East Davis Street Historic District
The East Davis Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The East Davis Street Historic District, the core of Burlington's east end, consists of approximately five blocks of stylish middle-class Queen Anne, Bungalow, and Colonial Revival houses, as well as one church and a gas station, built from the 1880s to the early 1940s by leaders of the town's industrial, business, and civic life. The 500 and 600 blocks of East Davis Street comprise the main spine of the East Davis Street Historic District, with the intersecting streets of Mebane, Cameron and Tucker streets completing the district. Among the prominent early residents of the East Davis Street Historic District were James Wesley Cates, mayor in the early 1900s, John M. Fix, prominent banker and civic leader, John R. Foster, long-time owner of the Foster Shoe Company on Main Street, and Dr. G.W. Stafford, cofounder of Stafford-Stroud Drug Company. Their stylish houses, built from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, are Queen Anne landmarks in Burlington. As the mansions of the Holt family have disappeared, these stylish frame houses are among the only surviving remnants of this initial era of industrialization in Burlington. Also of architectural note are a group of stylish Bungalows built in the 1910s and 1920s by the second generation of district residents — including the Vitus Holt bungalow, Minter A. Coble's stone bungalow, and the half-timbered bungalow of bank cashier Marvin W. McPherson.
Several women who played a large role in Burlington's affairs were long-time residents of the district. Miss Bertha Cates ran the J.W. Cates Company, coal, lumber and building materials, from 1914 to 1967, and lived in the family homeplace on E. Davis Street. Susie Stafford, principal of the nearby Maple Avenue Grade School, built a house next to her parents on E. Davis Street in the early 1900s. About 1940 nurse Faye Simpson built a Cape Cod cottage on Cameron Street with a bank loan that is said to be the first granted to a woman in Alamance County.
The East Davis Street Historic District has followed the economic cycle of many neighborhoods that abut central business districts, remaining a fashionable middle-class neighborhood until after World War II, when new suburban developments sapped the vitality of established downtown neighborhoods. The East Davis Street Historic District's most substantial houses began to be subdivided into apartments. Office and institutional zoning in the 1970s caused a further deterioration of the area's residential character. Since the 1980s, energetic new homeowners have begun to reclaim the district's architectural heritage. Residents have recently succeeded in rezoning the area back to residential usage.
The East Davis Street Historic District is located within the original limits of the town of Company Shops, a complex of repair facilities established in 1855 by the North Carolina Railroad Company in central Alamance County. The limits of the town, incorporated in 1866, were a one-and-one-half mile square centered on the hotel of the North Carolina Railroad. All of this land remained under the ownership of the railroad until 1869, when the company began to gradually sell lots to private individuals to build dwellings and shops. One such individual was railroad employee and local entrepreneur Gabriel M. Lea, who in 1871 built a residence on a two and one-half acre site that is now along East Davis Street between Spring Street and Lexington Avenue. Like nearly all pre-1886 architecture in Burlington, the Lea House has been demolished.
During the Company Shops era, buildings stood on spacious sites connected by dirt paths. The company shops stood beside the tracks, four blocks west of Mebane Street, the west boundary of the East Davis Street Historic District. Although largely demolished, the roundhouse and some building remnants remain. The earliest building still standing near the district is St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, built in 1879-1880 at 320 East Davis Street, two blocks to the west. A journalist visiting in the late 1870s admired the handsome architecture of the village, and noted that "each house has the advantage of convenient isolation; and, surrounded with beautiful trees and luxuriant shrubbery... forms as pretty a picture of urban life as could well be imagined."
In 1875 the offices of the North Carolina Railroad Company moved to Greensboro, and in 1886 the repair services were shifted to Manchester, Virginia by the company that leased the track, the Richmond and Danville Railroad. If manufacturing concerns had not been moving into the village in the earlier years of the 1880s, Company Shops would have ceased to exist at this time.
The town's location along the busiest railroad line in North Carolina made it desirable as a location for manufacturing facilities. Four new 1880s establishments — three cotton factories and a coffin factory — provided a sufficient economic base to prevent the demise of Company Shops. As the railroad repair shops were being phased out, the Holt family, who had pioneered the production of colored cotton cloth in Alamance County in the 1830s, expanded their industrial facilities to Burlington. The first textile mill in the village, the Lafayette Cotton Mills, was also the first mill in the county powered completely by steam instead of water power. Peter F. Holt constructed the mill in 1882 along the tracks a short distance east of the company shops. By 1885 this had been renamed Aurora Cotton Mills under the ownership of Lawrence S. Holt, youngest son of pioneering industrialist Edwin M. Holt. Holt descendants soon opened two other cotton mills in the vicinity. A fourth industry, the Burlington Coffin Company, was established in 1884 at the corner of Maple and Tucker streets, one block south of the district boundaries. Founded by J. Locke Erwin, a brother of Lawrence Holt, and T.P. Moore, the company employed over 100 workers and produced over 10,000 coffins annually by 1906. The factory became one of the largest coffin factories in the South and continued in operation until the 1960s. Its brick buildings, now in adaptive use, still stand.
