University City

House represents 200 years of Mecklenburg history

Sarah Alexander keeps an old family clock in her Flat Rock condominium. It's tall and narrow and was all but forgotten for a hundred years, until her mother discovered it in the attic of the family home in Charlotte during the 1960s.

From then on it has stood in the front hall to greet visitors as they passed through the door. At one point someone changed the old clock to run by electricity, then by batteries.

Charlotte is a lot like that old clock, with its blend of modern and old-time, keeping in one space. Old family homesteads rest between sprawling, busy subdivisions, and long-abandoned mineshafts retire below hovering skyscrapers.

Newcomers aren't aware of the pull between the present and the past. But people like Alexander, 67, who grew up in Charlotte, see it.

"I can remember a place where you could get a hot dog. It was called Tanner's," she said. "You stood and ate your hot dog and had an orange juice. That was before all the skyscrapers were really put in."

Alexander grew up on Mallard Creek Church Road during the 1940s and '50s, in a house the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Landmarks Commission declared a historical landmark in 1976.

From 1823 to 1999, at least one person with the last name "Alexander" had lived there. Sarah and her mother were its last occupants.

"It was very semi-rural in the '40s and '50s, hardly any traffic," Alexander said, of what is now University City. "Highway 29 was a two-lane road."

Her family came to Charlotte from Maryland in the 1760s to grow cotton.

"At that time the population of (what is now) Mecklenburg was not much more than one or two or three thousand in the whole county," she said. "It's hard to conceive, knowing the population there today."

Growing up, Alexander and her two sisters would play hide-and-seek in the handmade brick house, scurrying underneath the marble-top table, spinning wheels and other century-old heirlooms.

The house and surrounding acres - nearly 1,000 back then - provided a timeline to study history.

Her mother would find arrowheads in the gardens. "They had bucketfuls of old arrowheads in the attic," said Alexander.

A crack that crawled up the living room wall grew from the Charleston earthquake of 1886.

A slave cemetery in the back shines a light on life before the Civil War.

For a time, people were interested in the home's history. Tours were arranged by the historical commission.

Alexander remembers the time three busloads of visitors came at once during a hot summer day.

"We let them tour the whole house, including the attic," she said. She recalls groups of older ladies taking a breather on the steep attic stairs before venturing up. "It was always hot in the attic in the summer time."

At one point she toyed with turning the home into a museum. But preserving it became difficult as the city became more urban.

"I tried to investigate all those kinds of things, but it's a matter of economics," she said. "It's very expensive."

Taxes, higher traffic and a burglary persuaded her to sell the house in 1999.

"We just realized that the area had changed," she said. "You have to go with the flow. Make changes, whether you want to or not."

Land owned by Alexander's family in Charlotte has dwindled over the decades. At one point her ancestors held nearly 1,000 acres. Today, she and her cousins share ownership of 50 undeveloped acres. Even that may soon be used for modern purposes.

"There's been talk of mass transit, using some of the property for that," she said.

The new owners of the house, John and May Abbott, bought the home and four acres around it in 2005. Eventually they would like to restore it to how it was in its heyday. They live in an apartment next door to the home, and if they can lease the two acres that are zoned for commercial use in the front, they plan to renovate.

Good news for Alexander: Just like the old family clock that slumbered on its back in the attic for decades, the past can still be dusted off and remembered.

"My mother saw it and decided she wanted to have it refinished," she said. "And I still have that clock."