The South End: A History of Design, Innovation and Creativity

Charlotte has always been a city of palpable opportunity with the potential for lucrative reward, and South End has been at the center of innovation and entrepreneurialism from the beginning. It is home to the nation’s first gold rush, which partially inspired the construction the city’s first railroad, leading trains through South End in 1852. It’s the area’s first industrial park opening its doors in 1892. And it’s everything in between. South End’s history is spotted with firsts—and not just for the neighborhood but for the region and city—but South End was really made while no one was looking. Men rushed to the Queen City throughout the early nineteenth century looking for gold and although few were lucky, they brought an entrepreneurial spirit of hope and resilience that can still be found on the streets today.

While the groundwork for innovation was being laid by Charlotte’s mining community, rail lines were being laid in preparation for the region’s first railroad, which would connect Charlotte to South Carolina. And on October 21, 1852, the first railroad train arrived in the Queen City. It would be a day that changed everything.

The Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad was the first rail line into this section of the Piedmont, and the inaugural train, arriving from Columbia, was greeted by a brass band and free barbecue. The line was made possible by Charlotte’s business community and entrepreneurs arranging innovative funding, which was a region-wide effort, with farmers and townsfolk all along the route buying stock, and local governments kicking in cash as well. The railroad’s presence guaranteed Charlotte would soon forge ahead of similar surrounding towns.

Without the railroad, none of the other events in this history would have happened, nor would Charlotte be the city it is today. Says Dan Morrill in Historic Charlotte, An Illustrated History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, “By doing so, they (Charlotte leaders) elevated resolute and imaginative leadership to the pinnacle of importance it has occupied in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County ever since.” (p. 29)

And it has been imaginative leadership, as well as creativity and innovation, that has made the South End a center for design and for new ways of thinking and building.

South End Timeline


Carolina Gold Rush

Local businessman Samuel McCombs finds on his farm, located just off what is today West Morehead Street, a small pocket of gold nuggets encrusted in white quartz rocks. McCombs digs deeper and realizes that he has not discovered just a pocket of gold but a vein or lode that seemed to go on forever. In 1825 he opened the McComb Mine (later the Old Charlotte Mine and then the St. Catherine Mine). The mine was located near present-day Bank of America Stadium and several other mines popped up in the surrounding area. The mines were able to open so quickly thanks to foreign investments. It was an Italian Count Vincent de Rivafinoli who initially got the ball rolling by supporting the Rudisill and St. Catherine mines. With the European money, came European immigrants, mostly from England, who were familiar with the mining industry. Charlotte, before the end of the nineteenth century, was already a city of the world, filled with newcomers and new ideas.


The Railroad

October 21, 1852 is not a red letter day on any calendar, and there are no celebrations marking it. However, that date marks the single most important event in the history of Charlotte — the day the first railroad train arrived in the Queen City. The Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad was the first rail line into this section of the Piedmont, and the inaugural train, arriving from Columbia, was greeted by a brass band and free barbecue. The line was made possible by Charlotte’s business community and entrepreneurs arranging innovative funding, which was a region-wide effort, with farmers and townsfolk all along the route buying stock, and local governments kicking in cash as well. The railroad’s presence guaranteed Charlotte would soon forge ahead of similar surrounding towns.


Edison's Mass Transit

Edison came to Charlotte in 1890 to test out a theory. He wanted to see if it was possible to use electricity to separate gold from other sediment in the process of gold……It didn’t work. However while in Charlotte the celebrity was on the list of Charlotte’s elites to have over for dinner. Edward Dilworth Latta was just such a person. On Friday February 21, 1890 Mr. Latta had a big dinner at his house on North Tryon Street. He had the who’s who of Charlotte (See full story Charlotte News February 24, 1890). It was at this dinner that Latta discussed with Edison his plan to run electric street cars out to the “Country” to Charlotte’s first suburb, Dilworth. The two agreed to work together and Charlotte has been growing ever since. After a visit by Thomas Edison, Edward Dilworth Latta and his Charlotte Consolidated Construction Co. open Charlotte’s first suburb – Dilworth — and introduce the electric streetcar to the city.


Inventing the Industrial Park

Daniel Augustus (D.A.) Tompkins builds Atherton Cotton Mill (now converted to Atherton Lofts). With the groundbreaking ceremony on November 8, it became the first industrial structure in the area. By 1895, The Charlotte Daily Observer called this area (the corridor between South Boulevard and the railroad tracks) “the Manchester of Charlotte. “ By the turn of century, this corridor was home to Atherton Mill, Mecklenburg Flour Mill (producing three brands of flour), Charlotte Shuttle Block Factory, a sash cord factory, a spoke and handle factory, Charlotte Trouser Co., Southern Card Clothing Co., and Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co. It was, in essence, the city’s first industrial park. These factories were locally-owned and operated and did not use northern capital to start up. Their owners, with their fresh ideas and creative ways of making money, transformed Charlotte’s economy from an agrarian one to an industrial one. A South Carolina native who came to Charlotte in 1883, Tompkins led the “Cotton Mill Campaign” that, utilizing new ideas, new methods and new devices, transformed the once-rural Piedmont into the country’s textile manufacturing region by the 1920s. He eventually built 100 mills across the region. Charlotte was the center for textile machinery, and he dominated the market. Says Morrill in Historic Charlotte, “such men became convinced that future wealth in the region lay not in traditional farming methods but in industrialization, urbanization, and scientific agriculture.” (p. 44)


Bringing Professional Design to the Area

To help sales in Dilworth, Edward Dilworth Latta hires architect Charles Christian (C.C.) Hook to, according to The Charlotte Daily Observer, “provide plans for five new-style residences. They will include the ‘Queen Anne, ‘Colonial’ and ’Modern American’ styles of architecture.” Hook, the Charlotte region’s first professional architect, designed 35 homes for Latta. Hook’s architectural practice was just two years old at the time, but he went on to become one of the most prolific North Carolina architects of his day. He introduced the Colonial Revival style to the region, and the oldest house featuring that style which can be attributed to him (fully extant) is the Gautier-Gilchrist House at 320 E. Park Ave. (Morrill, p. 51). Other structures he designed that are still standing include the Van Landingham Estate, Fire Station Number 6, the Duke Mansion, Charlotte City Hall and the Carolina Theatre.


Innovation in Pipe Manufacturing

W. Frank Dowd opens Charlotte Pipe & Foundry, a manufacturer of soil pipe, on South Boulevard between Park and Renselaer avenues. The plant burned down in 1907, and Dowd moved it to Clarkson Street. Starting the firm was a bold step – although Charlotte was the textile and textile machinery center of the South, Alabama was the center for steel making and pipe manufacture. The Dowd family continued to show a willingness to be bold and innovative in its manufacturing processes. During the 1950s, the company embraced centrifugal spinning methods (instead of the traditional hand molding process) and refitted its plant in 1957. In 1967, the company was among the first to manufacture plastic drainage waste and vent (DUV) systems, and it is now the largest plastic pipe producer in the U.S.

1904 - 1905

Cutting Edge Engineer

Just north of his Atherton Cotton Mill, D.A Tompkins builds the machine shop (the main manufacturing facility) for the D.A. Tompkins Company, which built machinery for cotton mills and cottonseed oil plants. He was an innovative engineer with a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who pioneered the technology to turn cotton seed (considered a waste product of processing cotton) into cooking oil. In his obituary in The Charlotte Daily Observer on October 19, 1914, it called one of his two most notable contributions to industry, “the placing of the cotton seed oil business on an engineering basis.” He was often called the “father of the cotton seed oil business.” Tompkins’ first major client was the firm that is now Wesson Oil. An early product was Snowdrift shortening—similar to today’s Crisco—a novelty for cooks who were used to using hog lard. His Southern Cotton Oil Company grew to eight mills across the South.


Pepsi Pioneers

Henry and Sadie Fowler (to become known as “Mr. and Mrs. Pepsi-Cola”) become the first bottlers to incorporate using the Pepsi name, making them the company’s first franchise and the oldest Pepsi bottler in the world. In the 1930s, the company moved to 2820 South Boulevard, where it remained until 2018.


The Man Behind "Air Conditioning"

Stuart Cramer coins the term “air conditioning” in a patent filed in April. A protégé of D.A. Tompkins, he was a prolific designer of textile mills and mill villages, as well as an innovator in the field of humidification and air conditioning for the textile industry, with numerous patents to his credit. His firm merged with the G. M. Parks Company of Fitchburg, MA in 1918 to become Parks-Cramer and moved to South Boulevard in 1919. Today the site and historic buildings are known as Atherton Mill, and are filled with retail, restaurants, and new apartments.


A New Type of Land Design

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. visits Charlotte at the invitation of Edward Dilworth Latta to help him expand the development of Dilworth. The world-renowned landscape design firm, based in Brookline MA, created Dilworth Road East and West and the adjacent curving streets. Olmsted’s father, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., was the founder of professional landscape design in the U.S., and his sons, Frederick Jr. and John Charles, brought it into widespread practice. Their work in Dilworth — plus that of John Nolen in Myers Park, which also began in 1911 — introduced the idea of naturalistic suburban planning to this part of the South.


From Looms to Missiles To Electronics

Charlotte Machine Company is founded by Egbert Gribble on South Boulevard. In 1926, he moved it to Camden Road, where it operated until 2014. The company began by making component parts for the textile industry, but has been able to think creatively and adapt to changing economic times. In the 1950s, it made parts for the Nike missile and today focuses on the medical, telecommunications and defense industries.


A Leader in High Fashion Design

Nebel Knitting is founded by William Nebel, a German immigrant and third generation hosiery knitter. Nebel produced women’s high fashion silk hosiery. He was an innovator in hosiery styles, colors and patterns, and held at least 16 structural and design patents. His success was an indicator of the diversification of the Southern textile industry, with Charlotte as its heart. In the 1940s, the company conducted aggressive and cutting-edge advertising campaigns, and in 1953, the Charlotte News reported it was one of the largest hosiery mills in the U.S. But times changed, and the mill was closed in 1968. Its plant at 127 West Worthington Avenue was designed by noted mill architect Richard C. Biberstein, and was expanded in 1929 and 1946. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is now home to shopping, retail and design showrooms.


A Showcase for Innovation

The first of several Made in the Carolinas Industrial Expositions is held in a new building constructed for the event on East Park Avenue. The events highlighted new products and progress made in the two states. Thousands rode by train to visit the expositions celebrating the inventiveness and manufacturing and design accomplishments of the area. Contemporary accounts compared them to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.


Snack Food Originator

Lance Packaging Co. – a pioneer in the snack food business — moves to 1300 South Boulevard, which had once housed Edward Dilworth Latta’s Charlotte Trouser Co. The facility was doubled in size by 1941, and the company was headquartered there until 1962, when it moved to 8600 South Boulevard near Pineville. Today the site houses condominiums. For many years, Charlotteans enjoyed the aroma of roasted peanuts as they traveled down South Boulevard. Lance, Inc. (as it was renamed in 1939) is credited as the originator of the peanut butter and cracker sandwich. The company got its start in 1913 when Philip Lance, a food broker, got stuck with 500 pounds of peanuts. He and his son-in-law demonstrated their ingenuity by roasting them in his home, located on South Boulevard. They sold well, using the innovative concept of convenient single serve packages. Mrs. Lance and her daughter – also original thinkers – are credited with coming up with the idea for the sandwich – they were, at the very least, certainly the first to sell them when they were first offered in 1916. The first sales efforts were door-to-door, and the crackers were also a big hit with the soldiers at Camp Greene during World War I.


Writing a Literary Classic

Barely into her 20s, Carson McCullers writes the opening chapters of her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, while living in a boarding house located at 311 East Boulevard. The book becomes an American classic, with a 1968 film version garnering two Academy Awards.


End of the Gold Mines

Charlotte’s last operating gold mine, The Rudisill (corner W. Summit & S. Mint), which by this time extended down to more than 400 feet, closed ending more than a century of searching for the coveted metal in Charlotte/Mecklenburg.


Center for Artists

The Charlotte Art League is formed. It is a non-profit adult arts organization dedicated to fostering emerging fine and commercial artists through community exposure, networking, education and interaction with fellow artists. In 1996, it moved into a facility on Camden Road, offering opportunities for regional artists and art enthusiasts by providing a gallery for rotating exhibits by members, workshop facilities, monthly lectures series and affordable studio space. The Charlotte Art League moved from Camden Road to a new home on the northern half of the Blue Line in 2018.


Fast Food Pioneers

Jack Falk and Richard Thomas open their first Bojangles’ restaurant at the corner of West Boulevard and South Tryon Street, pioneering Cajun chicken, sausage biscuits and dirty rice in a fast food franchise format. They had earlier pioneered the fast-food breakfast biscuit while working for the Hardee’s chain. Bojangles made biscuits a centerpiece, and there are now franchises in 11 states, primarily in the Southeast.


Design Renaissance Begins

In a bold and pioneering move, Gaines Brown relocates his nationally-recognized exhibit design firm to the South End, which is then simply referred to as “the industrial corridor west of the railroad tracks.”


Taking Design to the Streets

Demonstrating their visionary commitment to revitalizing the city’s urban core, Charlotte voters approve $1.5 million in bond money for road and streetscape improvements along five urban corridors. South Boulevard was one of them. Many believe that without this small initial investment, the creation of the South End could not have happened or would have been delayed by many years.


Introducing the New Urbanism

Olmsted Park, the first residential infill project to be built in Charlotte, is constructed on the site of the old Crockett Park, a baseball stadium built in 1939. It is also among the first developments in the city to use new urbanism concepts in its design, including such features as winding streets with sidewalks, trees and houses reminiscent of the Bungalow era of the 1910s and 1920s. Developed by MECA Properties, The Crosland Group and Tom and Betty Moore, Olmsted Park featured 138 apartments and 54 homes on 12-1/2 acres of land.