As the railroad company abandoned Company Shops, they decided to accelerate their sale of land and had a survey plat made which laid off streets, designated street names, and divided the property into numbered lots. The main east-west street, along the south side of the railroad, was named Webb Avenue, the main north-south street, which extended south from the railroad passenger depot, was named Main Street. Cross-streets south of the railroad were Davis, Means (later renamed Maple), Morehead, and so on. Extending east from Main Street, one block south of Webb Avenue, East Davis Street was named for a director of the North Carolina Railroad, Dolphin A. Davis. Blocks were numbered consecutively moving eastward.
Townspeople decided that their community needed a new name, and in 1887 abandoned the name "Company Shops" for the new name "Burlington." During the decade of the 1880s, population doubled from 817 to 1,716. Much of the industry which fueled Burlington's growth located along the railroad tracks, and the new town of Burlington created a great need for housing for both mill owners and workers. New commercial services such as food, clothing, furniture, and pharmacies appeared. Professionals such as doctors and dentists set up shop in the evolving business district along Main Street. Wealthy mill owners erected grand architect-designed homes that symbolized their leadership in the community, thereby placing Burlington into the architectural vanguard once again, as it had been in the early years of Company Shops. During the town's regeneration, almost all of the company shops fabric — railroad buildings, a few houses, a few stores — were demolished. The second phase of architectural resources — mills, mill housing, owners' residences, commercial buildings — from the industrialization era, form Burlington's most venerable landmarks.
The young town's business community, the second tier of industrialists and businessmen, established enterprises along the railroad tracks and built residences nearby in the late 1880s and 1890s. It is this class of residential architecture that forms the backbone of the East Davis Street Historic District. The earliest known building in the district is the John R. Foster House, 518 E. Davis Street. The original house was a small dwelling built about 1888 by the shoemaker facing Cameron Street, at the corner of East Davis Street, one block south of the tracks. As his family expanded in the next decade, he enlarged it into a two-story Queen Anne style house that faces East Davis Street. One of the first speciality shops in town, the attractive brick Foster Shoe Company opened in the 300 block of Main Street in 1890. The 1913 Sanborn Map, the first one that maps Burlington's residential areas, shows the house in its current configuration, with three small domestic outbuildings and a barn located on the rear lot.
About 1892 Dr. G.W. Stafford built a two-story Queen Anne style house for his family (Stafford-Moore House, 514 E. Davis Street). Stafford co-owned the Stafford-Stroud Drug Company downtown. In 1892 the First Methodist Protestant Church congregation left their original meeting place, the non-denominational Union Church, to erect a sanctuary (Davis Street Methodist Church, 606 E. Davis St.) on a lot they purchased to bring the ministry to the growing east end. They built a frame Gothic Revival style sanctuary that stood until 1950 when the present imposing brick Classical Revival style sanctuary was built.
James Wesley Cates, a building contractor who moved to Burlington about 1880, built a coal, wood and lumber company along the railroad where Mebane Street intersected the tracks and East Webb Avenue. Around the same time, Cates built an ornate Queen Anne cottage for his family one-half block south of his business (James Wesley Cates House, 123 Mebane St.). Cates' role as a cornerstone of Burlington's civic and financial activities included his service as mayor, commissioner, and as a founder of the First Baptist Church. The stylish Cates residence was an advertisement for the variety of machine-made wooden trim available, including bargeboard, sunbursts, and fishscale shingles, and his skill in using them. He also apparently was responsible for at least one other house in the East Davis Street Historic District, the Ella Andrews House at 115 Tucker Street. Less stylish than the Cates House, the Andrews House possesses a vernacular I-House form embellished with a projecting central entrance bay and a fancy porch with bracketed posts and a sawn-work railing.
The first decade of Burlington's existence following the exodus of the railroad's shop services proved that the town had a bright future, since from 1890 to 1900 Burlington's population doubled, to 3,692, then increased to 5,952 in 1920. During the first two decades of the twentieth century Burlington developed the civic services needed by a town of its size. The commercial district expanded east into the 100 block of East Davis Street. East Davis Street Historic District continued its gradual development of Queen Anne style, middle-class housing in the 1890s and early 1900s. The earliest Sanborn Map to map the East Davis Street District, of 1913, shows nearly complete streetscapes of Victorian houses along East Davis, Webb, Mebane, Cameron and Tucker streets. The 1918, 1924, 1929, and 1949 updates of the Sanborn Maps chronicle subsequent changes as Bungalows and Colonial Revival houses were built on vacant lots and sometimes on the sites of earlier houses, and as some of the early houses were themselves expanded and remodeled. The neighborhood remained distinct and separated from the Aurora Mill Village, located just east of the district in the 800-900 blocks of E. Davis Street and along Maple, Everett and other streets. There, the Holt family built mill housing in the late 1800s and early 1900s to house the employees of Aurora Cotton Mill. A one-block commercial district in the 700 block of East Davis Street, containing early to late twentieth century one and two story brick stores, primarily served employees of the Aurora Cotton Mills. The shopping area has recently been revitalized.
