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Original Belmont mill building emerges as bricks removed

BELMONT The 6 1/2 acres near thriving downtown Belmont appealed to developer John Church even though an old textile plant cluttered the property.

He planned to tear down the 110,000-square-foot, three-level building on Catawba Street and put in new retail and residential space.

In mid-August, as a wrecking ball dug into the brick, an architectural gem began to emerge: the original Chronicle Mill – Belmont’s first textile plant – built in 1902.

Beginning in 1926 and continuing for the next 30 to 40 years, at least three large additions had obscured a structure that was the foundation of the R.L. Stowe family textile empire, which closed in 2009.

Embedded in the additions was a 54-by-325-foot core plant with beams made of long-leaf yellow pine harvested on the East Coast, maple flooring and sun-dried, handmade brick.

Workers began uncovering rows of windows 5 feet wide and 12 feet high. Bricked up for more than a half-century, the windows once more admitted light.

When Church bought the property, he focused on clearing out the old and starting over.

But his vision began to change. Instead of demolishing the 111-year-old building, he’s now thinking about restoration.

“We’re peeling back the layers to see the original beauty of the building,” said Church, 62, of Cramerton. “It’s got a good feel, and it’s in good shape. I’ve got to decide what would be the best potential use.”

Nothing’s firm yet, but he’s considering apartments, offices and offering a warehouse section as a civic center.

Church, who is chief executive officer of Waterstone Asset Management in Charlotte, also runs a real estate business with his wife, Jennifer. To help him figure out what to do with the Chronicle property, he’s assembled an eight-member team, including an architect, engineer, environmentalist and lawyer.

Some of Gaston County’s former textile plants have been torn down while others have been put to new uses. Restoration of Gastonia’s 600,000-square-foot Loray Mill, also known as the Firestone, began in April. An investment partnership is renovating the property, which was the site of the bloody 1929 labor strike, for residential and commercial use.

Meanwhile, in Belmont crews continue to uncover a historic building that ushered in the town’s textile age.

Textile heritage

The original Chronicle Mill was built on the former estate of Revolutionary War hero Maj. William Chronicle. He mustered the “South Fork Boys” and led them at the Battle of Kings Mountain, where he was killed on Oct. 7, 1780. A muster scene is depicted in a New Deal-era mural at the nearby Belmont City Hall, a former U.S. post office.

Textile pioneer R.L. Stowe Sr. built a new home about 150 yards from the Chronicle Mill and walked to work. The residence is now headquarters for the Belmont Historical Society, which interprets the local textile story.

Society co-founder Jack Page, 81, said the Chronicle is a symbol of a local industry that would eventually grow to more than 25 mills.

He remembers walking around Belmont on summer evenings during World War II when plants ran around the clock. Through the open windows “you could hear the hum of machinery, sort of like a drum roll,” Page said. “It was part of our landscape.”

Only a few of the town’s textile mills are still in operation; several have been torn down. A restored Chronicle Mill would help preserve a piece of Belmont’s textile past.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Page said. “We didn’t want to see it torn down.”

Former Chronicle employee Ophelia Manus, 79, was also afraid the mill where she worked for 48 years would be demolished.

Driving by the plant stirs many memories.

“It was the only place I ever worked,” Manus said. “I didn’t know pea-turkey when I went there, but I learned to do a little bit of everything. I did the best job I could for them.”

She remembers raising one of the mill’s big windows, supporting it with a bobbin, and watching the town Christmas parade – usually with WBTV cowboy personality Fred Kirby – pass by on Catawba Street.

Her husband and three sons also worked at the plant.

Manus was relieved to hear about a possible restoration of the building.

“I hope they make something nice out of it,” she said.

Ryan Schrift, a member of the Belmont Planning and Zoning Board, said a mixed use project at the Chronicle Mill would be a good connector along the Catawba Street corridor linking downtown Belmont and east Belmont where a new soccer park is under construction and a planned Catawba River park is to begin construction.

Between those two parts of town is mostly a residential area made up of former mill houses.

A restored Chronicle Mill would “be transformational for the whole neighborhood,” Schrift said.

Mayor Richard Boyce said Belmont has tried unsuccessfully to preserve a mill building near the center of the city.

The Chronicle project sounded encouraging, and “I’m excited about the possibility,” he said.

Catalyst for redevelopment

A native of Mattoon, Ill., Church has a master’s degree in real estate management from Webster University in St. Louis and worked in the financial services industry for 40 years. He came to the Charlotte area with First Union in 1996 and started his own business in 2005.

Chyrch Realty – he uses the old English spelling of his last name – has developed several properties in Gaston County including a small shopping center on South New Hope Road.

For the Chronicle Mill project, Church hopes to get national historic designation, which would allow federal tax incentives.

On a recent tour of the building, Church looked out the newly restored windows and reflected on how the mill had been the center of so many lives in the past.

Giving the building new life would be a challenge, but he’s looking forward to it.

“Like everybody else, every time I go there to the mill the more I’m enamored of it,” Church said. “I hope it’s the catalyst for a larger neighborhood redevelopment – a spark to help rebuild the Catawba Street corridor.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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