The apartment house at the corner of Marietta Street and Second Avenue in Gastonia was the dream of Col. Charles Beauregard Armstrong.As school board chairman, he wanted a comfortable place for newly arrived single teachers and business women to live.Not one to wait around, hoping something would happen, he built a teacherage as an act of philanthropy and investment. The colonel – an honorary rank in the N.C. National Guard – died in 1920, shortly before the apartments opened. But his name stayed on.Until 1964, when new owners decided it was time for a change; Armstrong Apartments became Marietta Apartments. About 12 years ago, the business closed, and the building came under the ownership of Preservation North Carolina. Since then, I’ve been hoping this historic Gastonia property would find a new life. Fortunately, that’s about to happen. In March, the renovated building will reopen with its original name – Armstrong Apartments. A partnership between Gastonia, Preservation North Carolina and Winston-Salem-based Blackpine Development Corp. has created 18 affordable market-rate, townhome style apartments in the building. The 13 two-bedroom units rent for $750 a month and the five one-bedroom units go for $600 a month. The city, along with Preservation North Carolina and the Landmark Group of Winston-Salem, are partnering to renovate the historic hospital building on North Highland Street into 75 affordable apartments for seniors and persons with disabilities. Jack Kiser, Gastonia director of special projects, recently gave me a batch of historical materials related to Armstrong. According to one newspaper obituary, he had a “love for Gastonia that amounted to a passion.”Varied careerBorn in 1861, Armstrong grew up on a farm on South New Hope Road. In that post-Civil War world, the first railroads spanned the Catawba River and snaked cross Gaston County, sparking a new energy in towns and industry. Ambitious folks like Armstrong were filled with that energy.Leaving the farm, he traveled to Florida, selling bedspreads and other textile products from local mills. At age 26, Armstrong married Dorcas Jenkins and in 1892 moved to Gastonia, where he opened a combination furniture store and undertaking business.With the arrival of a new century, Armstrong was on the fast track – and he stayed on it.From 1900 until 1906, he was Gaston County sheriff. Voters elected him mayor of Gastonia the following year. A lay leader and major benefactor of Gastonia’s First Presbyterian Church, he built Armstrong Memorial Presbyterian (now home to the School of the Arts).In 1905, Armstrong helped organize Gastonia Building and Loan Association, and served as secretary and treasurer. (Its successor institutions became Citizens South Bank, now Park Sterling.)Armstrong was co-founder and first president of Home Building and Loan Association. (Its successors were ultimately absorbed into Bank of America.)Kiser noted that these institutions “played a vital role in the city’s rapid growth in the early Twentieth Century.” At the time of his death, Armstrong was president of Citizens National Bank. Armstrong Land & Investment Co. built the Gastonia apartments along with such subdivisions as Armstrong Park, Forest Hills, Brookwood, Hillcrest and Fairmont Park.The colonel got into textiles in 1906, naming his first mill after his daughter, Clara. By the time of his death at age 59, Armstrong owned 15 mills, employing about 2,500 people.On the edge of Gastonia, he built Armstrong Park for mill employees. Later, it became a public park offering a playground along with swimming and picnicking. Armstrong thought Gastonia needed a first-class hotel, so he partnered with R.B. Babington to build and operate the Armington Hotel on West Airline Street across from the Southern Railway depot. The four-story, 110-room hotel with fine dining was a local landmark for 40 years In a lengthy battle to move the county seat from Dallas to Gastonia, Armstrong played a key role in the final vote that led to a victory in 1909. He helped found the Gastonia Chamber of Commerce and during two terms as mayor, 1913-17, pushed for the paving of streets and sidewalks.Finding out moreDuring his chairmanship of the Gastonia school board, local teachers were paid the highest salaries of any teachers in the state. Armstrong also led a school bond referendum that financed construction of a new Gastonia High School (now the historic Ashley Arms Apartments.).As school board chairman, Armstrong knew that single teachers moving to Gastonia had few affordable places to live. To fill that need, he bankrolled construction of a building with 24 furnished apartments, along with a big lobby and dining room.Rent was around $8 a month, which included one meal a day.Last Monday I toured the renovated apartments with Kiser and Armstrong’s grandson, Charles Armstrong Horne, 72, who lives on Armstrong Circle in Gastonia.Horne recalled how he had he lived in a house beside the apartments as a child. He played in a coal bin at the apartments which were heated by radiators. His aunt Clara Armstrong Wetzel managed the apartments, and his high school history teacher, Jinsie Underwood, lived there.Horne is glad the Armstrong name is returning to the building and that it’s being restored. Recently, he’s been researching his grandfather and “finding out a lot more about him.” The colonel was truly an amazing person.Like me, Horne has been asking, “How in the world did he do all those things in such a short time?”
Saturday, Feb. 09, 2013
Gastonia’s Armstrong Apartments returning
The building originally housed single teachers and business women
Col. Charles Beauregard Armstrong. COURTESY OF JACK KISER
Learn more For information about units at the renovated Armstrong Apartments, call 336-462-9810.