“Fisher Park was the first Greensboro suburb planned and developed around a park and one of the earliest park suburbs in North Carolina.” – Marvin Brown, 1991
Captain Basil John Fisher was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1851. Little is known of his life before his military career. He was a member of the 5th Battalion Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own), an esteemed regiment of the British Army. The brigade took part in the Battle of Ali Masjid in November 1878 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Mahsud Waziri expedition in 1881, and the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. It is not known if Captain Fisher participated in active battle in those campaigns. In 1876 he married Isabella Anne Hall, and in June 1887 he resigned his commission.
Before he resigned, Fisher (image, right) came to North Carolina in 1886 with two former military companions, Captain Charles Slingby Wainman and Charles St. George Winn, to manage a gold mine they acquired near Asheboro. They named it the Australian Gold Mine. Captain Fisher maintained a presence both in Asheboro and Greensboro. He was rumored to be wildly wealthy; locals estimated his annual income to be $75,000. With his wealth, Captain Fisher built a brick storefront in Greensboro on South Elm Street and in 1887 purchased a large undeveloped parcel of land, formerly owned by Jesse Harper Lindsay, north of the village. This land would later become Fisher Park.
The former Lindsay property remained undeveloped into the late nineteenth century for two reasons. First, unlike most of Greensboro, it was swampy, being crossed by a shallow valley containing a stream. With other high prospects around the village on which to build, construction in the Lindsay tract was avoided. Secondly, the tract had poor access. The village of Greensboro was centered along Elm Street. The grand brick home of Judge John Alexander Gilmer stood at the northern end of Elm, where Bellemeade Street crosses today. To the east of the tract was Church Street, an old road connecting Greensboro with Buffalo Presbyterian Church to the north. To the west was Green Hill Cemetery, opened in 1877 and bordered by the road to the Old Guilford Courthouse Battleground. By 1890, the westernmost sections alongside Green Hill Cemetery were developed by Southern Real Estate. Wharton Street and Keogh Street (now Eugene Street) resulted from this early development.
Many of the neighborhood’s oldest buildings stand along these streets. The oldest house in Fisher Park is likely the Greek Revival Cummings House at 908 Cherry Street. It probably dates to the 1850s and was oriented toward Church Street along with the Gothic Dixon-Leftwich-Murphy House (1873)(image, right) and the Queen Anne John Dick House (c. 1893). To the west, the Gothic Gatekeeper’s Cottage (1888) was oriented toward Green Hill cemetery.
Keogh Street was extended north in 1896 to the Cone Finishing Mill and iron furnace. That industrial area was centered on the present-day intersection of West Wendover and Parkway avenues. In 1897, John Hobbs erected a Queen Anne-style house with a cross-gable roof and cut-away front bay window on Keogh Street. The house was built by J.N. Hanner, a well-known contractor, and it remains standing today at 1006 Eugene Street.
With rapid growth in Greensboro in the 1890s precipitated by cotton, tobacco, and banking, the village needed room to expand, and the southernmost portion of Fisher’s property was high land. In addition, Judge Gilmer moved his house aside to allow North Elm Street to advance north through the center of the tract, allowing Captain Fisher to engage in real estate development. Progress was slow, but lots sold along North Elm Street, Lindsay Street (named for Jesse Lindsay), Smith Street (named for Dr. Jacob Henry Smith, minister of First Presbyterian Church), and Fisher Avenue (named for Captain Fisher). Land north of Fisher Avenue remained undeveloped.
As early as 1900, residents began complaining about the accumulation of garbage in Fisher’s woods, The complaints must have spurred Captain Fisher to action, as he announced that year, “This property has for some time been used as a dumping ground for the refuse of the town, and as soon as the underbrush is sufficiently cleared away to permit, this will all be carted away, streets opened and graded, and the grounds put in first class condition. The tract contains 105 acres and will be divided into 350 lots.”
With the announcement of buildable lots came the first reference to a park. Creation of the park was brokered by E.P. Wharton. Wharton was a farmer, developer, public servant, banker, civic booster, and namesake of Wharton Street. “It is Mr. Wharton’s intention,” stated The Greensboro Telegram newspaper, “to make a public park of about fifteen acres that will be a credit to Greensboro. There is no doubt, Mr. Wharton thinks, but that Mr. Fisher will give his hearty co-operation to this part of the plan. Such a park as the proposed one, in an easily accessible part of the city, lighted by electric lights, and with other improvements, will go far towards increasing the attractiveness of Greensboro, already one of the foremost towns in the State.”
