If you haven’t visited Southside and South Elm Street – south of the railroad tracks – in a few years, my how things have changed. Once the redheaded stepchild of downtown Greensboro, South Elm and Southside are now the envy of cities across the region as historic architecture and walkable streets are coupled with hipster boutiques, maker-spaces, museums, galleries, and restaurants. Within North Carolina’s quintessential downtown, a bright and diverse future is emerging.
Though Greensboro was established in 1808, this far southern stretch of the village did not grow into prominence until after the North Carolina Railroad tracks brought travelers and trade through the area. In fact, in the mid-1800s, the most significant landmark in the district was known as “The Grove,” – the former Caldwell Institute, an impressive brick edifice built in 1837 that housed a high school for boys administered through the Presbyterian church. The school closed in 1845, but its impressive brick façade remained at the southern visual terminus of Elm Street at today’s intersection of Martin Luther King Drive.
It was Joseph H. Shields, a farmer from Orange County NC, who saw promise in the vacant land just across the railroad tracks from the village and its passenger depot. In January 1873, Shields posted as announcement in the Greensboro Patriot (newspaper), stating, “Desirable Building Lots For Sale. Streets located corresponding with those of the city – lying and adjoining the southern boundary of Greensboro. Major James Sloan is my authorized agent for the sale of same. Call and examine the map at the store of James Sloan’s Sons. Joseph H. Shields, Greensboro, N. C.”
By October, locals dubbed the development “Shieldstown,” and plans were made to extend Greensboro’s streets southward into the property, including Elm Street through the old Caldwell Institute, Arlington Street as an extension of Davie, and Gorrell as a cross street.
Shieldstown emerged as one of the most popular addresses in Greensboro with new houses erected along new streets. “The march of improvement still goes on,” reported the Greensboro Patriot, adding “…the prospects of the growth of Greensboro were never more encouraging than now. Walking out, yesterday, in the direction of Shieldstown, we encountered the irrepressible Ezekiel Jones, with his sleeves rolled up, and hard at work. Under his direction, the roof was disappearing, with marvelous rapidity, from the old [Caldwell] institute building which is being torn down, to make way for the extension of South Elm street.
Development advanced enthusiastically. George Kestler built one of the first houses in the neighborhood at 437 Arlington Street, completed in 1876. The two-story frame house features the Italianate style of architecture, including a symmetrical façade, segmental arched windows, and a low roofline supported by a bracketed eaves. Next door, William Fields, a tobacco merchant, built a brick Gothic Revival-style house at 447 Arlington Street. The house was built around 1877 and stands today as a remarkably rare example of the style in North Carolina, with quatrefoil attic vents, pointed arch windows, and wall dormers. Both houses survive today in their original forms.
As residential development took form along secondary streets, industrial development grew alongside the nearby rail tracks. A tobacco factory was built in 1874 by E. P. Jones along Fayetteville Street (today’s MLK Drive) using bricks recycled from the old Caldwell Institute. The Oak Hill Roller Mill was established in 1890 and constructed a group of wood frame and masonry buildings between the North Carolina Railroad and the Cape Fear and Yadkin Railroad. In October 1892, the Oak Hill Hosiery Mill was organized by L. F. Ross. And a factory built at 110-112 West Lewis Street. It contained approximately 30 knitting machines housed in a two-story brick building that remains standing today as one of the oldest industrial buildings on Greensboro.
Greensboro enjoyed economic and population growth in the 1880s and 1890s as capital investments such as NC A&T, UNCG, and Cone Mills were made. High-income residents selected large lots with broad lawns along Asheboro Street (today MLK Drive). [Consider using Image E here] Thomas Bernard erected a two-story wood frame house at number 351 with Italianate embellishments such as bracketed eaves, rounded window surrounds, and corbelled chimneys in 1882. Across the street, Mary Frances Hodgin commissioned a grand two-story Neoclassical Revival mansion. Widowed in 1909, she bought land adjacent to the Greensboro Friends Meetinghouse in 1912 and work began immediately. The double-tiered porch once sported two-story Ionic columns, but now derelict, the house at 336 MLK Drive is cause for alarm among preservationists.