A number of strong women lived in the East Davis Street Historic District, and their houses memorialize their inspiring lives. Miss Bertha Cates, daughter of James Wesley Cates, ran the family coal business from her father's death in 1914 until her retirement in 1967. His other daughter, Verna Cates Stackhouse, managed the King Cotton Mills for almost ten years. They lived together in the Cates homeplace at 123 Mebane Street until the early 1980s. Other single women in the district were Susie and Ila Stafford, sisters of W.E. Stafford. Susie, who was principal of the Maple Avenue Grade School, located one block south on Maple Avenue, and her sister had a one-story house built right beside their brother's house about 1913.(Susie and Ila Stafford House, 611 E. Davis St.) In 1936 Faye Simpson, a single nurse, purchased a portion of the rear property of John Foster and built a Cape Cod style house for herself (Faye Simpson House, 123 Cameron St.). Simpson is believed to have been the first woman to secure a bank loan to purchase a house in Alamance County.
In the mid-1920s, as a neighborhood commercial district was developing in the 700 block of East Davis Street to serve the residents of the Aurora Cotton Mill village located at the east end of East Davis Street, a gas station was built at the end of the 600 block (former Community Service Station, 619 E. Davis St.) With its stylish Mission Revival porte-cochere with terra cotta tile roof and arcaded openings, the station signaled that the east end of Burlington was a progressive neighborhood with a diverse mixture of residential, commercial and industrial facilities.
The East Davis Street District retained its middle-class, stable atmosphere, with wide boulevards, mature trees, and proximity to a thriving downtown, during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In the 1930s and 1940s, as the pressure for housing continued, several duplexes were constructed in the district. The Powhatan, a flat-roofed brick duplex, was built at 127-129 Mebane Street about 1937. A front-gabled brick duplex was built at 114-116 Tucker Street in the 1940s. On the west end of the East Davis Street Historic District, the Burlington business district gradually expanded into the 100-400 blocks of East Davis Street.
By 1971 when Burlington adopted its first zoning ordinance, the 500-600 blocks were zoned for office and institutional use to allow for the future expansion of the central business district into the area. Gradually the original families and their descendants died or moved away, and the commodious old houses were converted into apartments. The area became known as a low-rent district, with a high percentage of rental units and small businesses which occupied the houses, and sometimes generated unsympathetic remodeling. In 1991 a historic study by the Burlington Historic Preservation Commission recommended designation of the area as a historic district, but few local residents supported the action. Although a number of the houses were undergoing restoration, some of the rental property continued to deteriorate and crime became an issue. Finally, plans to locate a group home for the mentally ill in the John Foster House prompted residents to attempt to reclaim the historical character of the area. A project to rezone the residential sections of the neighborhood back to residential use was successful in 1997. Residents also petitioned the city to allow them to become the fourth National Register Historic District in Burlington. Accordingly, the city of Burlington financed the preparation of this district nomination in spring, 1999. Listing of the East Davis Street Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places will be an important step in reclaiming the stable residential character of this significant neighborhood.
Community Development and Architecture
The Multiple Property Documentation Form, "Historic Resources of Burlington," prepared in 1983, noted that the neighborhoods focused on Davis and Mebane streets adjacent to the Central Business District contained notable individual examples of late Queen Anne, Period Revival styles, Foursquares, and Bungalows. The East Davis Street Historic District is one of these neighborhoods. The district, the surviving core of the fashionable east end of Burlington, contains significant examples of the Queen Anne and Bungalow architectural styles that define the city's owner-occupied residential areas that developed from the 1880s to the 1930s. The earliest residences in the East Davis Street Historic District of Queen Anne style, represent the second-tier industrial and commercial class in Burlington, in distinct contrast to the "grand, stylish architect-designed homes" erected by the wealthy mill owners, several built along East Webb Avenue within site of the railroad tracks. Lawrence S. Holt's "Blythewood" and John Q. Gant's "Bonnie Oaks" were grand, picturesque Queen Anne style monuments to the gilded age, each built from plans by Tennessee architect George Barber in the late 1880s and early 1890s on an entire city block. Blythewood stood where Lexington Avenue now connects East Davis Street and Maple Avenue. Bonnie Oaks stood along East Webb Avenue between Spring Street and Lexington Avenue. These mansions have been demolished, leaving the more modest Queen Anne style landmarks of the East Davis Street Historic District. Burlington's Multiple Property Documentation Form singles out the John M. Fix House and the Stafford-Moore House as notable examples of the stylish Queen Anne architecture that appeared in Burlington in the early 1890s. The irregular configurations and roof lines, elaborate chimneys, and delightful millwork on porches and gables set these houses apart from the earlier vernacular houses of the settlement, which were rectangular, one-room-deep structures with simple gable roofs. Stafford's, Fix's, and Cates's stylish Queen Anne residences were instant landmarks, appearing in a 1906 promotional book along with the Holt mansions, each with its ornate picket fence and newly planted trees and shrubs. The Stafford-Moore House and the John Fix House, although smaller than the textile owners' mansions, retain the profusion of sawn and turned wooden ornament characteristic of high style Queen Anne.
