Addressing the Observer

The Charlotte Observer and uptown Charlotte shot from the bridge over John Belk Freeway on South Tryon Street on June 30, 2015.
The Charlotte Observer and uptown Charlotte shot from the bridge over John Belk Freeway on South Tryon Street on June 30, 2015. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

For native Charlotteans or people who’ve long lived here, The Observer’s upcoming move from 600 South Tryon Street provokes a cognitive wrench. We’ve been getting our news and commentary from that address for more than 88 years.

When The Observer first occupied the site in 1927, Charlotte had a population of about 72,000. Since then the paper has chronicled the city’s growth to 10 times that number – a population close to 800,000.

Whether we were carrier boys or men and women who on Saturday nights stuffed comics and pre-printed supplements into Sunday editions, or whether we came to the office to place a classified ad, a wedding announcement or an obituary, we knew where The Observer was – at the corner of Stonewall and Tryon Streets.

Observer editorial pages used to include a sprinkle of wry political comment under the heading, “Stonewall Tryon says…”

Now, as its property is being sold and The Observer prepares to move to new quarters, we’ll have to reorient our thinking. News and comment from an alternate site – say, something like “Church and Third Says…” – won’t carry the same cachet.

The Observer moved to Stonewall and Tryon to be next to a rail siding that then crossed South Tryon at grade. The railroad could deliver newsprint by freight car rather than truck, saving the paper $1,500 a month, which in 1927 was about half the newsroom’s monthly payroll.

In 1971, after having purchased The Charlotte News and housed it on the 1927 building’s third floor, The Observer built its “Taj Mahal” with adjoining parking decks and newsprint warehouses, occupying two entire blocks of Tryon and Church streets, a total of 9.4 acres between Stonewall and Hill streets.

Until 1927, Observer offices and print works had been in the 14-story Tompkins Tower about halfway down the first block of South Church Street, behind the building now known as 129 West Trade.

It was to the Tompkins Tower, then the tallest structure in town, that The Observer in November 1918 summoned a bugler from Camp Greene to play a 3 a.m. “Church Call,” awakening the town to the armistice ending World War I. It was from that tower in November 1920 that The Observer announced the election of Charlottean Cameron Morrison as governor.

Prior to the Tompkins Tower, The Observer occupied the old Mecklenburg Bank building at 122 South Tryon where the fleeing Confederate Cabinet held its last full meeting after the Civil War. While Observer offices were in that building, two other community institutions were organized there, the Mecklenburg Medical Society and the Southern Manufacturers Club, forerunner to today’s Charlotte City Club.

Earlier Observer locations included its 1869 birthplace on the upper floors of a grocery midway down the first block of East Trade, about where the motor entrance to the Omni Hotel is today.

Afterwards it had offices at College and Trade, on Independence Square where the Bank of America fountains now stand, and diagonally across the Square in what was then called Granite Row, where Polk Park is now.

But in those days The Observer was usually a four-page paper with a small circulation, distributed mostly by trains. It wasn’t until the mighty education movement of the early 20th century taught a majority of North Carolinians to read that newspaper readership increased nearly five fold.

Now, of course, as readership shifts from broad sheet to Internet applications, readership and circulation must be measured by different indices. That too will require reorientation in our thinking.

Jack Claiborne held a variety of jobs in the Observer newsroom over years. He is the author of “The Charlotte Observer: Its Time and Place, 1869-1986.”