Mark Washburn

Goodbye 600, hello 550: Observing a historic shift

It is the second-oldest continual business address in Charlotte’s uptown loop, synonymous for nearly 90 years with both the pulse of news and the tide of commerce – and, for the city’s entertainment, the occasional bonehead goof.

Since 1927, The Charlotte Observer has been at 600 S. Tryon St., the corner of Stonewall and Tryon.

No more.

Sunday is the last official day for the old address. Over the last month movers have muscled the newspaper’s possessions three blocks away to the Observer’s new home in the sleek NASCAR Plaza office building at 550 S. Caldwell.

[Rick Thames: New Observer offices overlook the city]

When you sift through nine decades of stuff, you find oddball things. Such as:

▪ A brittle, yellowed Observer extra published the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, the lead story as electrifying now as upon that day of infamy: “Gov. Poindexter of Hawaii talked with President Roosevelt today, reporting heavy damage to property and life in Honolulu and saying a second wave of Japanese planes was just coming over.”

▪ A Bible inscribed in 1950 to a Joseph Linton Suttle III. It was discovered on a bookshelf in the office of senior online editor Dee-Dee Strickland. She tracked him down – the Suttles have occupied the same pew at Shelby’s First Baptist Church for five generations – and gave it back. Joseph Suttle, now 74, has no idea how it found its way into the Observer newsroom.

▪ A booklet of daily critiques about the paper from 1990 by then-managing editor Doug Clifton. Some were complimentary, some cataloged bonehead blunders.

Dec. 3, 1990: “I didn’t write anything about it in yesterday’s critique because it’s never a good idea to speak or write in a blind rage. ... These words appeared under four mug shots in Sunday’s NFL wrapup: ‘Beat Those Tar Heels.’ The person setting the type inserted those words to hold space for the real names that would follow. Murphy’s Law being what it is, the dummy type was overlooked and nobody ever caught it.”

A new plant in 1927

At its essence, a newspaper is a M*A*S*H unit of history. Since March 22, 1886, the Observer has delivered a daily snapshot of Charlotte, sketching the territory’s trends through news and advertisements.

In 1927, it took up residence at Stonewall and Tryon in a narrow, stately plant at the edge of the downtown district. By the 1960s, it had long outgrown the building.

Richard Maschal, who started as a writer at the Observer in 1969, remembers the old plant as a chaotic mess.

“We were packed so tight,” says Maschal, who retired in 2008, “that three people could smoke the same cigarette and not know it.”

By then, owners James L. and John S. Knight were at work on a new building and considering two sites: one on McDowell Street where the Sheraton Hotel now stands and the other the legacy site on South Tryon.

Uptown was going through one of its periodic declines in the late ’60s. When the Knights decided to build their new plant on the site of the old, it was credited by then-Charlotte Chamber president Charles Crutchfield as a boon to the center city.

“Coupled with other structures which have been built or are planned, the new plant assures us of a vibrant and viable downtown without which a city cannot grow and prosper,” Crutchfield said.

A sprawling factory for newspapers

In all, about 10 acres on two city blocks were acquired for the new complex. A tunnel under Church Street linked the main plant to a newsprint warehouse and inserting facility under the paper’s parking lot. A sprawling basement that extended under Tryon Street from the original 1927 building was kept beneath the new plant.

It was built in a thousand days at a cost of $20 million and one human life – Bill Carter, an ironworker from Gastonia, fell from the roof during construction.

Hunched at the edge of uptown, the Observer campus was built to 1960s sensibilities. It was set back from the street, surrounded by vegetation and presented an austere facade.

Erected in an era of cheap energy, it was designed so its lights would burn around the clock – and they did, to the end.

No one could figure out how to turn them off in the vast mechanical caverns, even after printing was shifted to presses in University City in 2014.

It has never been an architectural attraction, even in a city with so few. It was a newspaper factory with office space stuffed around the edges.

A window on the printing presses

“It was not friendly in the way some buildings are,” says retired publisher Rolfe Neill, who led the Observer for 22 years beginning in 1975. “I thought it looked like some kind of fortress.”

One engineering flaw vexed the paper for years, he says – during heavy rains, a slight incline at the Tryon Street entrance meant water would flow into the lobby.

Another architectural touch pleased him. Through giant windows in the lobby, you could see the great presses roll, and Neill says he was often mesmerized by the spectacle.

“I thought of that place as the news corner of Charlotte,” he says. “For nearly 100 years there’s been a ‘read-all-about-it’ presence on that corner. Of course, it was the people who made the place.”