From Factory to Design Showroom

In a $2-million rehab project, the old ParksCramer Building is converted into a 48,961-square-foot retail complex called Atherton Mills, a bold project that was the first major new retail in the area in decades. The first tenant is Interiors Marketplace, the creation of urban pioneers John & Kelley Vieregg. It is a showplace for antiques, arts, home furnishings and interior designers, an example of Charlotte’s increasing sophistication tastes in home décor and design. Today, Atherton Mill is owned by national retail investors EDENS, who are investing $100 million in a massive renovation to restore the historic buildings and add new retail and residential space to the complex.


South End Springs to Life

Showing a flair for originality, Dilworth’s old industrial corridor officially becomes known as the South End with the incorporation of the South End Development Corporation (now Historic South End) to promote and revitalize the area. A logo is also introduced, and street markers are installed to designate the boundaries and to define the concept.


Transit Rebirth

Inventive supporters who want to bring back the Charlotte Trolley take a giant step with the start of a demonstration project, featuring a car running along a former railroad line from Atherton Mills to Stonewall Street. The first streetcar on the new route is old No. 85, designed and built back in 1927 in a facility on Bland Street at South Boulevard.


From Brownfield to Design Center of the Carolinas

The Nebel Knitting Annex is rehabbed and renovated into the Design Center of the Carolinas, paving the way for the inventive rehab of old buildings in the South End. This project was made possible by the first brownfields agreement reached by the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) under the Brownfields Property Reuse Act of 1997. This landmark legislation, using an innovative approach to address the issue of possible contamination of sites, enables responsible parties to enter agreements with the state to provide liability protection to new developers if contamination proves no health risks or danger to the environment. This agreement was the culmination of efforts that began in 1996 when Charlotte was one of the first cities to receive an EPA Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative Grant, which was used for a pilot project in the South End to test properties for contamination. It revealed there were few health risks involved in redeveloping properties in the area and demonstrated that real estate development in the South End could be a viable proposition. By 1999, when Charlotte was among the first cities to receive a Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund Pilot Grant from the federal government, its visionary brownfields program was considered a model across the country.


That Pink Tower...

Architect and developer Jim Gross pushes the edge of the envelope in building design as his 22-story condominium tower, The Arlington, takes shape and reveals a rose-colored glass exterior. Charlotte has seen nothing like it before or since. It was built on the former site of the Park Manufacturing Company on South Boulevard.


More Adaptive Reuses

Karen Saks moves her 10-year-old firm, Karen Saks Showroom, in to the renovated 1903 Tompkins Textile Mill on Hawkins Street.


Fringe Theater

The former warehouse of Charlotte Cutlery Co. on Rampart Street is transformed into the South End Performing Arts Center and is the home for BareBones Theatre Group, one of Charlotte’s leading fringe theater troupes. In fall 2004, it will become the third American city to produce “Lifegame,” a new concept in improv theater pioneered in London.


Another New Mode of Transportation

Trolley service between the South End and uptown is re-introduced as the refurbished original Car. No. 85 leaves the trolley barn (at Atherton Mills) on June 25. UNC Charlotte Professor Dr. Dan Morrill, who had pioneered the project for more than 20 years, is among the audience watching the car pull out. The line runs 2.1 miles to 9th Street.The trolley runs through the Charlotte Convention Center in a specially constructed tunnel. It is the only convention center with a trolley (or train) running through the middle of it, which required ingenuity to develop innovative construction techniques to ensure the safety of the building, the people inside it and trolley passengers. Excitement about the trolley is credited with inspiring interest in Charlotte’s first light rail line, which opened along the same tracks through South End in 2007.


The Region's Hot Spot for Design

In July, a survey finds that the South End is home to 200 design businesses, including showrooms and offices for architects, builders, interior and landscape designers, and graphic and web designers.


Conversations with Tom Hanchett and Dan Morrill

Dilworth: The First 100 Years by Tom Bradbury

A Foundry Volume I Our First Century Together Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co. 1901-2001 by Beth Laney-Smith

Historic Charlotte An Illustrated History of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County by Dr. Dan L. Morrill

Charlotte Spirit of the New South by Mary Norton Kratt

Charlotte: City at the Crossroads by Bea Quirk

Skirt Magazine, June 2004, “Designing Women at Work in the South End”

Brownfield News, September 1999, “Charlotte’s Web,” by Bea Quirk

Archives of the Charlotte Observer

Archives of The Business Journal

Charlotte’s South End: The Early Years, by Dorothy Waterfill and Karen Doyle. Booklet published by MECA Properties in April 1999.

Lance. Inc. Brochures and website

Charlotte Art League Website

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Foundation Website – survey reports, applications for historic designation, articles, tours

Carolinas Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County

Levine Museum of the New South