History and images have been compiled from various sources including, among others, the 1987 National Register of Historic Places, Stack & Beasley's 1902 Sketches of Monroe and Union County, Union County Public Library (Patricia Poland, Genealogy & Local History Librarian), the Heritage Room Photo Collection, North Carolina Map Collection, Rootsweb - An Ancestry.com Community and Ancestry.com family histories.

Background History from 1987 National Register Nomination

A Portion of Gray's 1882 Map of Monroe, Union County, NC - Click to Enlarge
Although the town of Monroe was incorporated by the state legislature in 1844 as the county seat for Union County (established 1842), its historic built environment, for the most part, reflects the period of growth and development which began in the early 1870s. While the city as a whole has a few buildings dating from the incorporation period, most notably the former Monroe City Hall (National Register, 1971), the Monroe Residential Historic District contains only two buildings thought to have been constructed prior to the Civil War. One is an outbuilding and the other, the Laney-Lee House, was enlarged and remodeled in the early 20th century, so that only some original interior trim attests to its early date.

For Monroe, like many small and medium-sized towns across the state, the arrival of the railroad was essential for the town's growth and progress. It was in 1874 that the Carolina Central Railway Company completed its line between Wilmington, the state's major seaport, and Charlotte, a southern Piedmont city which was eventually to become the state's most populous.

The station which was established at Monroe enabled the town to become a trading center for Union and the surrounding counties, notably Stanly to the north and Chesterfield and Lancaster across the border in South Carolina. The economies of all four counties were based primarily on agriculture, and farmers were now able to ship their agrarian products to far-flung markets much more easily and to purchase a diversity of goods not produced on the farm or locally available. The Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railway was incorporated by the state legislature in 1887, and by 1892, it had linked the growing town of Monroe with the major city of Atlanta, thereby opening even greater markets for the products of Union County and its neighbors.

In its maturation after the railroad's advent, the town of Monroe sits squarely in the context described by Sydney Nathans in The Quest for Progress: The Way We Lived in North Carolina, where he, following the lead of Walter Hines Page, delineated two types of North Carolina towns in the 1870s and 1880s. The first group included those which remained "in the grip of the past, their sleepy tone and leisurely habits set by former planters." Monroe was among a second group, characterized thus,

"Other towns were hubs of enterprise, with reputations for business and energy .... It was in these go-ahead towns, which were smaller in scale but identical in ambition to the dynamic cities of the North and the Midwest, that money was pursued without shame, that idleness was scorned, and that the ideology of progress took root."

Nathans goes on to discuss the growth of the middle class in these towns and their effect on the towns' development through, first, their establishment and support of a wide assortment of stores and services, and, secondly, the construction of large and stylish residences located in gracious settings of commodious lots enhanced by a variety of shade trees and other plantings.

Finally, the impetus that stimulated the development of areas such as the Monroe Residential Historic District is stated graphically by Nathans,
   
"The widening network of railroads, the dramatic expansion of industry, and the gradual growth of towns and cities brought a new measure of well-being to middle- and upper-class North Carolinians. Reflected in proud new civic and commercial buildings, that wealth also found expression in private residences and suburban development."

Unlike the planned suburban neighborhoods where a certain uniformity of architectural style, materials, scale and physical relationships occurs, the areas and buildings within the Monroe Residential Historic District exhibit a great deal of physical variety. All of the variant elements reflect the evolution of the area over a period of seventy years and contribute to its richness as a picture of that evolution.

Not surprisingly, the houses erected in Monroe during the period of significance employed many of the nationally popular styles of the time, as well as more traditional local patterns. In the former case, the railroad had made the popular architectural styles and the requisite building materials accessible to local builders and potential owners.

As Nathans pointed out in describing Hickory, North Carolina, "The coming of the railroad to the town in the previous decade {1870s} had brought new prosperity and put the community's home builders and buyers directly in touch with the latest trends of the era. On the railroad came the newest pattern books for homes. At sawmills nearby or far away, orders could be placed for elaborate manufactured moldings, factory-produced woodwork and doors, even for entire stairways. Carolina's traditional house-box-shaped, two-story—gave way to homes more modish and decorative."

After the Civil War, textiles became the dominant factor in the town's economic base, sped by the arrival in 1874 of the rail line linking Wilmington and Charlotte.
Growth and development in Rockingham accelerated after this event, and the area within its historic district experienced its greatest period of construction. In contrast, the growth of Monroe in the last quarter of the 19th century was based much less on manufacturing (its first cotton mill opened in 1890) than on trade. But with the exception of the inequality in the number of surviving antebellum buildings, the districts are similar architecturally and spatially, with houses in the popular architectural styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries located on streets radiating in three directions from the central business district.

The area incorporated by the state legislature for the town of Monroe consisted of a rectangular grid-plan tract of 75 acres—30 chains (1980 feet) by 25 chains (1650 feet)—centered around a courthouse square bounded by Jefferson, Hayne, Franklin and Lafayette (now Main) streets.

In February 1861 the town was enlarged with an addition of land to the west of the original boundaries, and several other additions were made over the following 20 years, to the south, east and west.

Most of the tracts added were owned by a handful of individuals and families. They included merchant and builder J.D. Stewart, who erected several important brick commercial buildings in the central business district during the 1870s and owned land in the west and southwest areas of the district. Another merchant, J.R. Winchester sold many lots in the late 1870s and early 1880s to individuals wanting to build on Washington and Crawford streets and Lancaster Avenue. The widow of Monroe mayor and Union County state senator D.A. Covington owned substantial tracts between Lancaster Avenue and Church Street, as well as land on Houston Street east of Church Street. Attorney and one-time Union County representative to the state General Assembly. M.T. McCauley owned an estate which included land located in the eastern portion of the district. MORE...

Gray's Map image was not included in the nomination report.

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