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The Voice of the Black Community

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History restored
Inner city buildings find new purpose with renovation
 
Published Thursday, January 26, 2012 7:11 am
by Herbert L. White

 

PHOTO/PAUL WILLIAMS III
Malcolm Graham, special assistant to the president at Johnson C. Smith University, stands in front of the George Davis House, which is being restored to its original status. The house, built in 1895 for the school’s first black professor, will be converted into headquarters for the Foster Village Network Center. 
The rundown house on Campus Street isn’t much to look at.

The former home of George Davis, built in 1895 for Johnson C. Smith University’s first black professor, has a buckled roof and crumbling foundation. But the old house has a bright future in restoration as Charlotte’s urban neighborhoods are transformed. The designated landmark is being renovated to house the Foster Village Network Center, a support program for teens who’ve aged out of foster care.

“The Davis House is an incredible accomplishment,” said Dan Morrill PhD., consulting director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, which provided JCSU a no-interest $442,000 construction loan to restore the building. “A lot of people would look at that and say the best thing you can do is tear it down and get rid of it. But what President Carter realizes is that when you tear it down, you simply weaken the narrative of the neighborhood. You tear down the visual symbol of a memory.”

The Belvedere Theater, built in 1955 on Rozzelles Ferry Road, has a new lease on life as Belvedere Family Dentistry, replete with a movie motif. Dr. Richard Dest, co-owner of the practice, saw an opportunity to make an investment in west Charlotte while restoring a long-forgotten piece of its cinema history.

“The theater was an integral part of this neighborhood,” Dest said. “The neighborhood did not want it torn down. Our hope is to re-energize this whole corridor and spur development here.”

The Belvedere’s mid-20th century modernist architecture was built to cater to black moviegoers during a time of separate facilities for blacks and whites. Today, it houses an essential health service as part of the Greenway Business Center. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Development Corp. helped foot the Belvedere’s development bill with a $250,000 grant from the city of Charlotte and a loan from Park Sterling Bank.

“That’s a distinctive part of our historic man-made environment,” Morrill said. “Although legal racial segregation is a painful part of our past, it was something that directly affected people’s lives and therefore it’s important for us to retain the buildings that are associated with all our periods of history.”

When JCSU President Ronald Carter arrived on campus four years ago, the Davis House was on the verge of being torn down by the university. Carter, who has been a foster parent, imagined a new purpose for the old building.

“The change in philosophy came with the change in administration,” said Malcolm Graham, Carter’s assistant at JCSU. “Dr. Carter had a commitment to revitalization of the West Trade-Beatties Ford Road Corridor and we looked at the important assets in the corridor, places that were worthy of redevelopment. Obviously, the Davis House was one of those properties that came up on the radar screen.”

The Davis House project should be completed “probably some time early next year,” Graham said.

“It’s a major overhaul based on the condition of the existing property,” he continued. “Obviously, we’re working to restore it back to its original status. The house has been sitting there for a while, so there’s a lot of work that has to be done to make sure in inhabitable as well as representative of the historic nature of the building.”

Another JCSU-controlled property, the former Mount Carmel Baptist Church is also a potential candidate for redevelopment, Graham said, although “there’s no timetable for it.”

Charlotte’s urban core has been in transformation over the last 20 years as historically-black neighborhoods like Wilmore and Wesley Heights are being repurposed as housing and business magnets. With easy access to Center City and transportation, long-ignored communities are attracting new investment among upper-income homeowners and entrepreneurs.

“One of the things you hear is Charlotte tears everything down, but in fact, Charlotte’s done a good job with preservation,” Morrill said. “We’ve certainly seen the revitalization of a number of historic neighborhoods like Wesley Heights, like Wilmore, like Dilworth, like Elizabeth, like NoDa.”
That’s why Dest is excited about taking part in the Belvedre project.

“I’ve been in Charlotte 45 years and this area is rich in culture,” Dest said. “This is our little way of bringing it back and we want to be involved in the community. We’re very committed to the area.”

That’s JCSU’s goal for the Northwest Corridor, where the university has expanded its campus beyond Beatties Ford Road with new classrooms and student housing over the last couple of years. Repurposing old buildings is also part of the equation.

“We wanted to create an environment that’s unique and different and it doesn’t have to be brand new to be unique and different,” Graham said.
Preservation is important to the community vitality, Morrill said, especially among African Americans who have witnessed and benefited from changes in America’s social fabric.

“They associate the history with the struggle,” he said. “They feel they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, that their greater opportunities in life are due to the sacrifices that were made by people before them.”


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