From Model Ts to missiles to Millennials, new lives for old factory
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Photos and text by Nancy Pierce / Feb 9, 2017
Near Charlotte’s sparkling center city, where development usually obliterates signs of the past, a 92-year-old factory with sturdy bones and a compelling history will be sticking around.
New York real estate developer ATCO Properties late last year purchased the 75-acre site between North Graham Street and Statesville Avenue. ATCO plans to adapt the 455,860-square-foot factory, its boiler house and warehouses for mixed commercial use while preserving much of the iconic industrial look.
The factory’s history illuminates the varied nature of Charlotte’s industrial past. In that building autoworkers assembled Fords in the 1920s and 1930s and later, during the Cold War, another generation of workers built land-to-air missiles.
The old factory lies within what Charlotte’s planners call the Applied Innovation Corridor, generally stretching from South End northeast to the UNC Charlotte main campus. Their vision calls for a concentrated technology industry cluster within the corridor, focused in a wedge-shaped area from the west edge of the NoDa neighborhood west to Statesville Avenue. The area would be supported by the high-speed internet the tech sector needs. City bonds, passed in 2014, will add pedestrian and bikeway facilities to improve walkability, which – along with public transit – many of today’s tech workers want.
ATCO plans to preserve much of the iconic industrial look. The name – CAMP North End – is a nod to one of the site’s former lives as the Charlotte Army Missile Plant (CAMP) during the Cold War. Between 1955 and 1964, military contractor Douglas Aircraft manufactured Nike missiles and later Nike Hercules.
But the plant’s history dates to before the Great Depression. In 1924 Henry and Edsel Ford built their company’s largest auto plant in the South there, just north of Charlotte’s bustling downtown on the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Albert Kahn, America’s best known early 20th-century industrial architect, designed the factory. Until the Great Depression caused the plant to close in 1932, workers made Ford Model T and Model A bodies there, attached them to chassis shipped by train from Detroit, and sent them to Southern car dealerships.
When the United States entered World War II, the Army bought the factory building. The Charlotte Quartermaster Corps Depot (QMD) distributed supplies to Carolinas and Virginia soldiers. Later the site was used to identify and send home the war dead from Southern states.
The Ford plant and the war-related employment were huge for Charlotte’s downtown. Some 2,500 civilians worked at the QMD, and 1,750 civilians worked at the CAMP through the early 1960s. It’s likely many of them walked to work from homes in the working-class neighborhoods surrounding the plant or, until the late 1930s, from a streetcar stop. Downtown Charlotte served those workers’ needs: small shops, lunch spots, movie theaters and department stores. ATCO’s vision, says Varian Shrum, community manager at CAMP North End, is to re-establish that community feel with established companies, entrepreneurs, creative types and technology start-ups.
In keeping with today’s sustainability concerns among many younger workers, the practice of reusing older buildings wins approval from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which notes that the “greenest” buildings are those that already exist. Adaptive reuse – finding new uses for old buildings – should be the default, the trust says, with demolition a last resort. Older buildings also can provide lower-cost space and flexibility, qualities that encourage innovation.
Even in the 1920s, factory designer Albert Kahn was a pioneer in providing natural light for factory workers. The boiler house’s three-story-high walls are mostly windows, and the factory itself has banks of windows on its two long sides. Two huge factory roof skylights were covered in the 1950s, probably as a security measure during missile production. ATCO hopes to restore the skylights, creating an open, light space for large companies. ATCO also intends to preserve the visually remarkable boiler mechanisms as industrial-chic decor for the public to view, Shrum says. Several large warehouses which were added by the military in later years are already being leased for start-ups, entrepreneurs and creative space
The photos above let you peek inside the CAMP North End historic buildings with photographer Nancy Pierce, who recently toured the site with Varian Shrum.