Peter St. Onge

One last ride at 600 South Tryon

The Charlotte Observer building at 600 S. Tryon St.
The Charlotte Observer building at 600 S. Tryon St. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

The thing I remember most about my first day at the Observer are the escalators. They were working that day – all six of them at the same time – which I would learn happened about as often as a lunar eclipse.

It was not quite 20 years ago, and I had come from Alabama, from a smaller newspaper, to interview for a job at the O. It was, people told me, one of the South’s best newspapers.

It also was another kind of step up. The newspapers I’d worked in were one-story buildings, and when I got to the Observer and went up the escalators – past the publisher’s floor and the advertising floor to the fourth-floor newsroom – I couldn’t help but feel I was moving up to the big-time.

Like so many newsroom folks, I’ve gone up and down those escalators thousands of times since, sometimes two steps at a time chasing deadline or a big story. We’ve held our kids hands when they rode them as toddlers. We’ve applauded as coworkers took their last ride down.

Now it’s our turn.

After 45 years at 600 South Tryon, we’re moving out today and heading to three floors in the NASCAR building a few blocks away. It’ll be an improvement in most ways, with lots of natural light and a WiFi setup that’s not just routers duct-taped to the ceiling. So it’s a good day and sad day all mixed together, like moves usually are.

About that sad part: We’re leaving the old building for a few reasons, but mostly because we want a smaller, less expensive place. That’s because we’re smaller, too. Like many media, our staff has thinned as we’ve sorted through the reality that digital ads don’t bring in the same kind of money that print ads used to bring in.

Our move is another part of that transition. It’ll nudge us toward being more of a digital company, and when bright young people consider working here, they’ll walk into a modern media environment instead of an old newspaper building.

And 600 South Tryon is old. The bathrooms are kind of gross, and things keep falling off of other things. Then there are the escalators, which have always been fussy. One section, from the lobby to the second floor, stopped working altogether last year. Word has it the repairs would have costs tens of thousands, and we were moving anyway. So a sign went up one day, pointing people to the elevators and stairs. We joked that it was the Observer’s new wellness program.

But the great thing about old places is how they gather up memories. A couple months ago, as we started cleaning up and cleaning out, people started putting old newspapers on some tables in the newsroom. There were reprints of some of our best series and investigations, the kind of journalism that made you proud to share a masthead with such smart, talented people. Near those were editions from the days after 9/11, a reminder of how big and urgent news pulls a newsroom together like tightened shoelaces.

That’s all still true, by the way.

****

Last month, we had a going away party for 600 South Tryon, and we invited Observer alumni to come say goodbye to the place. We weren’t really sure how many people would make it to a mid-week mid-afternoon party, but before we were halfway down the escalator, we heard the noise. The lobby was packed full of our coworkers, our friends, our history.

We all did a lot of hugging that afternoon. We talked about what they were doing and how we were hanging in there. At least a couple folks called it a wake, which was sort of true, but that’s what most reunions are, in a way. You’re just mourning the years that snuck behind you.

But all of those hugs? They were a reminder of the people this building has held, the energy it contained, the good that came out of it – day after day. It’s like any home, really. You love it for what happened in it. For the laughter you shared and the crying you did. For the people who grew up there with you.

So now we move. Now the old building becomes an old home. It’s given us a great ride, even when we had to take the stairs.

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com; @saintorange

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