Friday, May 31, 2013

Question the Queen City: The oldest buildings in Uptown

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2013 at 4:42 PM

Editor's note: In this series, local author David Aaron Moore answers reader-submitted questions about unusual, noteworthy or historic people, places and things in Charlotte. Submit inquires to

I love Charlotte, but it hasn't done such a good job preserving much of its architectural history. In fact, most of Uptown looks like a set from some futuristic sci-fi flic. Are there any skyscrapers left that were built during or before the early 20th century? Kelly McMillan, Charlotte

A few structures that come to mind are the Ivey's building, the old St. Peter's Hospital, Latta Arcade and the James K. Polk building, but you're right, there isn't very much historical architecture left in Charlotte's center city. In fact, there are really only four "skyscrapers" that predate the Great Depression. I've delved into the history of the Dunhill Hotel previously, so I'm not going to do that again here. Below are the three others that are of historical significance and continue to be utilized.

The Johnston Building

The oldest high-rise in the city and the tallest in its day (it started out as 15 stories and was eventually increased to 17), the Johnston building opened its doors in 1924. Located at 212 S. Tryon Street, it was designed by nationally acclaimed architect William Lee Stoddart and named after industrialist Charles Worth Johnston (the primary investor at the time). It provided centralized office space for numerous occupants, including the E.C. Griffith Co., architect C.C. Hook, former Governor Cameron Morrison, and, one of AT&T's predecessors, Southern Bell. Today it is known as Midtown Plaza and houses Fifth Third Bank, Brownlee Jewelers, and IT giant Diversant, among others. An arched and coffered ceiling runs the entire length of the building, and the first floor lobby, with its marble columns and staircase, is particularly breathtaking.

Midtown Plaza, originally known as the Johnston Building, was built in 1924.
  • Midtown Plaza, originally known as the Johnston Building, was built in 1924.

The First National Bank Building

Topping out at 22 stories, the First National Bank Building held fast to the title of the city's tallest building from the time it opened in 1927 until it was eclipsed nearly 35 years later by early 1960s constructions. Throughout its lifespan it has seen various changes in name, façade and tenants.

Designed by prominent Charlotte architect Louis Asbury, First National went belly-up in 1930 and later was renamed the Liberty Life Building. Around 1964, the name changed again to The Baugh Building, and the decision was made to modernize the facade. During the early 1980s, the building was renovated and the original high- and curved-archway entrance was restored to its original grandeur. These days it's called Tryon Plaza and offers classic, upscale office condominiums for businesses seeking a posh address in the very heart of the city (it's located at 112 S. Tryon St.).

The First National Bank building opened its doors in 1927.
  • The First National Bank building opened its doors in 1927.

The Builder's Building

The address is 312 W. Trade St. and it's only seven stories, but that was considered tall for the day. Builder's has the distinction of being the only building of the ones listed here to have retained its original name since completion of construction in 1927. Designed by architect M.R. Marsh, the concept was the brainchild of businessman Charles Lambeth, who firmly believed that housing Charlotte's leading construction companies in one building would lead to major advances in the city's growth. Despite an accident in 2010 that resulted in small portions of an exterior concrete window framing falling to the street below (no one was injured) the building remains in excellent condition and provides office space for such companies as Pride Magazine, nonprofit Builders of Hope, and a number of local attorneys.

A recent photo of the Builders Building, which was completed in 1927
  • Courtesy Kathy McCarthy/Atlas Realty Group
  • A recent photo of the Builder's Building, which was completed in 1927

Unlike the other firmly secure buildings included here, this one may be facing possible extinction in the near future. Although the building itself is owned by developers Jeff Femster and Patrick Cannon, it sits on land owned by the nearby First Presbyterian Church. A decades-old property lease, which once held the building steadfast, is set to soon expire. Does that mean Charlotte could potentially lose yet another historic landmark? Possibly. But hopefully not.

Moore is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. His writings have appeared in numerous publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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