Gone Blue

In 200 years, Charlotte has gone from red to beige to blue

"Am I blue/Am I blue/Ain't these tears in these eyes telling you?"
-- "Am I Blue," Ethel Waters, 1929

Yes, I’m blue. I’m as blue as I can be. I’ve been hanging out in downtown Charlotte, an increasingly blue zone. I’m not talking about the blues caused by all that trouble with the banks and the down economy. What I see, with eyes unclouded by tears, is a chromatic shift at the city’s heart, a change of color that gives a sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Over the past fifty years, downtown has gone from red to beige to blue.

The Avenue condo tower on North Church Street is blue, as is the glass on Bank of America Stadium, and the accents on Seventh Street Station and the TradeMark condos on West Trade Street. Even the skyscrapers skinned in a more silvery glass reflect blue skies on sunny days.

What gives?

"Architecture is influenced by fashion," says Tom Hanchett, historian at Levine Museum of the New South. "Fashion moves in waves. There’ll be years where there are no green cars and years where there are nothing but green cars."

True. But a quick look at history shows there’s more going on.

Although it looks as if it were just taken out of the box, Charlotte is more than 200 years old. The first edition of the city, essentially today’s downtown, was of wood and of no dominant color.

Brick became the favored building material in the nineteenth century and endured into the twentieth. It was local, plentiful, and cheap, often fashioned by hand on the building site from the red clay that underlies the Piedmont. It appeared not only downtown, but on Charlotte’s many textile mills. A deep red dominated the city’s palette.

Beige came in the later twentieth century as Charlotte buildings grew in height. Some of these are the city’s least loved pieces of architecture, such as the old Wachovia building at South Tryon and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Longtime Charlotte architect Murray Whisnant says urban renewal bureaucrats pushed beige. Drive on McDowell Street from Morehead Street north through the demolished black neighborhoods of Blue Heaven and Brooklyn and you'll see a string of them, culminating with the Education Center.¹

Blue came along in the 1970s and 1980s, when buildings got taller and many of the low-rise brick structures were clobbered. The new structures were frankly modernist, a style largely developed with new materials such as steel, aluminum, and glass.

Such buildings must soar, hard to do with earthbound brick.

"You’ve got warm colors and cool colors, and, thinking about how to be cool, modernism keeps pushing us toward those cooler colors," says David Furman, architect and uptown developer.

So blue predominates. Brick was more tactile. But you can read the changing moods of weather in the glass.²

The shift from red to blue meant Charlotte became less local, more influenced by national, even international architectural styles. This went along with the changing function of downtown buildings, from retail to office.

There’s still brick downtown, on historic churches such as St. Peter’s (Episcopal and Catholic) and repurposed old warehouses (Dixie’s Tavern). It’s also used as an accent — witness Cesar Pelli’s signature argyle pattern of cream, rose, beige, and tan brick on the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

Blue has not taken over completely. The red, the beige, and the blue coexist side by side. "We enjoy a town more when it gives us the ability to see bits of the older layers," Hanchett says.

New colors may be added. Fashions do change. Architects like to discover the new. Says Furman, "It’ll be neat to see what the next genre of building will be downtown — when the world snaps back."  

¹ Hanchett says the push was for white buildings, following the tastes of modernist architect Le Corbusier. But Charlotte as "Beige City" offers a symbolism too rich to give up.

² One building just outside of downtown on South Boulevard went hot — pink — instead of cool blue. It failed to inspire imitators.

Richard Maschal spent the last ten of his forty years at The Charlotte Observer covering art and architecture. He retired in October.

Categories: Feature, Opinion, The Buzz