On February 27, 1901, Wharton represented Captain Fisher before the city Board of Alderman to offer the donation of 14 acres of land for use as a public park. The proposition was accepted on the condition “of certain work done by the party of the second part (City of Greensboro) in building a drive-way around the park.” Captain Fisher was already embroiled in a legal case against the city during this period, and he was spending an increasing amount of time in New York, where he died in 1903. The Greensboro Patriot published his obituary, which explained, “Capt. Fisher was an eccentric character and possessed peculiar notions of his own as to business and other matters. He was generally liked by those who knew him, for, under a rough exterior, he possessed a kindly heart.”
With Captain Fisher’s death, his wife, Isabella, struggled to maintain the family’s holdings, including the yet undeveloped Fisher lands. Property sales were put on hold until the estate could be settled. In the spring of 1905, Sheriff J.F. Jordan purchased privately owned land around Fisher Park along North Elm street, and with a June 7 auction, the land rush of Fisher Park began. “These lots,” Jordan said in an advertisement in The Greensboro Patriot, “are beautifully laid out, well shaded, well drained and within five minutes’ walk of the court house and post office. The city has a fine park right through the center of the estate, with excellent and beautiful driveways winding through hills and valleys like a dream.”
The first properties were sold to citizens who proposed a “colony plan” of development. The Charlotte Observer wrote in 1905. The arrangement seems to have resulted in several houses along South Park Drive and the eastern half of the neighborhood. To the west, attorney Edwin J. Justice and Milton W. Thompson, an ice and coal businessman, began grand houses in 1905 at 424 Fisher Park Circle and 617 North Elm Street, respectively. These houses represented higher income residents of the city. Both homes have been destroyed.
By the summer of 1906, development in Fisher Park continued to attract the attention of Charlotte newspapers, which reported, “This property, which a year ago was in the woods, has now twenty handsome residences, among then being the home of E.J. Justice, Z.V. Taylor, John N. Wilson, C.C. Taylor and M.W. Thompson. The principle residences are grouped a beautiful park and driveway on the east and west of Elm Street and this is fast becoming one of the choicest residence sections of the city.”
In 1907, plans were adopted to beautify the park, and events were planned. “The Civic League has finished cutting the undergrowth,” reported the Greensboro Daily Record, “and the carpenters are now preparing to construct benches and bridges throughout Fisher Park.” The League orchestrated a “two day’s lawn fete, carnival and out-door theatrical performance to be held in the grove at Fisher Park on two afternoons and evenings in September.” Other events planned included a May-pole dance, dances of fairies, woodland nymphs, and a double or echo chorus. In 1908 “R.C. Hood was authorized to have a pavilion constructed for Fisher Park, which, with necessary toilet rooms, is to cost about $150.”
Many properties along North Park and South Park were developed in this first surge of construction, and many examples remain. In 1908, George A. Grimsley commissioned architect Richard Gambier to design “a handsome residence” at 408 Fisher Park Circle. The same year, J.E. Latham commissioned architect W.L. Brewer to design a Prairie-style stone house at 412 Fisher Park Circle (image, right). In 1909, architect Frank Weston began construction of his own residence at 214 South Park Drive. A.A. Fisher began his gambrel home at 605 North Church the same year.
By 1910, Fisher Park was established as the most prestigious address in the city, and its streets were lined by a blend of modest and grand homes that housed Greensboro’s new white collar workers. Magnolia Court was platted in 1911 and was home to civil engineer Phillip Nelson, Dr. Parran Jarboe, insurance agent L. H. Ashley, and automobile sales rep R.M. Clapp.
The homes of Fisher Park were the scene of numerous luncheons, receptions and meetings of garden, book, and card clubs. Most residents owned cars, though since June 1902 residents had access to the streetcar that ran down the center of North Elm Street to the city center. The neighborhood was rich with children. As remembered by childhood resident Helen Schenck, “Fisher Park was an informal place for nursing babies, meeting young folks, carving names in trees, and playing on rope swings. We all loved it. Our lives centered there.”
By 1912, the city’s newspapers were filled with daily reports of star residents who were moving into the neighborhood. Changes were afoot as the Irving Park community, showcasing a country club and golf course, began to lure the city’s most elite residents to its exclusive address. Homes built in Fisher Park in the mid-teens tended to include more moderate price tags. The E. Colwell house at 108 South Park Drive, the F.P. Hobgood house at 115 North Park Drive, and the R.G. Hill house at 211 Isabel Street are all examples of mid-range homes completed in 1913.
Prosperity in the Gate City sparked a race to build ever larger and more elaborate homes. In 1913 Frank Leak announced plans to erect a $6,500 home designed by architect J.H. Hopkins at 909 North Elm Street. W.L. Carter, secretary-treasurer of Gate City Life Insurance, commissioned a $15,000 Prairie-style home at 811 North Elm in October 1915. The following spring, Charles W. Gold, treasurer of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company, announced that he would build a $15,759 home at 817 North Elm Street designed by Harry Barton. Outdoing them all, tobacco grower J.M. Galloway announced his intention to build a $30,000 house at 1007 North Elm Street, also designed by Harry Barton. Galloway later corrected himself to reveal a $60,000 price tag, and rumors floated that the actual cost was $100,000 (image “Keel”, right)! These homes spurred locals to call the stretch of North Elm Street from Fisher Park to Wendover Avenue Greensboro’s “Gold Coast.”
