New investigations made possible by digitized media and web resources such as newspapers.com have revised the historical record of three buildings along South Elm Street. These revelations have uncovered historical narratives that have been long forgotten but now can be used to enhance more appreciation of downtown Greensboro’s historical built environment.
Much of our knowledge about South Elm Street’s most historic buildings was identified through extensive research work completed in 1979 by Ray Manieri, the head of a nonprofit advocacy organization for downtown known as the Old Greensborough Preservation Society. The Society, disbanded around 1998, led efforts to recognize much of South Elm Street as a National Register Historic District in 1982.
The Huffines Building, 201 South Elm Street
Manieri’s early research was unable to recognize this building because it was covered with metal sheathing and therefore no history on the structure was identified. However, later investigations made in 2004 indicate this three-story Victorian delight still stands at the southeast corner of East February One Place and South Elm Street. Though it has been dramatically remuddled with its tower removed and false siding hiding its façade, it is considered to be a contributing structure within the Downtown Greensboro National Register Historic District and is thereby a candidate for investigation for restoration using Historic Tax Credits.
The building was first referenced on August 14, 1901, when the Greensboro Patriot newspaper announced “It is understood that Dr. D. W. C. Benbow has bargained to sell the lot on the corner of South Elm and East Sycamore streets [today’s February One Place], west of the PATRIOT’S new home, to Mr. D. R. Huffines for the biggest price per square foot, ever paid for a piece of property in Greensboro. It is reported that the price is about $10,000.” A November article followed stating that Mr. G. A. Miller had been granted permission to operate a saloon on the street-level. By January 1902, the newspaper described the progress of the building, stating “the second floor of the new Huffines building, corner of South Elm and Sycamore streets, is about all ready for occupancy. R. M. Albright, the local agent of Murphy & Co., the New York brokers, R. P. Walters, the insurance agent, and others will have offices there. The third floor of the building will be used as a lodge room.”
Daniel Rankin Huffines was well-known in Greensboro. He was listed as brewer of lager beer around the time of the construction date, but he was better known as a dairyman with large property holdings on Huffines Mill Road in the northeastern part of the county. The Huffines family was part of Guilford County’s “Carolina Dutch” community, descended from early settler Johann Jacob Hofheintz who arrived from Germany via Pennsylvania around 1770.
The towered commercial building was the only example of its kind in Greensboro. No other turreted commercial buildings are known to have existed. It is likely the storefront was remodeled in the 1930s when exuberant Queen Anne architecture was seen as eccentric and dysfunctional. Today, the minimalist façade provides no hint of its exuberant original composition. Opportunities exist to restore this building as a gem of downtown Greensboro.
Weill Block, 314-316 South Elm Street
Mrs. Sol. Weill purchased the site of 314 South Elm Street in July of 1898 with the intention of building a sizeable structure to house a tenant, the Simpson-Shields Shoe Company. Greensboro-based contractor and stonemason Thomas Woodroffe worked on an aggressive timeline to complete the building by December 1st of that year. Three months later, she acquired the lot at 316 South Elm Street, and began planning a larger building.
In October 1898, the Greensboro Telegram reported “Mrs. Sol. Weill has decided upon the plan of the building she will erect by the side of the one being built for the Simpson-Shields Shoe Co., and it will be a credit to the city. It will be the largest business house in Greensboro being 150 feet long by 31 ½ feet wide and five stories high, with a cellar in the rear, making this part six stories. The building has already been leased for a term of five years to the Merchants’ Grocery Company who will move into it as soon as completed. This building is to be fifty feet longer and six feet wider than the Simpson Shields Shoe Company’s, though otherwise the plans of each building will be the same. The front of both will be entirely of granite cut in different shapes making a lovely front. The Merchants’ Grocery Co., and the Simpson-Shields Shoe Co. are two of the largest and busiest wholesale houses and have come to stay and grow. The congratulate both of them together with Mrs. Weill.”
Mrs. Weill was Ella Fishblate Weill, daughter of Solomon H. Fishblate, Mayor of Wilmington, NC. Ella married Solomon Cohen Weill of Wilmington in 1887. Sol Weill was a notable figure, graduating from UNC in 1885 and moving to New York City in 1896 where he was elected to the state legislature there as one of the Tammany candidates. Only 34 years old, Weill died on April 28th, 1898. His widow moved to Greensboro to be close to her family, and it was in the Gate City that she embarked on her real estate ventures. Later occupants included Scott Seed Company, and recently Miller Furniture.
Style: Renaissance Revival.
Thomas Bailey Store House, 358 South Elm Street
Manieri identified this structure as Clegg’s Bakery of 1888 in his early investigations. He wrote “This three-story Italianate brick building was originally part of the Clegg Hotel Complex that occupied the site. Since the 1930’s the building has been occupied by Blumenthal’s Clothing Store.”
Recent research affirms Manieri’s estimated date of construction of one of the oldest structures on South Elm Street, but reveals that this three-story brick building was built in the summer of 1888 by confectioner Thomas Bailey. Bailey’s earlier store was wood frame, but it was lost in a major fire on June 17, 1888. The fire was so intense that it led to a new municipal ordinance that stated “if any person shall erect a building other than brick, stone, or metal with stone roof on Elm Street, he shall be convicted by the Mayor and fined the sum of $50.” From that point on, no wood structures were constructed along Elm Street, and the city’s early fire code was established.
Although the fire was a blow to Bailey, an established 62-year-old retailer at the time, he rallied to rebuild. The current building was erected in the weeks after the fire by contractor and brick mason David Kirkpatrick. Completed by October that same year, the double store was described as a “handsome, durable edifice, three stories high with dimensions of 70×37 feet.” Bailey’s building was a “double store” with two storefronts. He likely ran his confectionery in one space, and leased the other half for income. By October 1889 he advertised his rental unit. “The subscriber offers to rent an excellent and commodious stove room in his new brick building near the depot on South Elm Street” he promoted, “…which has attached an excellent bake house and fixtures all complete; also an up stairs with 10 rooms. Very desirable property and a good place for business.” By January 1890, the second storefront was leased by W. H. Andrews, a shoe salesman.
Bailey did not own the property for very long. In March 1890, the building was sold to the real estate company Worth and Wharton for $6,000 and T. S. Shelton moved into the old bakery space. “I have rented the bakery formerly run by Mr. Bailey,” Shelton advertised in 1890, “and with a first-class baker in my employ, I am able now to furnish the trade with first class bread and cakes.”
In the 1890s, the upper floors of the building were operated as the Piedmont Hotel, a quasi-permanent residence for African-American men and women. The lower floors were operated by Clegg’s Bakery. By the twentieth century, the building was owned by the Blumenthal family, under whose name the structure remains most associated today.
Thanks to the early work of people like Ray Manieri, downtown Greensboro enjoys inscription to the National Register that has directed redevelopment in the direction of historic preservation as opposed to demolition. However, researchers today have resources available to them that were unavailable to earlier historians. Unlocking these new narratives promises to strengthen the community’s engagement with historic properties even further, and helps assure that downtown Greensboro will grow with property investments that assure the adaptive reuse of historic properties for future generations to enjoy.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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