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.

Description of the Downtown Historic District

Text from National Register of Historic Places - 1987

The Monroe Downtown Historic District consists of the Old Union County Courthouse with its square and approximately six blocks of commercial buildings to the west and south of the courthouse. These blocks include the surviving, intact, pre-1935 portions of the city's central business district. The commercial buildings that make up the district are from one to five stories tall, all of masonry construction, in a variety of styles and dates from 1875 to the early 1930s, illustrating the development of the downtown during that period. There are twenty-six contributing properties in the district and nine non-contributing ones, plus one property already listed in the National Register, the Old Union County Courthouse.

The Old County Courthouse is located on a ridge overlooking the valley of Bearskin Creek and the railroad corridor next to it. For anyone approaching the downtown, the great height and mass of the courthouse's tower provides a landmark. Surrounding the courthouse is a landscaped square containing several large trees and, on the west side, the Confederate Monument. Sloping downhill from the courthouse on all sides is a grid pattern of streets, part of the original plan for the county seat laid out by commissioners appointed in 1843.

1847 Jail -1893 City Hall
Historically, the two major streets in the central business district have been N. Main (formerly Lafayette) street and Franklin Street, which intersect at the southwest corner of the courthouse square. Until the early 1970s, Main Street led to the railroad station, but in the 1970s, Main, north of the old courthouse, was converted to a mall at the end of which was placed the new courthouse. The east side of the courthouse square, which was the last side to be built up with brick structures, has also been the most redeveloped and has lost its integrity. The north side of the square, while retaining several early buildings, including the oldest structure in the city [1847Jail], the old Monroe City Hall [1893] (individually listed in the National Register), has also lost its integrity due to alterations.

Hotel Joffre circa 1918
Two corners of the courthouse square are anchored by buildings which, by their height and formality, reinforce the old county courthouse. At southwest corner is the Hotel Joffre Building of 1917-1919, a five-story yellow tapestry brick, limestone trimmed Classical Revival style edifice that stretches down W. Franklin Street, filling the north end of its block. At the southeast corner of the plaza is the three-story Bank of Union of 1905-06, a tan brick classical Revival style bank/office building with a prominent, domed corner tower which is supported by flanking buildings of a similar style.

Bank of Union circa 1905
In addition to the Hotel Joffre, the west side of the courthouse plaza includes the two-story, stuccoed brick Peoples Bank Building of 1875. Although altered on the first floor around 1900, this building is one of the earliest and most handsome masonry structures built in Monroe.

The south face of the plaza consists of two-story brick commercial buildings dating from the 1870s to the late 1920s in Italianate, Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance Revival styles. Some shopfronts have been altered, but the upper levels of the buildings, and several of the shopfronts are intact.

N. Main Street slopes down from the courthouse plaza to the beginnings of the residential area at its south end. Historically, the greatest concentration of buildings has been at the north end of Main Street, and this is also the best-preserved section. 

Lee Building 1901
At the southwest corner of Main and Franklin Streets is the Victorian Eclectic styled Lee Building, constructed in 1901. Although the building's shopfront has been replaced, the ornate upper levels of the former dry goods store are intact. Next to the Lee Building are two other Victorian Eclectic buildings, constructed for the Belk Brothers in 1901 and ca.1905, which are now joined at the first floor. On the east side of the block are two-story brick commercial structures dating from the turn of the century to the early 1930s, anchored at the south end by the three-story Belk/Bundy Building of 1901. While the building's Spanish tile pent cornice has been removed for safety reasons, the yellow brick clad Italian Renaissance Revival style design enlivened by white glazed terra cotta trim conveys the prosperity of Monroe's early twentieth century business district.

Belk/Bundy Building 1901
Across narrow Morgan Street from the Belk/Bundy Building is the former Monroe Bank & Trust company Building (1919-20). Faced with Indiana limestone and with white glazed terra cotta capitals, the two-story bank has a stylized classical Revival design unusual for North Carolina. A row of late-nineteenth century and 1920s two and three-story brick commercial buildings fills the remainder of the block, the former elements of which were originally part of Monroe s best-known hotel in the late-nineteenth century, the Stewart House.

The rear side of this block, facing N. Hayne Street, is completely filled by the 1924 Monroe Hardware Company Warehouse's three-story brick and concrete mass. Across the alley from it to the north is the Monroe Hardware Company Building of 1928, constructed with a similar tapestry brick. The long side elevation of the red and yellow brick Classical Revival style Secrest Building, reconstructed in 1928, completes the block.

Late 19th Century Stewart House
On the south side of E. Franklin Street are a row of one-story brick stores, constructed ca. 1908 but with altered fronts, and two larger, more richly-detailed two-story brick commercial buildings constructed ca.1902 and ca.1912. One of these, 200 E. Franklin, is associated with J. Shute and sons, and like their buildings at the corner of Hayne and Franklin Streets, is faced with yellow brick.

As is common in commercial districts, the first floor fronts of many of the Monroe downtown buildings have been rebuilt. However, in most cases the upper levels of the buildings have retained their integrity or the changes made to them are readily reversible. Some rehabilitation has taken place in recent years, most notably that of the Bank of Union Building. The recent restoration of the Old Union County Courthouse and its plaza has greatly improved the historic feeling and integrity of the district.


Early Monroe Depot
The Monroe Downtown Historic District consists of the recently-restored 1888 Old Union County Courthouse, already listed in the National Register and sited on a landscaped square and two sides of the square extending west and south to include approximately six blocks of commercial buildings. These twenty-six contributing and nine non-contributing properties form the surviving commercial core of the City of Monroe prior to 1935. The district qualifies under Criterion A in the area of Commerce because it is representative of the growth and development of the city as a south-central piedmont North Carolina railroad hub and cotton exchange from the coming of the railroad in 1874 to the early years of the Depression. Many of the properties in the district are associated with a small number of owners who played important roles in the city and region, including W. H. and J. M. Belk, who established one of the southeast's largest retailing networks in Monroe in 1888, and J. Shute and Sons, who were involved in numerous business activities from brickmaking to cotton ginning to wholesale groceries. Another important regional business founded in Monroe was the Monroe Hardware company, begun in the 1880s, and by 1919 the largest hardware jobber in the Carolinas, who built a large warehouse and two stores in the district in the 1920s. The district qualifies under Criterion C in the area of architecture because it contains well-preserved examples of the eclectic late-Victorian brick commercial buildings typical of many piedmont North Carolina main streets, together with buildings of unusual sophistication for a small turn-of-the-century city. Although many of the buildings have received some alteration, individually, and as a group, they retain an integrity of design, setting, materials, workmanship and feeling with local significance in both commerce and architecture.

Historical Background

Belk's "New York Racket" Store - Late 1800s
Union County was formed by an 1842 act of the General Assembly from portions of Anson and Mecklenburg counties. A supplemental act provided for the appointment of commissioners to determine a county seat, which would be located within two miles of the center of the county, and which would be named in honor of President James Monroe. On June 8, 1843, Henry Chaney conveyed 75 acres to the chairman of the county court, on which the commissioners laid out the nucleus of the new county seat. At a high point at the north end of the plat they located a courthouse square, bounded by Jefferson, Franklin, Hayne and Lafayette (now Main) streets, each eighty feet wide. The use of a grid plan with squares for public buildings followed a tradition in North Carolina urban planning at least as old as William Christmas's 1792 plan for the new state capital, Raleigh, but which is pre-dated by plans for Fayetteville (1783) and Pittsboro (1785). However, these and other North Carolina plans drawn in the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries generally employ a form apparently derived from Pennsylvania practice, in which streets intersect the sides of the square. The block square, in which the courthouse is located in a central square, without intersecting boulevards, appears to have spread east from Tennessee in the early nineteenth century. Another example of this type of plan from the same period is Shelby, in nearby Cleveland County.

Over the next thirty years a predominantly frame business district grew up around the courthouse square, in which was located a frame courthouse. The block faces surrounding the courthouse did not develop evenly; along Franklin and Lafayette streets were located the largest and most important businesses. During that period Monroe served largely as an intermediate point in highway travel between North Carolina cities and the South Carolina counties immediately to the south.

The December 1874 completion of the Carolina Central Railway between Wilmington and Charlotte brought important changes in the town's commercial standing. Monroe became a market town where agricultural products from Union and the surrounding rural counties of North and South Carolina could be exchanged for manufactured goods brought in on the railroad. It was a hub between the state's greatest seaport and its fastest growing metropolis. Construction of the Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad in 1887-1892 between Atlanta and Monroe further strengthened the city's status as a railroad center. These railways were merged into the Seaboard Air Line Railway in 1901 and, since the railroad did not go through Charlotte, Monroe became an important link in the seaboard's north-south route. MORE...

Images courtesy Heritage Room Collection, Monroe, NC

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