According to "Historic Resources of Burlington," (MPDF), the town's three finest examples of the Neoclassical Revival style, which appeared locally after 1900, are the J.W. Murray House, Dr. John Page House (both on West Davis Street), and the Walter E. Stafford House in the East Davis Street Historic District. The Stafford House (Walter E. Stafford House, 607 E. Davis Street) is notable for its monumental Doric columns supporting a pedimented pavilion that projects beyond the one-story wraparound porch.
After 1910, Burlington moved closer to the mainstream of residential design, evidenced by the advent of pattern-book bungalows as early as 1915. The W. Manley Baker House on West Davis Street was one of the first examples. By the 1920s the bungalow had become Burlington's principal house form. Handsome examples of frame, brick, wood shingle, stucco, and stone bungalows survive in most of Burlington's neighborhoods. Then-mayor Earl B. Horner built one of the most splendid bungalows in the city at 304 N. Fisher Street in the early 1920s. The profusion of upswept gables and the exposed timbering of the front porch gable reflect the oriental influence on the style. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, the new bungalow style was introduced to the district and came to dominate. Ten of the twenty-four historic houses in the East Davis Street Historic District are bungalows. Two of the earliest bungalows in the district were built for Vitus Holt (Vitus Holt House, 504 East Davis Street), and Minter Coble (Minter A. Coble House, 510 East Davis Street). Holt was the son of hardware store owner Kirk Holt; Coble was a businessman. Holt's bungalow is frame, while Coble's is stone with pebbledash concrete gables. Across the street from John R. Foster's residence, his daughter Beulah and her husband Marvin W. McPherson, a bank cashier, built a stylish bungalow with half-timbered ornament about 1920 (Marvin W. McPherson House, 513 E. Davis St.) Early 1920s bungalows in the East Davis Street Historic District (Rex Ivey House, 616 E. Davis Street, R.A. Lutterloh House, 615 E. Davis Street) have Japanese-inspired knee braces that reflect the exotic influences that occasionally appeared in bungalows.
The East Davis Street Historic District holds significance as one of several areas of East Burlington that reflect residential development during the town's industrial boom from 1890 to the 1930s. Other districts in East Burlington with similar character and similar significance are the Broad Street Historic District and the South Main/South Church Street Historic District. The eight-block Broad Street Historic District contains Late Victorian cottages and larger houses, Foursquares, Colonial Revival houses, and Bungalows. One of the city's most interesting collection of bungalows is grouped around the intersection of the 700 block of South Lexington Avenue and Fifth Street in this district. The South Main/South Church Street area contains a similar collection of residential development from the industrial boom era. Building styles evolved from the early traditional I-Houses and late Victorian cottages to later Colonial Revival houses and bungalows. Among the non-residential resources are the City Park and the Pine Hill Cemetery.
Black, Allison H. An Architectural History of Burlington, N.C. Historic District Commission of Burlington, 1987.
Brown, Claudia. "Historic Resources of Burlington," (Multiple Property Documentation Form), North Carolina Historic Preservation Office, 1983.
Burlington, Graham and Haw River City Directory. Asheville: Piedmont Directory Company, 1910, 1929-30.
Burlington Times-News, Burlington, N.C. Articles in August, 1997, Apr. 12, 1999.
Hill's Burlington City Directory. Hill Directory Co., Inc. Richmond, VA. 1935, 1943, and 1950-51.
Lounsbury,Carl. Alamance County Architectural Heritage. The Alamance Historic Properties Commission, 1980.
Stokes, Durward T. Company Shops: The Town Built by a Railroad. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1981.
Whitaker, Walter. Centennial History of Alamance County 1849-1949. Alamance County Historical Association, Burlington 1949, 2nd printing 1974.
History of Methodist Churches in Burlington and Alamance County. Burlington: Burlington-Alamance County Chamber of Commerce, 1963.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Burlington, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, N.C.: 1913, 1918, 1924, and 1929.
† M. Ruth Little and Michelle Kullen, Longleaf Historic Resources, East Davis Street Historic District, Burlington, Alamance County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.