attracted by the city’s wealth and its citizen’s eagerness to build in
the new styles, began bringing their firms to Charlotte for the first
time. Louis H. Asbury was one
such architect. A
Charlotte-native, Asbury received formal degrees from both Duke University
and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
After graduation, he traveled abroad for over a year, studying
European architectural masterpieces and deriving first-hand experience
with classical architectural styles.
When he returned to Charlotte in the 1910s to set up his first
practice, Asbury arrived with the distinction of being one of the first
formally trained architects in North Carolina and the first North Carolina
member of the American Institute of Architects - he quickly became a
well-known name as a residential, commercial, and civic architect with a
diverse array of influences and fluent in a variety of architectural
styles.13 By the time the
Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners began their search for an
architect to design the new courthouse at East Trade Street, Louis Asbury
had designed the several houses in Myers Park, Dilworth, and Elizabeth, as
well as the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church and the Morgan School in the Cherry
Neighborhood. In 1926, the
Board of Commissioners awarded the contract for the new courthouse
building to Asbury.
Louis Asbury designed the Mecklenburg County
Courthouse in the Neoclassical Style – a uniquely American style using
the classical elements from the baroque Beaux-Arts style distilled to
their most basic essence. The
clean lines, simple ornamentation, and timeless beauty of Neoclassical
architecture made it a popular choice for public and civic buildings in
the early decades of the twentieth century, and Asbury’s decision to
build the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in the Neoclassical style was a
logical one. Several of
Charlotte’s most impressive public buildings, such as the Charlotte Post
Office (now the Charles R. Jonas Federal Building) on West Trade Street,
built in 1917 and expanded in 1934, and the Johnston Building, the
Charlotte National Bank, the First National Bank, and Hotel Charlotte -
all of which were built in
the flurry of building activity that characterized the 1920s in
center-city Charlotte – utilized the Neoclassical style.14
The Mecklenburg County Courthouse is an imposing
three-story, rectangular limestone building, topped with a recessed
structure that served as the county’s jailhouse until the 1960s and
supported by a foundation fashioned from locally quarried granite. The building is set on a large, manicured plot of land,
fronted by mature gingko and Southern magnolia trees. The façade of the
building, facing East Trade Street, is dominated by a shallow recessed
portico supported by ten massive fluted Corinthian columns and accessed by
a broad granite stairway that spans the entire length of the portico. The
façade features regularly punctuated fenestration – the third floor
windows are original arched multi-paned windows, while the smaller, more
modest openings on the first floor, second floor, and basement level seem
to be modern replacements. An
elaborate Corinthian entablature, featuring a delicate dentil mold, egg
and dart detailing and modillion brackets, encircles the entire top
perimeter of the building and is topped with a recessed balustrade
designed to mask equipment and ductwork housed on the rooftop.
Three pairs of original paneled bronze doors, set in stone encased
openings spaced evenly under the façade’s central portico, form the
Courthouse’s impressive main entranceway.
Egg and dart molding along the edge of the doors mimics the
detailing in the building’s entablature.
A transom window with original patterned cast iron grills and large
stone pediment crown each of the main doorways.
The building’s side elevations feature secondary entrances
sheltered by flat roof porches supported by Doric columns – the original
glass and bronze doors and transom windows (which mimic the main entrance)
remain on both elevations. The
side elevations also feature original arched windows similar to those on
the facade. The rear elevation, facing 4th Street, was designed
by Asbury to be nearly as monumental and impressive as the Courthouse’s
façade. A slightly smaller
portico, supported by four Corinthian columns, forms the center of the
rear elevation. Large bays
flanking the portico feature Corinthian pilasters alternating with
vertical rows of windows. Simple,
relatively unadorned wings project from each end of the rear elevation.
The interior of the building has been remodeled
extensively over the past sixty years - the original courtrooms have been
transformed into various offices, and the entire east wing on the first
floor was given over in the early 1990s
to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Law and Government Library. Although the interior retains most of its original polished
marble floors and high marble wainscoting, as well as the original wrought
iron and marble staircases, the interior as it stands now bears little
resemblance to Asbury’s plan. The courthouse’s once spacious
courtrooms, which formed the heart of Asbury’s design, have been
partitioned and extensively remodeled into small office spaces.
The original plaster ceilings have been covered with dropped
ceilings, which are themselves partially concealed by masses of large
ductwork, painted white. The
first floor east wing and west wings are partitioned by clear glass walls
and clear glass doors, and thus are still clearly visible from the middle
of the hall. The second and
third floors have been extensively altered to accommodate the Mecklenburg
County District Attorney’s office. One of the most impressive spaces inside the Courthouse, the
rooftop jail (considered at the time to be a masterful solution to the
concerns of nearby residents), is now, according to Building
Superintendent Roger Ellison, used mainly for storage.
The second story of the jail space is the only well-preserved area
of the building.
Despite the fact that much of the decorative
marble-work and details such as the wrought iron staircase balustrades
remain, the interior of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse as a whole has
lost much of its original integrity, and should not be considered for
Within the past two decades, many of center city
Charlotte’s most impressive historic structures have been demolished.
Little evidence remains of the building boom that transformed the
city’s built environment in the 1920s. Such structures as the Johnson
Building and Hotel Charlotte no longer grace the Charlotte skyline.
The Mecklenburg County Courthouse, along with its neighbor, C. C.
Hook’s City Hall Building, remain as an integral part of the center city
landscape and a tangible reminder of Charlotte’s progress and
development as a leading New South city in the early 1920s.
Thomas Hanchett, “The Growth of Charlotte: A History”
(Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission), p. 15.
“Report on the Mecklenburg County Courthouse”
(Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1977), p. 2.
The Charlotte Observer, July 29, 1923, p.1.
“Report on the Mecklenburg County Courthouse,” p. 4.
Minute Book 1916-1925 of the Board of County Commissioner of
Mecklenburg County, p. 349-544.
“Report on the Mecklenburg County Courthouse,” p. 4.
The Charlotte Observer, March 11, 1928, p.1.
Lew Powell, “The Courthouse That Sis Built:
All Consuming Renovation Plans Strain Committee,”
The Charlotte Observer, March 24, 1988, p. 6C.
Gary Wright, “The Courthouse? You Can’t Miss Them,” The
Charlotte Observer, May 24, 1988, p. 1C.
11. Thomas Hanchett, “Charlotte
Architecture: Design Through Time,” (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic
Dr. Dan L. Morrill, “Survey and Research Report for the Textile Mill
Supply Company Building” (Charlotte-Mecklenburg
Historic Landmarks Commission, 1998), p.5.
Jack A. Boyte, “Architectural Description of the Mecklenburg County
Courthouse” (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission,
1977), p. 2.
Hanchett, “The Growth of Charlotte,” p. 15-16.