Commercial development along South Elm Street arrived in the 1890s. Early “store houses” included J. F. Hodgin & Co.’s wooden grocery store at 511 South Elm, Voncanon & Sons’ two-story brick building at 524 and 526 South Elm Street, and N. A. Jeffries’ one-story brick saloon at 501 South Elm Street. None of these early commercial buildings remain standing (the structure at 524-526 burned June 1897).
A family of vernacular red brick buildings with granite windowsills and lintels were erected along South Elm Street south of the railroad tracks in the last decade of the 1800s. In 1895, The Greensboro Patriot announced the earliest of the series: “Mr. S. J. McCaughley has commenced the erection of a brick building on his property between the Southern and the C. FD. & Y. V. railroad tracks. It will occupy the same site on which is now located his saloon. The brick building will be larger than the frame structure and will be built around it, and in the meantime, business will go on in the latter uninterrupted. The new building will be over 1200 feet long.”
Other members of this architectural family include the building built for Dr. P. L. Groome completed in 1897 on the corner of South Elm and Lewis streets. The lowest floor contained two store-rooms and the upper floors were arranged as residential flats. Yet another building of the series was constructed that same year at 504-506 South Elm Street.
Other facades were composed of materials and designs that did not fall within a local vernacular style. Three buildings exemplify architectural diversity include Fordham’s Drug Store at 514 South Elm Street, the Bank of South Greensboro at 524 South Elm Street, and the Salvation Army Citadel at 520 South Elm Street.
Druggist Christopher Fordham remodeled his storefront façade from a modest 1897 design in 1903, adding elaborate Venetian-style window hoods, rounded attic vents, and a cornice with a mortar and pestle and urns to signify the occupation of its occupant. These Renaissance Revival embellishments were likely viewed as elaborate upgrades from the original design (its unaltered twin sits next door at 512 South Elm Street).
The monumental façade of the American Exchange National Bank South Greensboro Branch office at 520 South Elm Street was composed by Greensboro architect Raleigh James Hughes to closely resemble the bank’s nine-story headquarters at the corner of Elm and Market. The limestone walls are starkly Neoclassical, with Ionic columns flanking the entry, square pilasters flanking the façade, and all topped by a full entablature with pediment. The entire composition is, perhaps, the most impressive façade for a standard storefront in North Carolina.
Another interesting example of a national architectural trends filtering into Greensboro is the Salvation Army Citadel, located at 520 South Elm Street. The building was designed in 1928 by Greensboro architect Harry Barton, and took an exotic Mediterranean theme with yellow brick, a heavy corbelled cornice, and a green tile pent roof.
Significant industrial development continued well into the twentieth century. The Blue Bell Plant at 620 South Elm Street as a sprawling textile mill built in three distinct phases between 1921 and 1927 to designs by Greensboro’s Harry Barton. Addressing its urban site, the red brick (now painted) street façade meets the sidewalk and features tall windows and paired corbelled doorways. Though the street façade carries a cornice, the side and rear elevations are industrial and pragmatic. They are composed of simple masonry walls with large steel windows more in keeping with mills and factories found throughout the region.
The Southside neighborhood, including McAdoo Avenue and Bragg, Gorrell, Murray, Pearson, and Plott streets developed as middle- to upper-income white neighborhoods that maintained high property values into the 1920s. Earliest architectural styles from the 1890s include Italianate architecture, exemplified by the houses at 810 and 815 Pearson Street. Both include bracketed eaves, porches with heavy trim work, and asymmetrical facades.
In contrast, houses built on these streets in the early decades of the twentieth century represented newer architectural themes including Queen Anne, Rectilinear, and Craftsman styles. Exemplary residences include the Queen Anne houses at 729 and 739 Plott Street, both facades a lively jumble of porches, balconies, stained glass windows, and gables. Two examples of Rectilinear architecture include the symmetrical and austere facades of 350 McAdoo Avenue and 731 Plott Street. Craftsman style houses with fine artisanal detail include the bungalows at 316 Murray Street and 825 Pearson Street, both incorporating splendid Milk Quartz porch supports, exposed rafter tails, and diagonal knee bracing.
In April 1936, two occurrences made long-lasting influences on the neighborhoods of South Elm Street and Southside – one was natural, the other was socio-political.