Generations of Hollands there

If there is such a thing as a dynastic Observer family, Irene Holland is royalty. Someone in her family has worked at Stonewall and Tryon since the late 1930s.

Her great uncle, Archie King, rose through the company ranks to supervise the clattering composing room. His son, Jack King, followed the same career path.

Holland, who started at the paper in 1989, works in the department that wrangles the inserts that fatten the Sunday paper. She says she’ll miss the Observer being at its historic home, but the building had no romantic hold on her.

“Memories are in the head and the heart,” she says, “not the building.”

Night of the storm

In his 28 years at the Observer, Glenn Hargett focused on the streets. He served in the circulation department before retiring in 2005.

His most memorable day was Sept. 21, 1989.

Hurricane Hugo wasn’t expected to cause much trouble in Charlotte, so Hargett went into the storm in the predawn hours unaware of the violent cyclone bearing down on the city.

He still remembers one of his carriers explaining when it became clear this was no ordinary storm. “He said, ‘I knew I was in trouble,’ ” Hargett recalls, “ ‘when I threw the paper toward the porch and it came back and flew over the car.’ 

For weeks, Hargett says, hitting the porch was the least of the delivery problems. They struggled to get past downed trees to reach subscribers on many streets.

Observer honors

One day, a woman with a problem with a preacher called directory assistance from Long Island, N.Y., and asked for the name of the newspaper in Charlotte. She was given the number of the afternoon Charlotte News, and she left a message for the religion editor. When she got no reply, she called back and left another message.

When she got no reply to that one, she called directory assistance and asked whether there was another newspaper in Charlotte. She got the number for the Charlotte Observer. When her call reached the newsroom, she was connected directly to a reporter.

Her name was Jessica Hahn, and the preacher was televangelist Jim Bakker. In 1988, the Observer would win the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story that brought down Bakker and unraveled the PTL empire in Fort Mill, S.C.

It was one of five Pulitzers, journalism’s top prize, to come to the corner of Stonewall and Tryon. All three of the Observer’s editorial cartoonists through the decades – Gene Payne, Doug Marlette and Kevin Siers – have won one, and the newspaper was awarded a gold medal for public service in 1981 for exposing how inspectors failed to protect textile workers from the ravages of cotton dust.

Power of a photo

Some people get into journalism to improve the world. Few expect their impact to last 50 years.

Don Sturkey started as a photographer at Stonewall and Tryon in 1951 and retired in 1989. On Sept. 4, 1957, the first day of school integration, Sturkey headed to the old Harding High off West Fifth Street.

“If anything was going to happen,” he says, “I knew it was going to happen there.”

He snapped his most famous picture that morning, of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts running a gauntlet of sneering white teenagers as she tried to enter the school.

Of the tens of thousands of images published by the Observer over the years, few had the power of that picture. It was transmitted around the world.

Writer James Baldwin, who had moved to France to escape racism, saw Sturkey’s picture in a Paris newspaper and decided to return to the United States to fight for civil rights.

About 50 years after it was first published, it moved another man.

Woody Cooper, looking at the photo in the Observer beside an anniversary story about Harding High, recognized himself in the crowd. He hadn’t jeered at her, but he hadn’t done anything to defend her, either.

Haunted and ashamed, he decided to reach out to Dorothy Counts. And apologized. For doing nothing in 1957.

In 2010, at age 70, he was dying of cancer. By then, they had become good friends. She sat at his bedside the night before he died.

Digital days

There are no plans to erect any kind of monument at Stonewall and Tryon, which is expected to become the site of a new development.

But if one to the Observer is put up, it might well be about the spin-off that was hatched there in 1996.

As the print medium declines in reach and girth, digital publishing is on the upswing. Last month, quietly marked its 20th anniversary.

Digital is seen as the future in the news industry, and the paper’s electronic offspring may someday be the most important product ever developed in the old building.

Old uptown connections

Second oldest continual address in the uptown loop, I said. You’re probably wondering about the first one.

In 1907, two decades before the Observer moved to Stonewall and Tryon, Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Co. moved to 1335 S. Clarkson St., near what is now Bank of America Stadium.

There’s a bit of circularity to the two old addresses.

Charlotte Pipe and Foundry made the piping in the new NASCAR tower occupied by the Observer.

“We don’t get all the jobs in town,” says CEO Roddey Dowd Jr., grandson of the foundry’s founder, “but we get most of them, and that was one of them.”

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