|History Finds New Life
It wasn't like any other Thursday
for Myrick Howard. The executive director of Preservation
North Carolina felt like he was preparing for a funeral.
Five days later, bulldozers were to arrive. Already,
crews were carrying out the old pews. Gastonia's 1920s
First Baptist Church, with its striking, green tile roof
and huge, 1,000-seat sanctuary, was doomed.
I was taking the last photographs, says
Howard. There was nothing else we could do.
On Saturday came the miracle. Suddenly, an anonymous
donor who would later turn out to be industrialist Daniel
Stowe stepped forward with $850,000 to stop the wrecking
crews. And a few months ago, when Gastonia earned its
second, coveted All-American City award, Unity Place, as
the restored church is now known, was cited by the
judges. Today, the old church is shared by an AME Zion
Church and the Gaston County Arts Council.
In Gaston County, history is finding new life.
In 1996, there were four buildings I thought were
goners, says Howard, whose nonprofit group
typically acquires historic properties and then crafts
preservation deals with private developers. To my
amazement, today, they're all standing.
The most dramatic is Loray Mill it's also known as
Firestone Mill after a later user where Tar Heel
textile and labor history was written.
The massive, 600,000-square-foot mill was built in 1905.
It was phenomenally big, and historically, even
without labor history, it's a phenomenal piece of North
Carolina history, says Howard. It jumped the
scale of the textile industry immeasurably.
In 1929, the mill was the site of a strike in which a
union organizer and the Gastonia police chief were
killed. Today, a $50 million plan involving primarily
private funds is under way to convert it to a civic
center, textile and fiber arts visitor center and museum,
retail space, and 300 to 400 apartments and condominiums.
In addition to the church, Gastonia's Central High
School, built in 1915, appears safe. It's a temple
of education, says Howard. It says, `I'm a
school you won't mistake me for anything
else.' A deal between the county, which owns it,
and a charter school, may see the building once again
used for education.
Not far from there, out of ashes, is rising the fourth
miracle of preservation. The first courthouse built when
the county seat was moved to Gastonia from Dallas in 1909
appeared doomed even before it was gutted by fire two
years ago. Demolition had already been scheduled.
Then came an odd twist of fate. Insurance, say Gastonia
officials, would pay only for demolition if the shell
were demolished. But if it were rebuilt, it would pay for
Today, the old building, created by Frank Milburn, an
architect who designed Charlotte's now demolished
Independence Building, North Carolina's first skyscraper,
appears headed for new life as a county government annex.
Elsewhere in Gaston? Similar tales have unfolded over the
years in one of North Carolina's most historic counties,
which dates to the 1750s when German and Scotch-Irish
settlers first arrived.
In Dallas, a historic district surrounds the Greek
Revival Hoffman Hotel, build in 1852 and today a museum.
Surrounding homes date to the same era, and the train
depot, built in 1901, includes a 1940s caboose.
In Belmont, Eagle Mill, built in 1924 and closed a decade
ago, is on its way to new life as the centerpiece of a
$40 million plan by R.L. Stowe Mills Inc., which still
owns it. Chairman Robert Stowe III says the idea is to
create an entrepreneurial village, with 46 loft
apartments and condominiums, surrounded by new homes.
In Cherryville, which dates to 1792, the C. Grier Beam
Truck Museum is one of only three truck museums in the
nation, says Vickie Riddle, director of the Gaston County
Department of Tourism. The town itself features Heritage
Park, a complex that includes its first City Hall, a
school, smokehouse and jail, dating to the 1800s, and the
town clock, installed in 1916.
Then there's the bull.
When restorers were removing plaster from Cherryville's
museum, they uncovered a painted advertisement for Bull
Durham tobacco, created in 1910 when such advertisements
adorned barns and other buildings throughout the nation.
Today, it's one of only four original Bull Durham
paintings we know of left, says Riddle. Edward