Fact Friday 73 – Historic Belmont, Villa Heights, & Optimist Park - The Early Beginnings
Happy Friday everyone!
Each week I end the Fact Friday with a note to send me interesting facts or ideas if you guys have them for consideration in the newsletter. And occasionally I actually get some! So here’s a big 704 Shop shout out to Jane Glodowski for doing just that a few weeks back! Jane is a resident of the Belmont community, which has a rich history here in Charlotte, and the community does print newsletters “to build community for their long-time residents who don’t have computers or go online.” How awesome is that? She sent me over a link to their Fall issue highlighting the history of Belmont and it inspired me to pull together some information on the broader region to share with you all.
Given the speed of life today, the lines separating these communities from NoDa and Plaza-Midwood can quickly blur, especially in a car. You may not even notice the transition from one to the other. Below you’ll find maps to help you place the geographic proximity. If you’ve come to NoDa from the southern, eastern, or western sections of the city, then you’ve come through these distinct communities, and probably didn’t know it.
Villa Heights Community
Optimist Park Community
The Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park area was built up around the turn of the century beyond the northern rim of Charlotte's nineteenth century boundary (what is now the I-277 loop). Although the area was distinctly suburban in location and well served by streetcars, it was not built as a middle- and upper-income "streetcar suburb" like the contemporaneous neighborhoods of Dilworth, Elizabeth, Wesley Heights or Wilmore, among others. And although it contained textile mill housing, it was not the typical company-owned mill village found on the edges of Charlotte and other southern cities in the period.
Charlotte streetcar from the turn of the twentieth century
The area's beginnings are to be found near the tracks of the Seaboard Railway, which runs near its southern boundary, and the mainline of the Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern), which forms its western edge. These lines sparked industrial development in what had been farmland belonging to the wealthy antebellum farmer W. F. Phifer. The Alpha Mill (1889, 1901), Highland Park #1 (1891, 1895) and the Louise Mill (1897, 1900) built straight streets of cottages for their workers adjacent to the plants. Beginning in the 1890s, half a dozen private developers added subdivisions between the mill villages. A wide variety of single-family homes sprang up, somewhat more spacious than the mill houses, but mostly compact, wooden, and one story tall.
The area's residents were almost without exception blue-collar workers and their families. A few seem to have used the Brevard, Pegram, or Plaza streetcars (aka trolleys) that served the neighborhood to commute to jobs elsewhere in the city. But most walked to work in one of the nearby textile mills or related industries that came to line the railroads.
Per the newsletter provided by Jane, "Rebecca J. Walters lived with her grandparents in Belmont when Louise Mill was in its heyday and shared some of her memories from that period. She said that the mill owned all the houses on the street and the neighborhood was referred to as the Mill Hill. e grounds facing the railroad tracks had large trees and a parking area. In this area, the mill threw a large 4th of July party for the employees every year complete with music entertainment and food for all. The houses facing the mill were large two story impressive houses with wrap around porches. e superintendents lived in those houses. Since Rebecca’s grandfather was a supervisor, they lived in one of the large homes with a front and back porch and the house was located on a big lot. During the economic downturn of the 1950’s, the mills in Charlotte closed. e houses were sold to the employees. Rebecca said that her “granddaddy bought their house for $100”. The mill employees eventually found other jobs and most stayed in the neighborhood.
Though the area has no residences built for the rich and powerful, and no structures except churches designed as showy pieces of architecture, it is not without historic sites. The Alpha Mill at Twelfth and Brevard streets is one of the city's earliest and best-preserved textile plants, an early work of industrial innovator D.A. Tompkins. Adjacent to the mill on Calvine and Caldwell streets is a cluster of Alpha Mill cottages, Charlotte's oldest surviving mill village. Several blocks of privately developed housing near Belmont Avenue contain interesting examples of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century popular residential design. The 1000 block of Harrill Street in particular comprises one of Charlotte's last well-preserved collections of Victorian architecture.
The area's value goes beyond these specific architectural and historical high points. The Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park area was Charlotte's first entirely working-class suburban district. As such, it is an important reminder of this large group of people who, with their labor, helped advance Charlotte to its position as a leading textile producer and the largest city in North and South Carolina during the textile boom decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
Find all previous Fact Friday blog posts by clicking here.
Information taken from:
Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park Survey Area, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission
Community History - Belmont Community, Fall 2016, Issue 03
Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass