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Cole Manufacturing Complex

Central Ave.
1911

 


Dr. William H. Huffman
June, 1985

The Cole Manufacturing Company complex off Central Avenue in Charlotte was built in 1911 according to plans drawn by one of the city's best architects, C. C. Hook. From its struggling early days starting in 1900, the company grew to be one of the leading manufacturers of agricultural equipment in the world, and its manufacturing facility represents the spirit of entrepreneurship that was an integral part of New South industrialization in the region. The Cole Manufacturing Company was first incorporated on October 12, 1900,

to manufacture and sell combination planters, cotton planters, corn planters, pea planters, and seed planters of other kinds...; to manufacture agricultural implements, appliances and conveniences; to conduct a foundry for making iron and brass castings and castings of all kinds...

Subscribers of the original stock included some of the leading mercantile names in the city at the time: textile mill owners and merchants W. B. Holt, J. S. Spencer, B. D. Heath, John M. Scott, and Henry McAden; hardware merchant J. H. Weddington; and the Belk Brothers concern. Also included at the head of the list were the four Cole brothers, E.A.,E.M.,E.W.,and B.O.Cole. 1

The Coles were born in Chatham County, and later brought up on a farm in Moore County near Carthage. It was there that the brothers, particularly B. M. Cole, began to make seed planters for neighbors about 1885, and thus began a small business. 2 On July 17, 1900, the Cole brothers obtained a U. S. patent for "Coles' Combination Planter," and it must have been about that time that they came to Charlotte to look for investors to back the manufacturing of their invention. 3 In the original incorporation documents, the brothers transferred their joint rights to the patent, patterns and sample planters to the company in return for thirty shares each of common stock, which had a par value of fifty dollars. 4

Cole Manufacturing began operations in a wood building just to the north of where the Seaboard Air Line Railroad tracks crossed Central Avenue, and for the first few years struggled with the difficulties of lack of capital and marketing an unknown and novel product. 5 Within six years, however, business had improved to the point where the company bought a little over fourteen acres from the Oakhurst Land Company (the developer of that part of Elizabeth, headed by textile magnate B. D. Heath, one of the original Cole investors) on the south side of Central Avenue with the idea of expanding into newer, larger and modern facilities. 6 about 1910, Charlotte architect C. C. Hook was retained to design the new plant. 7

Charles Christian Hook (1864- 1938), was one of the city's finest architects. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, he taught in the public schools in Charlotte for three years before beginning his architectural career as a designer of houses for the new streetcar suburb of Dilworth in 1893. From time to time he was in partnership with others in the City (Frank Sawyer, 1902- 1907; Willard Rogers, 1912-1916; and with his son, W. W. Hook, 1924- 1938). Hook's work included some of the city's important landmarks, such as the old Charlotte City Hall, the Charlotte Women's Club, the J. B. Duke mansion on Hermitage Road, the Belk mansion on Hawthorne Lane, and the Belk Trade Street facade of 1927. Among his outstanding state-wide credits are the west wing of the state capital in Raleigh, the Richmond County Courthouse, Phillips Hall in Chapel Hill and the State Hospital in Morganton. 8

The new manufacturing complex was completed in 1911, and the company now had the capacity and equipment to compete on a wider scale. The new facility had separate buildings for: a foundry; grinding shed; assembly/warehouse; assembly/machine shop; woodworking/print room and a bath room for employees. 9 Under the direction of Eugene Macon Cole (1865- 1944), the president, and Eusebius A. Cole (1870- 1943), the secretary-treasurer, the business achieved many years of success. 10 According to a government official, E. M. Cole "did more in the improvement of machinery for planting seed than had been done in all preceding centuries." 11 By the 1940s, it was estimated that three-fourths of the cotton, corn, and peanut crops in the South were planted with Cole machines, 12 and by 1961, over two million seed planters, fertilizer spreaders and grain drills had been manufactured and delivered in this country and abroad. 13

In 1953, E. A. Cole's daughter, Jean Cole Hatcher, took over as head of the company until her retirement in 1972. At her death in 1980, Cole manufacturing was described in a newspaper article as "one of the world's largest manufacturers of seed planting, fertilizing and farm machine equipment." 14 Shortly thereafter, however,the company went into a serious decline with the agriculture industry in general, and it quit business in November, 1982. 15 What remains of the Cole Manufacturing Company's 1911 complex, however, is the most interesting group of manufacturing buildings that are not related to textiles in the city, and the site of one of the state' most successful enterprises of New South industrialization.

 


NOTES

1 Mecklenburg County Record of Corporations, Book 1, p. 191.

2 Charlotte Observer, June 27, 1944, Section 2, p. 1.

3 See note 1.

4 Ibid.

5 See note 2.

6 Mecklenburg County Deed Book 216, p. 30, 6 September 1906.

7 Information supplied by Thomas Hanchett. Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission.

8 Information on file at Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission.

9 Sanborn Insurance Map. 1911, p. 77.

10 See note 2; Charlotte Observer. February 10, 1943. Section 2, p. 1.

11 See note 2.

12 Ibid.

13 LeGette Blythe and Charles Brockman, Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (Charlotte: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1961), p. 275.

