A touchstone to Greensboro’s commercial past now enjoys an extra level of recognition…and protection.
Last night, the Meyer’s Department Store building at the corner of South Elm Street and February One Place was designated as a Guilford County Landmark Property by the Greensboro City Council. The owner-requested designation was unanimously approved by council following a favorable recommendation from the county’s historic preservation commission.
The Meyer’s building was constructed in 1924 according to plans devised by Greensboro architect Harry Barton. Barton designed several other important downtown buildings, including the Guilford County Courthouse on West Market Street and the Cone Export and Commission Building (now the Community Foundation) on South Greene Street. He also designed the Quad complex at UNCG now being considered for adaptive reuse or demolition.
Rising five-stories above Elm Street, the Meyers building incorporates terra cotta tile, pressed grey brick, and granite in a Neoclassical composition that includes pilasters, and a handsome projecting cornice. The street level of the building features an ornate art nouveau-inspired frieze with floral and foliage motifs. Only the exterior of the building is designated as historic. Interior spaces have been adaptively reused for office space and will remain unrestricted.
The department store was founded by William D. Meyer in 1904. Meyer’s store enjoyed rapid growth and expansion throughout the early twentieth century alongside the city of Greensboro. However, as shopping trends changed in the 1920s, Meyers needed even more space. Prior to World War I, department stores across the county kept their merchandise hidden away in drawers and storage rooms, brought out for customer inspection only by sales clerks. After the War, merchants discovered the profitability of impulse buying by displaying merchandise on the sales floor. Shoppers were likely to buy things that caught their eye upon passing, thereby increasing sales.
The Meyer’s building reflects this important change, with a grand street-front and open sales floor, large windows to allow lots of sunlight to penetrate the buildings interior, and even elevators and air conditioning. Upon opening, the basement contained women’s ready-to-wear clothing, yarns, and a lunch counter. The primary floor featured expensive silks, linens, laces, gloves, stationery, leather good, silverware, and jewelry. Upper floors housed a post office, a home décor department, and stockrooms.
The Meyers Department Store played a crucial role in the early Civil Rights movement in Greensboro. After the sit-ins of 1960 at the nearby Woolworth’s and Kress stores, Meyer’s was part of the dialog that occurred between middle-income black and white customers to redefine segregated spaces. Many black customers returned their Meyers charge cards until the facility was entirely desegregated. In 1974, Meyers became a Jordan Marsh Department Store, which closed the Elm Street location when it relocated to Four Seasons Mall in 1978.
Designation as a local landmark carries with it responsibilities and rewards. Owners of such properties must have plans for alterations approved by the Guilford County Preservation Commission, a quasi-judicial board of appointed members. Upon approval, a Certificate of Appropriateness is issued for alterations and improvements. In exchange for the upkeep and maintenance of an historic site, the county provides a 50% property tax reduction for participating properties. The county’s preservation program has been in place since 1980, and is a product of interest raised during America’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The program has been proven to be a useful tool in economic development by encouraging reinvestment in our existing building stock, witnessed by successful projects such as The Lofts at Greensborough Court and the Kress Building.
Thanks to research completed by Megan Privette.