Yes, Charlotte has a reputation for tearing down its history, but the Queen City still has a number of historically important buildings. The Ratcliffe Florist Building on South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte is a perfect example – you may walk by it and not even know its story.
The History: Louis Ratcliffe started his floral business in 1917, setting up shop next to Latta Arcade, in the 300 block of South Tryon. Business was good, and Ratcliffe asked William H. Peeps to design a building for him. Peeps was a well-known British-born architect who had drawn up the plans for Latta Arcade as well as homes for some of Charlotte's wealthiest residents. Local historian Tom Hanchett said Peeps' homes "look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves just stepped out of them, and with the Ratcliffe building, he took that and brought it to uptown."
Elements of the façade include stuccoed brick, a wooden gable, grooved columns and a balcony complete with cast iron railings. Half of the interior is two stories high, with flourishes of chestnut, flagstone, plaster, glazed tile and glass in abundance. A vaulted ceiling provides a feeling of space, and a wooden staircase leads to a second-level landing. A neon sign was installed shortly after the florist shop opened for business and still exists.
Ratcliffe, a prominent figure in community affairs, ran his florist business from that address until 1989, at which time Carpe Diem restaurant moved in. The business, which is still in the family, expanded into a wholesale division and a greenhouse operation.
The Crucial Decision: In 2000, First Union Bank wanted to build a parking deck and the building at 431 South Tryon was in the way. The bank (now absorbed into Wells Fargo) chose to move the Mediterranean Revival style building rather than demolish it, which was no small feat or inexpensive venture. This was a very unusual turn of events for Charlotte, which is guilty of razing much of its history and replacing it with skyscrapers. "Downtown Charlotte is perilously close to destroying all that kind of record," said Hanchett at the time.
The Move: On March 4, 2000, the company that relocated the Cape Hatteras Lighthousewent to work on the Ratcliffe building. The two-story structure crossed Charlotte's busy South Tryon on a bed of steel beams and rollers and took up temporary residence in a parking lot with its redbrick backside facing the street. First Union set about building the underground parking deck as well as condominiums and a park. One year later the 650-ton structure was pulled back across the street and slid a half a block north to its new home abutting the office tower now called Three Wells Fargo Center. The city temporarily removed trees, streetlights and parking meters to make the crossing possible. "When we're finished with this project, it will look like it has always been there," said architect Dave Wagner in 2000.
And it does. The well-traveled shop is now home to Bernardin’s restaurant, and is snuggled into the complex of shops, restaurants and park called The Green. The condominiums perched above it are named The Ratcliffe.
The Sign: The neon green and white Ratcliffe's Flowers sign now stands as a landmark at the Green on South Tryon Street in uptown Charlotte, but 60 years ago it represented anything but a celebrated piece of history. Back then, business owners along Tryon had agreed to remove their neon signs, concluding that they had become too cluttered and were tacky. That is, except for Louis Ratcliffe Jr., a member of the Charlotte Chamber, who wasn't about to let others tell him what to do with his sign, said his son, David. In 2012, the sign was relocated to the original site of the building and hung from a pole, with an explanatory plaque in the pavement in front of it.
As a lover of Charlotte and of history, I hope other developers will think twice before demolishing any more landmarks.
Maria David is the Observer’s librarian. Check out her Retro Charlotte blog at www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/retro-charlotte.
More historical sites in the Charlotte region
Looking to catch up on our region’s history? Here are some of my other favorite historic places to visit:
Elmwood Cemetery. 700 W. Sixth St., Charlotte. Includes a Confederate section where soldiers are buried.
Historic Brattonsville. 1444 Brattonsville Road., McConnells, S.C. This 775-acre living history farm in York County holds more than 30 structures reflecting the Revolutionary War era. www.chmuseums.org.
Levine Museum of the New South. 200 E. Seventh St., Charlotte. Focuses on “the diverse history of the South since the Civil War, with a focus on Charlotte and the surrounding Carolina Piedmont,” according to its website. www.museumofthenewsouth.org.
Historic Downtown Mooresville. Main Street in Mooresville. This former mill village, now with boutiques and eateries, serves as the backdrop for movies and cable series, including Cinemax original series “Banshee.” www.downtownmooresville.com.
Renfrow Hardware and General Merchandise. 188 N. Trade St., Matthews. Now 116 years old, according to its website, find seeds, crickets, local honey and nuts and bolts at this old-school hardware store that maintains a loyal customer base. www.renfrowhardware.com.
Reed's Gold Mine. 9621 Reed Mine Road, Midland. Pan for gold at this Cabarrus County historic site that’s the location of the first documented gold rush in the United States. www.nchistoricsites.org/reed/reed.htm.