Just after 7pm on April 2nd an F4 tornado roared over South Elm Street and swept along residential Gorrell Street, killing 14 people, destroying 56 buildings and damaging 289. Most of the deaths and destruction occurred within the South Elm Street and Southside neighborhoods. Upper floors were ripped off buildings such as the Southside Hardware at 523-525 South Elm Street, and facades were peeled off buildings such as 616 South Elm Street. Many structures lost much of their architectural details, and many other structures were never rebuilt.
The second event in April 1936 was the release of a reference manual by agents of the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. The manual assigned grades to residential neighborhoods that reflected their perceived investment risk value using color-coded maps. Neighborhoods receiving the highest grade “A” – colored green on the maps – were assessed as having minimal risks for banks and mortgage lenders. At the opposite side of the scale, those receiving the lowest grade of “D,” were colored red and assessed as “hazardous” for loans and mortgages.
Greensboro neighborhoods outlined in red were universally populated by African American citizens. These included Warnersville to the west and the Bennett Street neighborhood to the east of South Elm and Southside. The residential areas that comprise Southside today were graded as “Definitely Declining” in value, due to the assessor’s opinion that the area was “On the wrong side of the city. Negro residential sections adjoins on two sides, older type of houses predominate. Fertilizer plants on south out Randolph Avenue.” The neighborhood, in 1936, was composed of a predominantly white residents, with only 5% of citizens as indicated as Black.
In the years around World War II, social changes continued to influence the population of Southside and adjoining neighborhoods as white residents sold their properties to middle-income Black residents. Exemplary of this trend was long-tome white homeowner Nina Plott, who sold her home at 442 Gorrell Street to Black homebuyers Louie and Arthur Gist. The Gists opened the house as the Magnolia House, a celebrated tourist home for African American travelers.
Across the United States, inner cities suffered from disinvestment as higher-income residents and retailers relocated to suburban locations in pursuit of newer housing stock and shopping opportunities convenienced by auto-oriented suburbs. Older neighborhoods such as South Elm Street and Southside saw diminished retail occupancy rates as larger structures were converted into affordable rooming houses. By the time of World War II and the surge of military personnel at the Overseas Replacement Depot, some of these multi-tenant housing arrangements, factual or fictional, were rumored to be associated with prostitution.
In reaction to downtown disinvestment, Greensboro’s Chamber of Commerce sought to jumpstart redevelopment with a “Greensboro Downtown Plan” in 1964. The report, completed by Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky, Lamb Planning Consultants of Baltimore, Maryland, outlined a plan to reconstruct the downtown with an intense high-rise core, addition of pedestrian plazas, expanded parking decks, and a remarkable loss of older and historic buildings.
In response to sweeping proposals for redevelopment, a group of citizens formed to establish a voice for historic preservation. They operated under the banner of the Old Greensborough Preservation Society beginning in 1977 and served as an advocate for long-term city policies to revitalize the city’s core. The group brought preservation-oriented architects and developers, including Bob Winthrop of Richmond VA and Denver’s legendary Dana Crawford to inspire local property owners. In 1980, the group was successful in having Elm Street listed to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1986, it restored the William Fields House at 447 Arlington Street, as its headquarters.
With slow progress in the 1980s and 1990s, South Elm Street began to see reinvestment in historic buildings as art galleries and antique stores filled once vacant storefronts. Hard-fought battles were staged to save historic buildings and blockfaces at a time when city officials held more enthusiasm for surface parking lots and corporate towers.
By the 1990s. the Southside neighborhood suffered from years of public and private neglect. Many houses were lost to arson, and others suffered as income property owners made few repairs or investments. In 1996, the Greensboro City Council approved a bond package that allowed for funding needed to acquire vacant properties. The city then developed a Southside Plan through a private developer to rebuild 30 detached houses, 10 duplexes, 50 townhouses, 20 live-work units, 10 restored historic houses, and studio apartments on the 10-acre site.
Today, the South Elm Street and Southside neighborhoods successfully weave history and architecture to create an urban space unusual in North Carolina. Challenges remain, both in terms of owner neglect and in affordability. Increasing demand for the area could drive incompatible infill development, or worse – destruction of historic buildings. With awareness of community assets raised through events such as the 2020 Tour of Historic Homes & Gardens, citizens can better make informed decisions that assure the charms of the neighborhood are never lost.
In 2020, the South Elm Street and Southside neighborhoods were features in Preservation Greensboro’s 10th Annual Tour of Historic Homes & Gardens.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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