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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 restoration.

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 Martin



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