Retro Charlotte

The Charlotte National Building is younger than it looks

The Charlotte National Building under construction in 1985.
The Charlotte National Building under construction in 1985. The Charlotte Observer

I admit it. I thought the Charlotte National Building at the corner of S. Caldwell and E. 4th streets was original, a rare example of old Charlotte architecture still standing. And the Roman numerals (MCMXVIII, or 1918) etched into a cornerstone really had me sold. But that faulty assumption is a compliment to engineer Pete Verna who salvaged the cornerstone, columns and other architectural details from the old Charlotte National Bank building uptown and incorporated them into the new construction. (Former Observer business reporter M.S. Van Hecke described Verna as “the energetic builder-preservationist who saved many of the finer features from the old building.”) Well done, Mr. Verna!

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This December 5, 1985 Observer story describes the intricasies of melding old and new:

Pieces of History: Stonemasons Rebuilding Old Facade

By Wendy McBane, staff writer

Remember the lions' heads? They once crowned a downtown building meant to be the most solid statement ever made about this city's banking industry. Corporate images change, however. Last year workers dismantled the First Citizens Building because it was in the industry's way. Now this piece of Charlotte history has become a jigsaw puzzle.

The lions' heads, all numbered, are lying on the ground at 4th and Caldwell. Soon - perhaps this week - they will rise again and crown one of the most solid statements ever made about this city's commitment to historic preservation. The project, to be finished early next year, is just four blocks from 4th and Tryon where the bank, originally Charlotte National Bank, stood for 66 years. That site is becoming First Citizens' new office tower. The number of blocks understates the distance the edifice has come. Only the facade and a few features from the bank's heavily remodeled interior made the trip, and then only after anxious moments for lovers of old buildings.

Years from now Charlotteans oohing and ahhing over the lions' heads should know how close they came to losing the sight. Even in pieces, it impresses Jack Boyte, the architect and preservationist who grafted the old facade onto the new structure, an office condominium named the Charlotte National Building. "It's really a lesson in Greek architecture, " he said, looking down the columns from the unfinished third floor. "It's classical Greek temple architecture."

Stonemasons from Tennessee are reassembling the pieces of granite and terra-cotta frieze that suggest the Greek Parthenon. "These guys' basic blueprint is a stack of pictures, " said Brad Finger, general superintendent for Little Construction. "We had them blown up to 8 x 10. When they get to a point where they don't know what to do, they get out the picture. There's numbers on each piece in the pictures." The numbers match those on the actual pieces: J19, J10, J2. The method is similar to what the original builders used, for the sections also have original casting marks, such as 720E. The pieces aren't going back together exactly as they came apart. Spectators can spot one difference on the Caldwell Street side where the brass Roman numerals used to be. The numerals left a stain that's still legible and says MCMXV. The stained "III" correctly dating the building to 1918 appears several sections down. That's because the new site required different dimensions.

When the exterior is completely assembled, workers will clean the granite, removing the stains, and reinstall the brass numerals. Other differences are more significant. The new building will have two additional floors, a total of four, and the dome, once a skylight, will be enclosed. Since the old bank abutted buildings on two sides, the new will have two walls of cast concrete designed to blend with the old. Almost all the interior will be new.

Pete Verna, the engineer responsible for dismantling and reassembling the bank, found original plaster work during dismantling under acoustical tile ceilings added during a 1950s facelift. It was like discovering treasure. "The plaster, the concepts, the ideas - I felt what a terrible waste of our heritage to just throw it away, " Verna said. "It wasn't required, it wasn't in the contract, but we saved them." The original plaster work and replicas are being used on the first-floor ceiling. Parts of the rotunda also have been salvaged. Hoyle Brawley, who recalls patching plaster at the bank in 1933, is doing the remainder. At 69, he says this might be his last job.

The original idea was to save just the facade, which First Citizens volunteered to dismantle, store and give to the city. There was no plan then for using it, and at one point the office tower developer offered to pay the city just to forget the whole idea. "It came within $80,000" of being destroyed, Verna said. "The city was offered that much just to let them bulldoze it down. But the city said no, it was worth more than that and didn't. But it could have. Some wanted to. Some said once we took it apart it would sit forever."