In March 1916, the Greensboro Daily News reported that Fisher Park resident J.E. Latham acquired 140 acres on which he planned a new development he named “Fisher Park, Extended.” The new subdivision was planned for Virginia and Carolina streets. Those blocks originally contained a mill village, named Coneville, around the Cone Finishing Mill.
The mill houses were picked up and relocated to the State Street area to make way for new housing for higher income residents (image, right). Architect Raleigh James Hughes was hired to design houses “from six to eight rooms each, and of the highest-grade construction throughout. Part of them will have granite trimming and part field stone trimmings.” In terms of architectural plans, it was promised, “they will be unique for Greensboro. Dutch Colonial and English Cottage styles being included in the plans.”
Cambridge-based landscape architect John Nolen was engaged to design the new subdivision with wide streets and planting yards. Nolan had come to the city to prepare plans for Irving Park in 1914. With this development, Latham was meeting higher expectations in Greensboro “in the work of planning for greatest possible landscape beauty in Fisher Park, Extended.”
In addition to architect-designed commissions, Latham was industrious in the use of kit homes to hasten development of his investment. Kit homes were a “ready-to-assemble” product. According to an advertisement in the Greensboro Daily News in 1920, “Every Aladdin house ordered in 1920 will be shipped quickly and completely – sufficient lath and plaster for lining the interior of the home – nails in necessary sizes and quantities – beautiful grain, perfect quality interior trim – doors of high quality material and excellent workmanship.” Aladdin provided several kit homes for Wharton and Eugene streets, as well as Bessemer Avenue, including the Brentwood at 318 Bessemer Avenue, the Colonial at 322 West Bessemer Avenue, the Shadow Lawn at 404 Bessemer Avenue, and the Venus at 1005 Wharton Street.
The Roaring Twenties were the last boom era for the neighborhood as the final remaining vacant lots were sold and grand homes erected. Architect Harry Barton designed a handsome house in 1922 for W.R. Walker at 401 West Bessemer Avenue, and merchant Harry Chandgie had a formal brick home built in 1926 at 1017 Eugene Street. The grandest home constructed in Fisher Park was Hillside, built for Ethel and Julian Price (image, right). The estate was an unusual reversal of the trend to smaller lots and modest houses. One of many grand homes in Greensboro, it illustrates the financial stature of the Gate City in the years just before the Great Depression.
As Greensboro grew and urbanized, Fisher Park gained numerous apartment buildings. Among these are the Shirley, Vance, and Fairfax apartment buildings on East Bessemer, built in 1925. The Lewis Apartment Building at 603 Simpson Street was built in 1929 from designs provided by architect Lorenzo Winslow. As an alternative to these apartment buildings, the Casa Sevilla Apartments were marketed as “Baby Grand Apartments,” tucked on Bessemer Court off Parkway Street. These free-standing bungalows, including yards and porches designed in an exotic Spanish Revival motif, were popular among newlyweds when completed in 1927.
North Elm Street features two grand apartment buildings that were built by Norfolk, Virginia, developer C.C. Pierce. His first project, at 1013 North Elm Street, was the Dolly Madison, named in honor of the Greensboro-born First Lady and completed in 1925. His success there did not lead to quick approval for his next project, which he named for Guilford County native “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a Speaker of the House as a Republican congressman from Illinois. Cannon Court saw opposition by neighbors, including former mayor Claude Kiser, who claimed an apartment house would “damage the handsomely developed property [along Elm Street].” Local ophthalmologist R.C Bernau stated, “If you permit apartment houses to be erected there, in 20 years you will have nothing but apartment houses and in 30 years you will have slums.” Construction began in 1926 (image, right).
In addition to mixed incomes, Fisher Park has been a mixed-use community. In 1919, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church revealed plans for a new church at the corner of Green and Fisher streets commissioned by Hobart Upjohn, a New York architect. The Upjohn design was used for the Parrish House, but the sanctuary was not realized until many years later to designs by Albert C. Woodroof. With his introduction to Greensboro by way of Holy Trinity, Upjohn won the commission in 1920 for the city’s synagogue on Greene Street. Funds were secured, and the congregation erected the structure in 1922. Upjohn designed a Neoclassical edifice, referenced as “Colonial,” of red brick with marble trim and a seating capacity of 350. Park Place Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was another congregation to make Fisher Park its home. The church built a temporary wood sanctuary at 823 North Elm Street. It has since been destroyed.
