Charlotte has been getting a lot of national attention as home-grown Wachovia Corp. crumbled before our eyes. And it's been interesting to see how outsiders view and describe Charlotte.
Two weeks ago, after Citigroup announced its plans to acquire parts of Wachovia but before Wells Fargo stepped in with a sweeter offer, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about Charlotte's identity. It referenced construction workers building Wachovia's new skyscraper and told how Charlotte became a banking “powerhouse.”
It also described the Eastover neighborhood, home to banking executives, including Ken Thompson, recently ousted CEO of Wachovia; Bob Steel, Thompson's successor; and Hugh McColl Jr., former head of Bank of America Corp.
And this part is interesting. The Journal called Eastover “a neighborhood of Southern-style mansions, oak trees and manicured lawns.”
Maybe to parachuting reporters it looked that way, but it's not that simple. Let's take a look at one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.There's no disputing the trees and lawns. But “Southern-style mansions?”
First, let's talk size. It's not mansion after mansion.
Of the 671 Eastover homes, 250 – or 40 percent – are less than 3,000 square feet, according to county records. Of course, there are some really big houses, with 90 of them – or 13 percent – at 5,000 square feet or larger. One tops 10,000 square feet.
Since it was built in the 1920s, Eastover has “been one of the places to live if you are well-to-do. But the fact that many of those houses are small by today's mansion standards is very telling about Charlotte,” said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.
If you lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich. – a Detroit suburb – during the 1920s, 3,000 square feet wouldn't get you into a carriage house, Hanchett said.
“At that time, the South was still the poor stepchild of the U.S. economy,” he said. “Our economy was built on textiles. Plus (Charlotte's economy) was puny compared to the wealth of Pittsburgh's steel industry or Detroit's automobile makers. And Eastover's houses showed that.”
Another local history expert weighed in on Eastover.
“You have to understand that a lot of these people went through the Depression. Money was tight. They probably had the nicest luxuries of that time,” said Sheila Bumgarner, librarian in charge of photograph and paper archives for the Main Library. “There are a lot of things we could learn from these folks. They probably lived within their means.”
Eastover residents have been putting additions on their houses for decades. But it's only been in the past 10 years that some of them have been tearing down what used to be big houses to build really big houses, Hanchett said.
Now what about the style?
Hanchett called newer construction “fantasy architecture of the year 2000” – the idea of “large but homey.”
But the prevailing style is Georgian Colonial and Greek Revival, said Hanchett and Bumgarner. Think red brick, white columns and symmetry. Think plantation homes. Like the Journal borrowed an image that readers could easily conjure, Eastover borrowed its architectural style from other areas.
As Bumgarner put it, “People were harkening back to this myth of Tara and the plantation, which really didn't prevail here.”
Database Editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this column.