14 Charlotte News. July 2, 1980, p. 2B.

15 See note 7.

 

 

 

Architectural Description

 

By Thomas W. Hanchett

The Cole Manufacturing Company is a well-preserved early example of non-textile-related industrial architecture in Charlotte. The complex was designed by leading Charlotte architect C. C. Hook for a successful maker of agricultural implements, and it opened about 1910. The buildings are noteworthy for their handsome corbeled brick exteriors and for their concrete structural systems, a very early use of that new material. Today five buildings of Hook's original six-building complex may still be seen.

 


The complex, as viewed in 1946

As one enters the Cole property along the Seaboard Railway tracks off of Central Avenue, the first building to be seen is the largest one of the complex. This is the Assembly/Warehouse Building. It is a long rectangle with its long side parallel to the railroad. The structure is two stories tall, five bays wide, and nineteen bays long. Each bay consists of a two-story round-arched window opening with heavy corbeling outlining the arch, and an oversized stone keystone accenting the top. The architect used a rhythmic alternation of opening sizes to add variety to the exterior: on the long sides of the building every fifth arch is a little taller and wider than its neighbors, while on the short sides the middle one of the openings gets the same treatment. Above each of the oversized arches the wall of the building extends upward beyond the roof line to form a small parapet decorated with a raised panel of corbeled brick. Corbeled brick also forms a belt course around the building at the second-story level and at the base of the window openings. Today the Assembly/Warehouse Building exterior remains in good original condition except for the bricking-in of most of the window openings, and the addition of a wooden-roofed loading shed on the west side facing the railroad.

Inside the Assembly/Warehouse Building, the front bays of the first floor are occupied by the former Cole Manufacturing offices. This warren of small rooms is finished in imitation-wood paneling that appears to date from the 1950s or 1960s. To the rear of the office area is the open work floor. It is simply a single large space broken only by two rows of columns, and by a concrete-block elevator enclosure that does not look to be original to the building. The concrete columns are square and have no bases or capitals. They support transverse beams that hold the concrete second floor. Wooden mold board marks are visible on all concrete surfaces. At the southeast corner of the space two sets of wide cast-metal wheels hang from the ceiling, a last remnant of the belt drives that brought power from the nearby engine house to the machinery here. A concrete ramp, now partially destroyed, leads from the center of the east side of the building up to the second floor. Upstairs there is a single workspace with more columns. The concrete roof has one small skylight over the ramp.

Immediately east of the Assembly/Warehouse Building is the similar but slightly smaller Machine Shop/Assembly Building. Also two stories tall, it five bays wide and eleven bays long, and is set at right angles to the first structure. Here the architect used the same "vocabulary" of arches and corbeling, but varied the rhythm so that the long sides of the building have a tall central opening flanked five rather than four normal openings. Windows have been bricked in and a large metal-framed loading shed nearly as large as the original building has been added to the south side. Inside there is a single large workspace on each floor, with a central enclosed elevator of recent vintage and a wooden stairway. The structural system with its concrete floors and ceilings supported by concrete beams and two rows of concrete columns is identical to the main building.

The square, hip-roofed foundry building that once stood south of the Machine Shop/Assembly Building has been demolished, though its concrete floor may still be seem. East of it the one-story Grinding Building survives in a somewhat altered form. It was originally nine bays long and only one bay deep under its hip roof. The long side featured three arched doorways alternated with a total of six smaller arched window openings. Heavy corbeling forms three belt courses; one above the window line, one at the bases of the arches, and one at the bottoms of the windows. Today the building has lost its northern-most bay. Two of the entrances have been widened, harming the original brickwork, and all other openings have been bricked in. Inside the building is divided into one small room and one big room by a brick bearing wall, as shown on early maps. The roof is not concrete but rather a wooden truss. Inside the small room a single cast-iron pulley wheel hangs from the ceiling beams.

Across the foundry floor is what remains of the original Boiler House. This one-story, hip-roofed building stands immediately south of the main Assembly/Warehouse Building. The Boiler House has lost its tall brick smokestack and portions of its corbeled arched walls have been replaced with less-ornate new brickwork. Portions of its corbeled belt course have crumbled off the walls. A new shower room addition joins it to the main Assembly/Warehouse.

The fifth of the surviving original buildings has been even more altered. The Woodworking Shop stood to the north of the Machine Shop/Assembly Building. It was a one-story structure with arched windows and corbeled red brick, and a concrete skeleton just like the main buildings. Today the structure is part of a larger metal and brick building. The concrete frame and roof remain, but all the walls except the east one have been removed.

In addition to the brick and metal buildings that have incorporated the old Woodworking Shop, two other structures have been added to the complex over the years. To the rear of the Woodworking Shop is a one-story Paint Shop of corrugated metal. Near it, east of the Machine Shop/Assembly Building and joined to the Grinding Building, is a large one-story structure with brick walls and a flat roof.

Today the Cole Manufacturing buildings still present a strong aura of the industrial past, despite the changes since 1910. Their heavily corbeled red brick walls recall ancient Roman design, and as one winds through the narrow spaces between the buildings one feels like one is walking through some bygone city.