GASTONIA The 580 windows in Gastonia’s historic Loray Mill were all handmade and measured 6 by 12 feet.
Light spilled into the building’s six floors where 3,500 employees once worked around clattering machinery.
The building stood empty and silent for years. But in April 150 to 180 workers began renovating the 110-year-old former mill for residential and commercial use. Crews recently began replacing the old windows with new custom-made units. They’re sandblasting floors and ceilings, resurfacing the one-acre roof and moving earth.
“We’re seeing progress on a daily basis,” said Billy Hughes, a partner in Loray Redevelopment LLC. “It’s a daily excitement I get to experience.”
The $39 million first phase includes 190 loft apartments, 79,000 square feet of commercial space and 34,000 square feet of amenities.
Hughes said the project is on schedule for completion in spring 2014.
The 600,000-square-foot Loray, also known as Firestone Mill, was the site of Gastonia’s bloody 1929 labor strike. The strike made headlines around the world as violence claimed the lives of Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt and union activist Ella May Wiggins.
Firestone Textile and Fibers bought the building in the 1930s and stayed until construction of a new tire cord manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain in 1993.
The Raleigh-based nonprofit Preservation North Carolina got the old mill building in 1998 as a donation from Firestone and tried to find a developer for what was considered one of the state’s most important historic places.
In the summer of 2012, an Atlanta-based development company got a firm commitment for Federal Housing Administration financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the restoration project.
The firm got other investors involved and developed a partnership that bought the building for $660,000.
At a construction kickoff in April, a North Carolina historical marker identifying the location of the 1929 strike was dedicated on West Franklin Boulevard.
Hughes said that when old buildings like the Loray are restored “you have surprises and we have them here. Ninety-nine percent are very pleasant.”
For example, he said workers recently uncovered three “gorgeous” archways on the main level.
And there are other surprises. On a Friday at 2 p.m., Hughes watched the first new window go in on the sixth floor. When he came back early Saturday 20 windows had been installed.
“Every day I see something awe inspiring,” Hughes said. “I say, ‘Wow, this is a very cool project.’’’
Gastonia Mayor Pro Tem Brenda Craig recently toured the building and said “it’s amazing to see what’s been accomplished.”
A West Gastonia native, she remembered coming to the mill as a child.
It was a vast place, full of employees.
“I’d look down from the sixth floor and see the machinery and the ladies with their hair nets, dresses and aprons,” Craig said. “And I’d see the men in their overalls.”
The mill’s past will be preserved in a gallery inside the building and open to the public.
“The developers are totally committed to keeping the history value and flavor,” said Craig.
Meanwhile, she said the project’s economic impact “is going to be amazing to see. I don’t think any of us have a good handle on where this will take us economically. But I couldn’t be more excited.”
Virginia Carpenter, 84, often watches work on the Loray project from the front porch of her home, directly across from the mill building.
The place has considerable sentimental value for her. Carpenter’s father worked at the Loray for 40 years and was there in 1929, the year she was born.
Carpenter worked at the mill for eight years, beginning in 1948.
In those days, the mill windows were open and Carpenter remembers leaning out of one on the fifth floor, yelling down at her infant son, who was at home outside in a stroller.
“I never did get him to look up,” she said. “He looked everywhere but up.”
She has many memories connected with the old building and is looking forward to its rebirth.
“I hope I live to see it completed,” said Carpenter. “I’m thankful they’re not tearing it down.”
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