Historic Charlotte estate’s future could include reusing building – or demolition

Exterior of the VanLandingham Estate.
Exterior of the VanLandingham Estate.

For years, the question of the VanLandingham Estate’s future has hung over the property – a historic house, event venue and gardens smack in the middle of one of Charlotte’s hottest neighborhoods.

City Council voted down a plan to develop townhouses and a pool club on part of the property, located on The Plaza, in a surprise split decision in 2015. Now, owner Billy Maddalon is trying again to redevelop the 104-year-old site, with a plan that would save and find a new use for the main house.

But in case that doesn’t work out again, Maddalon has also started the process that would be required to demolish the building, a historic landmark. He said that’s not his goal, but the estate – which Maddalon has said is expensive to run and unprofitable – can’t function forever.

“Unfortunately, the estate may just go away, because that’s clearly what the marketplace is saying,” said Maddalon. “Everyone, including myself, is invested in seeing that doesn’t happen.”

Maddalon said he plans to file a rezoning plan for the property soon, which would allow some of the 5-acre site to be sold for townhouses. That’s similar to the plan that City Council voted down two years ago. The rezoning plan won’t include a swim club, which many neighbors supported but others opposed because of concerns about traffic and congestion.

The rezoning plan would also open the door to using the VanLandingham Estate for other commercial uses, though Maddalon said he’s not sure yet what those might be.

Maddalon has also requested a “certificate of appropriateness” from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, which would be required to demolish the main house. If the plans fall through again, Maddalon said he would need that option for the property.

“We’re headed toward a finish line, pretty much,” he said. The landmarks commission will consider the request at a Nov. 13 meeting.

Dan Morrill, the commission’s consulting director, said that under state law, the group can’t deny Maddalon’s request. Denying a property owner permission to tear down a building consists of “taking” that property, which would have to be done through eminent domain. The commission can delay the request for a certificate of appropriateness for up to one year, until November 2018.

“The VanLandingham Estate is among the most important pieces of historic architecture in this city,” Morrill said. “It’s the Duke Mansion of Plaza Midwood. We’ve got to find an adaptive reuse for that house.”

The VanLandingham Estate was built in 1913 by a wealthy family in the cotton brokerage business, when the area around it was a collection of large, 5-acre home lots occupied by prosperous Charlotteans. A streetcar line ran up the middle of The Plaza. Eventually, most homeowners subdivided and sold their land, much of which was developed into what’s now Plaza Midwood.

The house was eventually deeded to UNC Charlotte in 1970, before passing through a series of private owners. Maddalon and his investment group bought the estate in 1999.

Morrill said he understands Maddalon’s position and doesn’t consider him a “Philistine owner.”

“I think he genuinely does want to find a way to keep the house … to have it preserved,” said Morrill. The estate is in a historic district, so the Historic District Commission would have to give any demolition their approval as well.

The landmarks commission could ask City Council to exercise eminent domain to take and preserve the property (which Morrill said is likely a political impossibility) or offer to buy the house themselves and place protective covenants on it before reselling (an option Morrill said the commission would be stretched to afford – the property has been listed for more than $5 million).

The October 2015 defeat of Maddalon’s previous rezoning request came as a surprise to him and local neighborhood leaders. Although some neighbors expressed concerns about traffic around the proposed swim club, local neighborhood association leaders had voiced their support for the plan. The plan had been discussed and debated for 14 months, a process that Maddalon said cost him $130,000.

The aftershocks of the failed rezoning vote reverberated, and led to criticism of council member Patsy Kinsey, who represents the area. She was defeated by newcomer Larken Egleston in the district’s primary race this year, losing her re-election bid and seat on City Council.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo