Future unclear for Charlotte staircases former slaves may have made

The Victorian home at 318 N. Brevard Street is believed to have been built in the 1800s, according to Observer stories. It vanished from city records by 1969, after being torn down. The stairs and several other items from the home are now stored at the Myers Park home of J.P. Pritchard
The Victorian home at 318 N. Brevard Street is believed to have been built in the 1800s, according to Observer stories. It vanished from city records by 1969, after being torn down. The stairs and several other items from the home are now stored at the Myers Park home of J.P. Pritchard Charlotte Observer

One of Charlotte’s most significant post-Civil War relics is also one of its least known, and worse still, one in the most need of repair.

Called simply “the stairs” by local historians, the story-high artifact is a pair of ornate cast-iron staircases that are believed to have been made by slaves or former slaves, who were using their plantation skills to find work.

As such, the stairs are considered an important part of Charlotte’s African-American history, and local historians says they are worthy of being in a museum.

However, that is likely never to happen. Instead, the stairs lie broken and spread across a front yard in Charlotte’s Foxcroft community, after having been crushed by a tree that fell in 2011.

Owner J.P. Pritchard, 84, says they have remained in that condition because of his five-year argument with an insurance company, which he says is refusing to pay the full $50,000 to $60,000 needed to put the original pieces back together. He and his wife, Iris, filed a breach of contract lawsuit last summer in district court against the insurance company over damages to the stairs and house. Pritchard is not sure when it will be resolved, but he’s frustrated now and wants a jury trial.

Meanwhile, what’s left of the staircases is blocked off by rope and boards, and many of the pieces sit where they fell, under piles of leaves and weeds. Pritchard says that’s how things are staying until his lawsuit is resolved.

‘A remarkable artifact’

“The stairs are a marvelous example of the craftsmanship of 19th-century and Victorian aesthetics. ... And they belong in a museum,” says Dan Morrill of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “They are a remarkable artifact, no question, and need to be preserved.”

He believes the stairs were made by freed slaves in the 1870s. Historians think they were shipped here from Charleston, which has a rich history of wrought ironwork created by former enslaved people. Morrill says the current condition does not devalue them as artifacts. “Ruins have their own compelling stories to tell,” he said.

As for which museum they belong in, he suggests the Levine Museum of the New South, which includes artifacts of emancipated people. Brenda Tindal, historian at the Levine Museum, says Morrill may be right.

“If the stairs are indeed the product of African-American artisans who may have been enslaved at one point and were produced during the Reconstruction era, then they would fit well within the narrative arc of our permanent exhibit,” Tindal said. “Given the state of the South after the Civil War, and the continued reliance on farming and an agrarian lifestyle, it is not surprising that black men and women were repurposing skills they may have used during their period of enslavement.”

Tindal says it’s easy to believe African-Americans created the stairs because they are endowed with Adinkra symbols – symbols of the Asante people/Ghanaian culture. “It’s quite possible that these rails reflect the ways in which West African symbolism, culture and tradition survived in the New World. ... Charleston was a major slave port ... drawing the lion’s share of enslaved Africans from the coast and interior of West Africa.”

Pritchard says that African link is all the more reason to restore the staircases to the original condition.

‘Monstrous, paintless, rotting’

If it weren’t for J.P. Pritchard, the stairs would have been lost in the mid-1960s, during so-called “urban renewal.” That’s when he noticed that one of Charlotte’s best-known “haunted houses” was being torn down at 318 Brevard St.

The home’s beginnings are mysterious. Charlotte Observer archives from 1965 refer to the site as the Baruch House. And a book by Kenneth Frederick Marsh called it the Julia Treloar Home, erected in the 1850s. But historic documents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room contradict that anyone by either name ever lived there. (Treloar lived at 314 N. Brevard.) A March 28, 1966, Observer article described the house as: “a monstrous, paintless, rotting, rattling, sinister, sagging, gap-windowed ... Realtor’s albatross.”

At that time, the home was being used as the Brevard Street Furniture Co., a secondhand furniture business. It remains unclear who built it, but Shelia Bumgarner of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room says an 1877 map indicates the land belonged to John and Jane Wilkes, two former New Yorkers who owned slaves and an ironworks. (The couple are perhaps best remembered for having raised money for Charlotte’s first two hospitals.)

Bumgarner says it’s possible the Wilkes family remodeled an existing home on the property, which the family purchased in 1858. That might explain why the 1966 Observer article said the home was 153 years old at the time, an age that seems incongruous for Victorian architecture in Charlotte.

In 1967, the house was listed on city records as vacant. In 1969, it was gone.

Pritchard recalls passing the home regularly on the way to and from his father’s business, Pritchard’s Paint and Glass Store, on Fifth Street. He says he often stopped to admire the craftsmanship that went into building such a huge home.

Then one day, he says he saw a wrecking crew had bashed in both sides and was on its way to flattening the structure.

“I knew those steps were unusual, and I wanted them,” Pritchard said. “Once I found out who owned the house, I asked her to put the work on hold until I could get them. She agreed to stop it, but only on a day-to-day basis.”

It took three days to get the twin stairs moved, but Pritchard didn’t stop there. He also got the granite stoops, the handmade bricks in the walkway and six cast-iron columns that held up a first-floor porch.

And he then dragged out two claw-footed bath tubs, as the house swayed under his feet.

Those bits and pieces of 318 N. Brevard remain in storage at his Foxcroft home, called Inwood, which has itself been under consideration for historic status by the landmarks commission. (A commission vote on the matter was tabled owing to zoning issues.) The home was built around 1900 on 40 acres near Providence and Fairview roads, Pritchard said.

When Pritchard’s father, T.W. Pritchard, sold the 40 acres in the mid-’60s, J.P. Pritchard moved the house to an acre of adjacent land. That’s where he still lives with his wife, whom he married 60 years ago.

His land was then accessible only by a wagon road, he says. Now, it’s in the middle of one of Charlotte’s priciest neighborhoods, with large homes built on all sides.

Pritchard’s dream was to use the stairs to create a grand entrance for Inwood, and he was in the process of finishing it when a tree fell on the porch during a storm on April 16, 2011. The branches flattened both staircases at once.

He says he later took one of ornate balusters to be studied by researchers in Charleston and was told the stairs were likely made by black craftsmen in that city. Pritchard’s dream is to win historic landmark status for Inwood, with the stairs as part of it.

In other words, he has no intention of giving them to a museum. Pritchard says he’s not being stubborn. It’s about showing the stairs in their proper historic context – fronting a century-old house that remains a family home.

“They ain’t going nowhere,” he says. “I don’t see how they could be in a museum, because they’d take up so much space. And I’d hate to see them displayed only in pieces. It wouldn’t give you a full idea of the gift those African-American craftsmen had, how amazing their talents were.”

Local historians hope he’ll change his mind.

Before it’s too late.