The Good, the Bad, and the Blue

  • Gone Blue: In 200 years, Charlotte has gone from red to beige to blue

Now that the second building boom is ending, it's time to review the results. The verdict: a blend of bland and almost inspired -- and thank God it's not 1986

By Richard Maschal / Photographs by Chris Edwards / Illustrations by Mitch McKell

Architecture in downtown Charlotte faces something new: limits.

For forty years, using excavators, bulldozers, and cranes, armies of workers dug holes in the ground and built the sky-scraping towers that help define this city, feeding its bumptious pride.

"We’ve been lulled into the feeling that growth always happens," says Tom Hanchett, historian at Levine Museum of the New South. No more. With the big banks in turmoil and a bitter recession, it’s as if a giant "STOP" sign stands at Trade and Tryon. Developers and the corporate clients they work with hesitate to put out even one square foot of new construction.  

It would be foolhardy to count out Charlotte. But it may be time to declare the end of an era. Call it the second boom.
The first boom happened in the early decades of the twentieth century, when Charlotte became North Carolina’s largest city. The first skyscrapers sprouted and downtown’s residential areas began to fade as the suburbs grew. When the Depression ended the boom, downtown’s look for the next thirty years was set.  

Much of what defined that look, such as the large department stores Belk and Efird’s, is gone. But several buildings with character and personality from that era still stand. Built in 1924, the seventeen-story Johnston Building (now Fifth Third Bank) near Third and South Tryon streets was briefly Charlotte’s tallest building. Designed by New York architect William Lee Stoddard and decorated with classical details, it remains a gem.

The twenty-story First National Bank at the southwest corner of Trade and Tryon surpassed it in 1927. Now home to SunTrust Bank, it remained the city’s tallest for forty years. Its gracious arched entrance comes from the hand of Louis Asbury, then Charlotte’s finest architect.
Cities grow in spurts, not slowly over time. The last two decades have been amazing. But hard times are terminating the second boom, and the look of the center city likely will be fixed for the next few decades. Charlotte’s timing was just right.

"If we were to pick a moment to stop, its better we stopped now than in 1986," Hanchett says.

Back then, downtown suffered from a long list of urban ills: naked parking decks on major streets, blank walls facing sidewalks, little housing, not much more retail, and few of the people-pleasing amenities such as parks, public art, and fountains that make cities livable and likeable.
We learned. We got better.

So the second boom gives us a more mixed, interesting, and stimulating downtown, and one no doubt anxious for that third boom to begin. As if to hurry and finish the process, cranes swing and workers climb over several significant projects, six alone on or near South Tryon Street. So it seems appropriate to evaluate these places where people will work, play, and live.

Buildings reveal themselves over time. They must be inhabited and used to discover how well their design supports their functions. However, a new building immediately changes the way we experience a city. It can block a cherished view, cast a shadow over the shoulder, or provide new ways to behave and to think. With these thoughts in mind, let’s look at nine projects completed or sufficiently underway to render judgment, starting from the north.

The Avenue | Ritz Carlton Hotel | TradeMark | EpiCentre | Bechtler Museum of Modern Art | Catalyst | Duke Energy Center | Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture | NASCAR Hall of Fame


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