In 1926, members of the First Presbyterian Church announced plans for a new sanctuary, and the following year the congregation decided to relocate to the site of the homes of C.C. Hudson, C.C. Taylor, and J.R. Pitts overlooking Fisher Park. Upjohn worked with Greensboro architect Harry Barton, a church elder. According to Upjohn, “It is not a replica of any other church, although the cathedral idea is prominent. It is nearer the French Gothic style of architecture that anything else.” The sanctuary for 1,700 people was opened in October 1929 (image, right).
Commercial properties often catered to the needs of residents, including Pender’s Grocery Store at 608 North Elm, Radio Sales & Service of Greensboro at 610, and Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store at 612. Pender’s was a Norfolk, Virginia-based chain with a presence through that state and North Carolina. Piggly Wiggly was a national chain based in Memphis. Both were small stores that were closed when larger supermarkets opened nearby. Martin’s Super Service Station No. 1 at 600 North Elm catered to auto-owners.
The park space associated with Fisher Park continued to hold a beloved place in the popular consciousness of the Gate City, and its fans continued to push for its enhancement. In the spring of 1931, the Greensboro Daily News reported, “Various improvements to grounds and rustic bridges in Fisher Park both east and west of Elm Street, are to be effected under the direction of C.W. Smedley, director of public works and service, it was stated yesterday by Paul C. Lindley, park commissioner. Representatives of the Greensboro Garden Club and others interested are said to have been pushing the matter.”
Fisher Park began to enter Greensboro’s conscious as a historic place as early as 1972 when historians placed the Genesis Monument in the park west of Elm Street. The marker identified the geographic center of the county, reportedly the location initially intended for the location of Greensboro but unsuitable due to its swampy disposition.
In 1954, land along North Elm Street through the heart of the Fisher Park neighborhood was zoned for institutional use. In 1973, developer James R. Phillips demolished a house on North Park Drive, and placed a sign in front of two remaining mansions on adjacent property facing North Elm Street to promote a 40,000 square-foot office. Neighbors banded together and formed the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association to provide a unified voice for the neighborhood. “Once one institutional structure is erected, others will follow, forcing residents to eventually sell out,” said Sue Clutts of 227 North Park Drive.
In the 1970s, Greensboro was beginning to develop a sense of place based on history, instead of a place of high growth. At a public affairs forum at the YWCA, businessman Bill Craft asked, “We have the problem here that nothing ever gets old enough to be appreciated, but Fisher Park is unique. Some of the houses are at least older than World War I, and they range from pretentious to modest. Would it be feasible to zone that area as a historic area as representative, say, of the 20th century?” Virginia Zenke, then president of the North Carolina Society for the Preservation of Antiquities and founding member of Preservation Greensboro responded, “While houses in Fisher Park do not represent a specific style, such as Charleston or Williamsburg, bear in mind that they are of a period.”
By the time of the 1976 Bicentennial, Greensboro residents were growing increasing familiar, and perhaps comfortable, with the concept of historic districts. The legal tool was being used in cities around Greensboro, including Winston-Salem, Salisbury, Raleigh, and nearby Jamestown. A study commissioned by the City of Greensboro in 1977 explored the application of historic district designation in Greensboro, with an initial focus on its effectiveness in College Hill. In 1980, College Hill was recognized by the Greensboro City Council as a local historic district, and the Old Greensborough Preservation Society saw South Elm Street listed to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service. Immediately, Fisher Park residents saw an application to their neighborhood.
The Fisher Park Neighborhood Association President John R. Kernodle led the community in discussions that were sometimes tedious, especially in navigating plans to include or exclude First Presbyterian Church, Temple Emanuel, and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. In the end, all three congregations approved being included in the district as good neighbors and stewards of the past. On October 18, 1982, Fisher Park was declared a historic district by the Greensboro City Council. A decade later, in 1991, the neighborhood was listed as a National Register District in addition the local designation.
Historic preservation, community reinvestment, parking, rezoning, and social challenges remain relevant in Fisher Park today, as they do in all older, mixed-use communities. The neighborhood remains a role model in Greensboro in confronting these challenges in thoughtful and innovative ways. The community is one of several creative clusters in which doctors, attorneys, architects, educators, entrepreneurs, and artists mingle and generate a vibrancy that makes Greensboro hum. It’s diversity of housing types, property values, and zoning uses provides a dynamic that place it among the most treasured places in the city.
In 2017, several vintage homes in the Fisher Park neighborhood opened their doors to ticketholders during Preservation Greensboro Incorporated’s seventh annual Tour of Historic Homes & Gardens. The tour highlighted stunning features of early twentieth century architecture, including Craftsman architecture, two Colonial Revival designs, and a grand Tudor manor.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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