Fact Friday 83 – The 'Mint' In Charlotte's Oldest Art Museum
Happy Friday everyone!
The Kokenes family lived on Graham Street behind the old Charlotte Mint, at the current site of the Charles R. Jonas Federal Court Building at 401 West Trade. Behind the mint was a ramshackle toolhouse. All the neighborhood children knew what was in it – lawnmowers, junk, and “an old busted eagle,” recalled Constantine Kokenes. “We used to play on it.” The large, carved eagle had flown in place over the door of the mint. More graceful than any sign, it was the assayer’s symbol.
The U. S. Mint at its original location.
After Confederate soldiers vacated the mint, the government never minted money in the city again. It operated the mint as an assay office from 1867 to 1913. The eagle suffered badly after the assay office closed, cast into casual, irreverent storage.
By 1917, the mint stood empty. It was used as headquarters for the Red Cross during World War I and later for Charlotte Women’s Club meetings. Women became attached to the classic building and its history. People familiar with the building’s significance were horrified when the federal government began to dismantle the mint in order to build a larger post office on West Trade.
Mary Myers Dwelle had always wanted Charlotte to have an art museum and the classic, historic mint seemed ideal. She and other articulate leaders made talks around town to spur protest and action. Plans for preservation were rejected. In retrospect, it seems like a tidy rescue. But it was at best a very close call. If not for Dwelle’s and others’ outcries, the Charlotte Mint would have vanished in demolition dust like many other landmarks. Dwelle called J.E. Steere, and together they quickly invited twelve interested friends to meet. As workmen finished removing the roof, windows and doors, beginning on the walls, the committee bought the bricks, stones and pieces for $1,500, pledging to store them until something could be done. Money was gathered, largely $5 and $10 donations; the country was, after all, in the midst of the Great Depression.
The U.S. Mint on West Trade St. was dismantled and moved to the Eastover neighborhood to become the Mint Museum of Art in 1937. The retired eagle flies above the original entrance (above), now on the rear facade of the museum (below).
Architect Martin E. Boyer donated his services for the building’s restoration on three acres of bottomland in Eastover given by E.C. Griffith. Boyer offered alternate designs to adapt and preserve the mint for reuse on the site. He marked each stone as the building was dismantled and carefully supervised re-erection. The Federal Administration for Public Works office in Mecklenburg County approved the application for federal funds to rebuild the mint as an art museum. Much needed jobs were created by the construction effort, although payrolls were not always met.
When the Mint Museum opened in 1936, prankish Osmond Barringer stuck a red Ford taillight in the eagle’s eye. Charlotte badly needed a laugh and a victory. It was the first art museum in North Carolina, and it could not have been born in a more deprived time.
The U. S. Mint on the grounds of the Mint Museum of Art in Eastover.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Charlotte North Carolina: A Brief History; Mary Kratt, 2009
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass