Fact Friday 293 - The Historic Builders Building
The Builders Building, located at 312 W. Trade Street in Charlotte, North Carolina, was designed by Charlotte architect and engineer Marion Rossiter “Steve” Marsh (1901-1977) and constructed in 1926-27 in response to the building boom that was occurring in Charlotte and its environs during the years immediately following World War One. Among its tenants were realtors, architects, surveyors, general contractors, and accountants, to mention only a few. “It was intended to house the offices of all of Charlotte's contractors and builders,” writes historian Thomas W. Hanchett, “in order to facilitate sharing of technical information and hiring of subcontractors, part of a nationwide movement for ‘builders exchanges’ that had begun around the turn of the century.”
The bringing together of firms involved in the building trades was especially popular in those communities, such as Charlotte, that were dedicated to unremitting growth and expansion. This concentration of architects, general contractors, and components manufacturers, it was argued, would allow construction professionals to respond more effectively to the increasingly complex building systems that were appearing in urban centers of the United States, including those in North Carolina, in the early twentieth century. A city like Charlotte, “with its access to money, position, and information encouraged change and growth, adaptation and adjustment,” write the authors of Architects and Builders in North Carolina. A History of the Practice of Building. They continue: “While architects and builders gave up a certain amount of independence and control of their lives and jobs, they also assimilated the changes brought on by the industrialization of the building process into a way of working that could take advantage of the progress and prosperity the new economy and society seemed to offer.”
The impetus for constructing a home for Charlotte’s builders began in
1925. “The proposition was discussed fully in business conferences, at clubs in informal conferences,” reported the Charlotte Observer. The original concept was for the tenants of the building to buy stock and thereby provide the necessary financing. When this arrangement failed to materialize, V. P. Loftis, executive secretary of the North Carolina branch of the General Contractors Association, approached insurance executive and future Charlotte mayor Charles E. Lambeth (1894?-1948), who agreed to loan the money to enable the project to move forward. Architect M. R. Marsh was also involved in these negotiations.
It was altogether fitting that Charles Lambeth was instrumental in bringing the Builders Building to fruition. A native of Fayetteville, N.C., Lambeth had located here after graduating from the University of North Carolina. His wife was Laura Cannon Lambeth, a daughter of James William Cannon, a major figure in the Carolina textile industry and a man of great wealth. Like so many Charlotte businessmen of his era, Lambeth was a champion of entrepreneurial
enterprise. He wanted Charlotte to become a truly substantial place and believed that locating construction businesses in a single edifice would advance that goal. “Few buildings for such a purpose exist in the south,” the Charlotte Observer announced. “There is one in Baltimore. One of somewhat similar purpose in Atlanta. Charlotte is the sole city between these two to have such a structure.”
Newspaper articles published at the time the Builders Building was completed in July 1927 express the New South creed of urban “boosterism” that men like Lambeth and his rich father-in-law supported. “If the architects, painters, plasterers, electrical men, and others, had not been the type of men to develop with the city it is extremely doubtful if Charlotte could have grown,” proclaimed the Charlotte Observer. The newspaper continued: “Every year the number of new constructions in the city has grown. Each year the aggregate figures for building permits has mounted.”
M. R. “Steve” Marsh, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., came to Charlotte in 1916 as chief draftsman for the architectural firm headed by James Mackson McMichael (1870-1944). He next worked as an engineer for Peter Spence Gilchrist (1861-1947), a chemical engineer who specialized in the installation of sulfuric acid plants. In 1922 Marsh opened his own architectural and engineering company in Charlotte and continued to head the firm until his retirement in 1964. “He was one of the pioneer architects in North Carolina,” said one of his associates. Marsh designed an impressive array of structures in Charlotte and the region during his 42-year career. Among his local jobs were Temple Israel, the Charlotte Coca-Cola Bottling Plant, the Oasis Temple, Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church, the South Branch
Library in Myers Park, the Charlotte Armory Building, Chantilly Elementary School, Morris Field, plus many more, including several residences.
That Marsh received the contract to design the Builders Building was a real feather in his cap, so to speak, because the new edifice was to be a showcase of whatconstructionprofessionalscouldaccomplish. Thestructure,whichoriginally had a two-story arcade extending behind the seven-story high-rise at the front, was intended to be an advertisement of sorts for the building arts. “Charlotte latest addition to its major buildings is perhaps more characteristic of its vast construction program in the past few years than any other building in the city,” trumpeted the Charlotte Observer. Located on the site of the home where Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s widow had resided for many years after the Civil War, the Builders Building cost approximately $300,000 to erect and appoint. J. P. Little and Sons was the general contractor; and the great majority of the subcontractors were also local firms, including the Grady Sign Co for signage, J. D. Love for plastering, and the Acme Plumbing and Electrical Company for wiring and plumbing.
The design philosophy for the Builders Building emphasized modernity, at least within the context of the 1920s. Insisting that Charlotte was “destined to be one of the South’s greatest cities,” Lambeth and his associates wanted the “modern –fire proof-seven Builders’ Building” to be a symbol of Charlotte’s economic prowess and promise. The seven-story high rise portion of the structure was not essential in terms of function. Its primary purpose was to serve as a symbol of progress and financial strength. According to the authors of Architects and Builders in North Carolina. A History of the Practice of Building, the “symbolic importance” of skyscrapers as a “sign of progress, permanence, and prosperity was immeasurable.” Typical of the advertisements that appeared for subcontractors was that for McDaniel-Federal Co., suppliers of decorative tiles for the Builders Building. “IN ORDER that the Builders Building—representing as it does, the building interests of Charlotte and territory—might be modern in every way, Tile Wainscoting was used in the main lobby, or elevator entrance,” the advertisement proclaimed.
To read more about the building and its architectural significance, click here.
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Information taken from:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "Survey and Research Report on the Builders Building." Dr. Dan L. Morrill.
Axos, "Should this 1920s uptown building be saved?" by Andrew Dunn. November 20, 2015.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass