Fact Friday 355 - The Independence Building, The First Skyscraper in NC

Fact Friday 355 - The Independence Building, The First Skyscraper in NC

Happy Friday!

This week's content comes from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. 


The series of developments which led to the construction of the Independence Building (Realty Building) at Trade and Tryon Sts. in Charlotte, N.C., began on July 26, 1905. On that day a group of prominent businessmen (W. H. Belk, C. N. Evans, O. P. Heath, Julian H. Little and C. M. Patterson) secured charters of incorporation for two new concerns, the Charlotte Trust Co. and the Charlotte Realty Co. Both enterprises opened for business on September 23, 1905, in their headquarters in the basement of the Central Hotel on the southeastern corner of the Square. The organizations prospered under the leadership of Julian H. Little, who had been elected President of the two firms on September 2, 1905. Illustrative of this success was the decision to seek more prestigious facilities for the new bank and its real estate affiliate.

In 1906 the group selected Daniel Augustus Tompkins, publisher of The Charlotte Observer and renowned advocate of Southern industrialization, to approach the owners of the "Osborne Corner," the lot on the northwestern corner of the Square. Mr. Little and his associates believed that this would be the most suitable location for the imposing building which they envisaged. On November 27, 1906, the Charlotte Realty Co. purchased the land and the structure situated thereon for the then astounding sum of ninety-two thousand dollars. Adding to the excitement engendered by this transaction was the announcement that the buyers intended to erect "a ten or a twelve-story, steel frame, office building on the site, a regular sky scraper (sic.)."

Mr. Little and his associates held a major design competition for the proposed skyscraper. The Charlotte Observer of April 24, 1907, stated that the Board of Directors of the Charlotte Realty Co. were reviewing the plans which had been submitted by the eight architectural firms that were participants in the final stages of this process. Representatives from as far away as Boston, Mass., New York City, Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Ala., appeared before the Board. Also among the finalists were three local firms: Hook & Rogers, Franklin Gordon, and Wheeler, Runge & Dickey.

On May 27, 1907, the Board of Directors of the Charlotte Realty Co. selected Frank Pierce Milburn as the architect for the "new 12-story fireproof office building of the skyscraper type" which would be erected on the northwestern corner of Independence Square. The selection of Mr. Milburn was an indication of the seriousness and professionalism with which Mr. Little and his associates had superintended the design competition. A native of Bowling Green, Ky., and graduate of Arkansas Industrial University, Hr. Milburn was one of the most prominent architects who designed structures in the two Carolinas from the 1890's until his death in September 1926. An article in the Summer 1973 issue of the North Carolina Historical Reviewlists most of the structures in North Carolina for which Mr. Milburn was the architect. Included among them are several of the imposing buildings which were erected in Charlotte in the two decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The Stonewall Hotel on W. Trade St., the Charlotte Sanatorium at Church and Seventh Streets, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on S. Tryon St. and the Independence Building (Realty Building) were some of the noteworthy contributions which Mr. Milburn made to the emerging townscape of this community. The Charlotte Observer of May 18, 1908, provided additional evidence of the scope of Mr. Milburn's practice. It reported that Mr. Milburn had designed twenty-seven edifices which were then under construction in North Carolina, including courthouses, county jails, railroad stations, college buildings, hospitals, hotels and office building. Perhaps Mr. Milburn is best remembered for the buildings which he designed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, such as the YMCA Building and the Bynum Gymnasium.

The contract for erecting the Independence Building (Realty Building) was awarded to the J. A. Jones Construction Company. James Addison Jones, a native of Randolph County, had come to Charlotte in the 1880's to work as a common laborer for a Mr. Cecil, a contractor from Lexington, N.C., who built several of Charlotte's textile mills of the post-bellum era. Sometime in the early 1890's Mr. Jones had established his own firm, thereby launching the development of a construction enterprise that would erect high-rise buildings throughout this country and abroad. It is worth noting, however, that the Independence Building (Realty Building) was the first skyscraper built by the now-famous J. A. Jones Construction Company.

The transformation of the "Osborne Corner" began in January 1908 with the destruction of the frame structure (the John Irwin House) which had stood on the site since the early 1800's and which in more recent years had housed the Woodall & Sheppard Drug Co. That the citizens of Charlotte wore intensely interested in the project is certain. The Charlotte Observer of June 8, 1908, commented that "pedestrians on the street are beginning to develop into a set of 'rubber necks' in their attempt to see, every morning, whether or not it (the skyscraper) has climbed during the night and, every night, how high it has leaped since morning. It is not difficult to understand why the construction of the Independence Building (Realty Building) attracted so much attention. Irrefutable documentation exists to prove that this was the first steel-frame high-rise building erected in North Carolina. A reporter for The News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., stated on June 21, 1908, that the Only skyscraper in the State" was "being constructed" in Charlotte. In an interview which was published in The Charlotte Observer on May 18, 1908, Frank P. Milburn boasted that a "new 12- story and basement steel-frame skyscraper" was underway in Charlotte, which would be "the first building of this type and the most expensive office building in the State." Lawrence Wodehouse, author of the article on Mr. Milburn which appears in the Summer 1973 issue of The North Carolina Historical Review, declares that Frank Milburn "was the architect for the first steel frame building erected in North Carolina," the Independence Building (Realty Building) "in Charlotte."

The people of Charlotte took great pride in the fact that they would soon have the tallest edifice in the state. To them it symbolized the strength and vitality of the commercial and industrial base of this community. The Charlotte Observer of 1908- 09 spoke to this point on several occasions. Particularly illuminating in this regard were the comments of two reporters who visited the top of the still-unfinished skyscraper in October 1908. "Appreciation of what the city is," they asserted, "comes only to those who view it from this aerial spot." Only from the top of "the most magnificent building of the Carolinas" could one appreciate that "Charlotte assumes the nature of a mining-town in western Pennsylvania, everlastingly enwrapped in clouds of smoke." So proud were the local residents of the emerging skyscraper that they persuaded J. A. Jones to "shove the towering structure 30 feet further up" by putting the first column of the final portion of the steel frame into place, thereby letting the delegates to the Democratic State Convention in June 1908 see the extra height of the building.

The Independence Building, Charlotte, NC. 

Tenants began to occupy the upper floors of the building in late 1908. It was not until May 18, 1909, however, that the banking facility opened on the first floor, just two days before President William Howard Taft was scheduled to visit the city. In January 1908 the Charlotte Trust Co. had merged with the Charlotte National Bank, the consolidated organization having retained the name of the latter institution. The President of the enlarged Charlotte National Bank was B. D. Heath. Julian H. Little and John M. Scott were Vice-Presidents. The bank occupied the southern half of the first floor and the main entrance thereto was located on the Trade St. side of the building.


Until next week!



Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, "The Independence Building," by Dr. Dan L. Morrill, December 7, 1977.   


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