Opinion: 5 reasons Charlotte needs to save its old buildings—now

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Courtesy of The Charlotte Museum of History
Mecklenburg County's oldest home, the 1774 Rock House, is preserved and interpreted by The Charlotte Museum of History.

Ever driven around Charlotte and thought: “this city has no history”? As president of The Charlotte Museum of History, I hear that a lot. Usually, it’s a lament. People want our city to have an authentic identity, a soul, and most people believe historic buildings are essential to that soul.

It’s true that we’ve torn down a lot of old places to make way for the new. Some of those places were notable, like the Double Door Inn and the entire Brooklyn neighborhood. Others were special only to those who knew them. Taken as a whole, there’s a sense that we’ve lost an important part of us. But take heart, Charlotte. We’ve still got some history worth saving.

This summer, The Charlotte Museum of History is bringing back the Charlotte Historic Preservation Awards to recognize people who are saving our historic buildings by renovating, restoring and reusing them.

Here are five reasons you should care:

(1) Cheap, old buildings nurture artists and entrepreneurs.

CharlotteFive archives

With lower rents, old spaces give entrepreneurs and artists the room they need to thrive. It’s why places like NoDa, Plaza Midwood and South End have nurtured so much of Charlotte’s art and music scene over the years.

It’s why small businesses and mom-and-pop restaurants have flourished in these neighborhoods. As rents have gone up, these businesses have had to look for other places to call home.

CharlotteFive archives
John’s Country Kitchen closed in 2015, citing increased rent and competition among newer, hipper bars and restaurants.

(2) Historic buildings happen every day.

The technical definition of a historic building is something that’s 50 years or older. That means buildings that went up in Charlotte in the 70s are now becoming “historic.” No one’s arguing that all these buildings should be preserved. But many buildings built in the mid-20th century deserve our attention, especially homes, because they help create the unique cultural landscape of our city.

That’s why each year The Charlotte Museum of History organizes the Mad About Modern home tour. The tour highlights the architecture that makes midcentury modern buildings so special. These homes provide a unique window into Charlotte’s past, and they give our cityscape a beautiful diversity of design. When people restore these homes and live in them, they keep that past alive.  

Photo by Dustin Peck/Courtesy of The Charlotte Museum of History
A home from the 2018 Mad About Modern home tour. The 2019 Mad About Modern tour is scheduled for Sept. 28.

(3) Saving old buildings helps us tell Charlotte’s story.

We’re a city often known for our growth and for Uptown’s shiny, new high-rises. These are no doubt an important part of our identity as a can-do, New South city. As we embrace that image, though, we should not forget our past. It’s a past that includes being a hotbed of revolutionary thought before and during the Revolutionary War. It also includes Charlotte’s civil rights struggles. In neighborhoods like McCrorey Heights, the homes of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Reginald Hawkins still stand as a testament to their determination to achieve a more just and equitable society.

We need to remember this history now more than ever, as our city works to provide more equality of opportunity to all of its residents. As our in-town neighborhoods gentrify, will we have the collective will as a city to protect these pieces of our history? Last month, the Excelsior Club made the list of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. I am heartened by the recent news that a new owner may preserve the club, which was a hub for African-American society during segregation and an important part of our city’s cultural fabric. But in the future, I hope we can create plans and processes to protect our historically significant buildings before things get so dire.

Charlotte Observer file photo

(4) Old buildings give our city character and soul.

Ask anybody who wants to open a brewery, shop or tech company HQ in Charlotte, and they’ll tell you that restored historic buildings are at the top of their list. These buildings are often near Uptown and transit, in areas like South End. And they’re just cool. People love to live and work in cities with old buildings, and tourists love to visit. When we adapt and reuse our old buildings, Charlotte becomes more attractive, more authentic and more economically vibrant.

Photo by Alex Cason
Camp North End is an adaptive reuse project.

(5) There’s still plenty to save, if we act now.

Charlotte still has plenty of buildings worth saving. Mecklenburg County had 106 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places at the beginning of 2018, and we have more than 300 local historic landmarks designated by the city and county. Charlotte also has six historic districts —Dilworth, Fourth Ward, Hermitage Court, Plaza Midwood, Wesley Heights and Wilmore — that the city recognizes as being important to our history, architecture and character.

The city has special requirements for development and renovation in these areas to ensure the character of the neighborhoods is protected. And Charlotte has many other old buildings without a formal historic designation that represent our collective history.

Alex Cason Photography
Plaza Midwood Historic District

For all these reasons, now more than ever, we need to preserve Charlotte’s historic buildings and neighborhoods. It’s not too late, yet.

Nominations for the 2019 Preservation Awards are open through July 15. More information here.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Cole Memorial United Methodist Church closed last year due to lack of finances. It is about 129 years old. The original building is inside of the part that was built in the 30’s and it has a very awesome story about how it came about. It is owned by the United Methodist Conference and is in desperate need of having someone take it on and turn it into a youth center or something.

  2. Yes old structures say a lot regarding our history. In the early eighties my late wife Gail and I were living in Georgia and had acquired a liking for older houses and looking to buy and restore an early home to live in. As luck and fate would have it we stumbled upon the log constructed Sam Wilson home located on Sam Wilson rd. Go figure. Turns out it was abandoned but deteriorating rapidly but all the “good stuff” still intact. Being young and bulletproof we purchased the structures and marked and disassembled and trucked everything to Newnan Ga. 275 miles away only to reassemble it and reside here today with fond memories of me growing up in Charlotte and being able to proudly say that we have “old Mecklenburg” here with us daily.

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