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Loray Mill restoration begins

By Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest
Joe DePriest is a columnist for the Neighbors of Catawba & Gaston.

They called it the “Million Dollar Mill” – the largest textile plant in the South under one roof.

Built in 1900, the massive structure in West Gastonia took its name from owners John Love and George Gray: Loray.

At its peak in the late 1920s, the mill employed 3,500 workers, many who lived in the surrounding neighborhood and attended Loray Baptist Church. The Loray name became permanently stamped in American labor history as the site of the bloody 1929 strike.

This well-known story flashed through my mind again recently as I stood in front of the old Loray – also known as the Firestone Mill – waiting on another historic event to take place.

It was the construction kickoff celebration for a big project to renovate the long-vacant building. Phase one will be 190 market rate “Class A” loft apartments, 79,000 square feet of commercial space and 34,000 square feet of amenities and self-storage for apartment residents.

I got there early and visited with folks like Lucy Penegar, who was on the program and would get a strong round of applause from the crowd. For more than 20 years, nobody has been a more dedicated spokeswoman for saving the Loray than Penegar, vice chairwoman of the Gaston County Historic Preservation Commission.

In Penegar, the towering old mill facing an uncertain future had a true champion.

And it was more than just words with her. Penegar volunteered her time to show visitors through the Loray and build support for its preservation.

Many who attended the ceremony remembered a familiar sight outside the mill over the years: Penegar cutting grass on her riding lawn mower. The crowd knew the depth of her devotion to this local landmark and showed their appreciation.

Many partners

Many others also were dedicated. Among the speakers at the kickoff were Gastonia Mayor John Bridgeman, who chaired the first committee formed by Mayor Jick Garland in 1995 to explore ways to reuse the Loray building.

Bridgeman talked about how the renovation would spur millions in reinvestment in the surrounding area and benefit the city as a whole.

Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, also spoke at the kickoff. The Raleigh-based nonprofit got the old mill building in 1998 as a donation from Firestone Fibers and Textiles.

Calling the Loray one of North Carolina’s most important historic places, Howard said it will be a “tremendous asset” for Gastonia and the entire state for years to come.

He also mentioned “the years of hard work by many partners to preserve it.”

The city of Gastonia has provided a chronology of events leading to the renovation. Key dates include 1996, when a Charlotte architect’s plan for condominiums at the Loray fizzled, and 1997, when it was announced the building would be torn down.

In 1999, other developers came along, and one hung on after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered a recession. By 2003, he’d bowed out, and the current development group came on board.

The financial and real estate closing for the $39 million first phase of the Loray project was completed this month.

Construction brings changes. A stretch of West Second Avenue, which runs in front of the mill, will be permanently closed as part of the redevelopment. This stretch is from South Dalton Street to South Vance Street.

Also closed are South Firestone Boulevard, mid-block between West Franklin Boulevard and West Second Avenue; and South Millon Street about 50 feet from West Second Boulevard.

Public areas of the renovated building will provide space for a permanent exhibit on textile mill history, with emphasis on the Loray.

Lighting of star

I’ve been through the old mill many times, with Penegar as my guide. Within that vast emptiness I’ve imagined the noise of machinery and the bustle of thousands of workers. And I always wondered if the place would survive.

Back in 2006, a group of volunteers placed four 12-foot-wide Christmas stars on the sides of a 150-foot tall tower atop the mill.

At the kickoff celebration, Penegar presided over the symbolic lighting of one star.

The lights flashed on to another round of applause. It was a historic moment, marking an important new turn in the story of a Gastonia icon.

Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com
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