Wesley Heights Historic District
The Wesley Heights Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
Wesley Heights is one of several early twentieth century suburban developments ringing the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Like the earlier neighborhoods of Dilworth [see Dilworth Historic District], Plaza Midwood, and North Charlotte [see North Charlotte Historic District] Wesley Heights is a definable residential community development. Plans for creating a suburban development on a tract of Wadsworth family farmland were made as early as 1911. The neighborhood began to take shape in that year with the erection of the large George Wadsworth House at 400 South Summit Avenue. The majority of houses were built during the 1920s, following an aggressive marketing campaign by the developer. In the absence of established planning practices, the developers were able to influence how the neighborhood was to look by using restrictive deed covenants. This assured that a certain unity was achieved within the neighborhood, even though each lot was developed separately. Although it was accessible from two separate streetcar lines, Wesley Heights is notable in that its residents were as dependent on the automobile for transportation as on the electric trolley. Wesley Heights is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because it encompasses an impressively coherent and largely intact collection of dwellings dating from the first decades of the twentieth century. Primarily Bungalow/Craftsman and Tudor Revival styles, the architecture reflects local and national trends in middle-class housing during the period of significance, 1911-1945. The majority of houses are one story high, and all but one are wood frame. Many are brick veneered on the exterior, and gabled roofs are prevalent. There are a large number of multiple family residences, especially duplexes and quadriplexes. This helped fulfill the housing needs of singles and new residents to the area, as reflected by the tremendous growth in population between 1900 (18,000) and 1930 (83,000). Both one and two stories in height, the multi-family dwellings blend into the streetscape with ease. Most of the houses in Wesley Heights were built from plans without using the services of an architect, and therefore fall into the popular building tradition. A few prominent local architects were known to have worked in Wesley Heights, though. Louis Asbury drew the plans for the Wadsworth House (400 S. Summit Avenue) and former Wesley Heights Methodist Episcopal Church (201 Grandin Road), both neighborhood showpieces. William Peeps, Fred L. Bonfoey and B.W. Roberts all designed houses in the neighborhood.
Historical Background and Community Development Context
Charlotte has a tradition of suburban development dating back to the late nineteenth century. The earliest suburban development, Dilworth, was established in 1891 at the end of the first electric streetcar line in the city. Plaza Midwood and North Charlotte grew up after 1903. Dilworth was expanded in 1911, the same year that neighboring Myers Park [see Myers Park Historic District] was laid out. Washington Heights, an African-American neighborhood, was founded in 1913. Further east, the five subdivisions that are now called the Elizabeth neighborhood were planned in consecutive sections beginning in 1891, and continuing through 1900, 1904 and 1915.
The 1915 Rosemont section of the Elizabeth neighborhood brought together C.B. Bryant, an investor, and E.C. Griffith, a developer. At one time, they both owned a piece of the Rosemont development (Hanchett, pp.20-21; Black, pp.8.7-8.8) and .apparently chose to again do business together in Wesley Heights. They are both listed on the 1920 deed of trust when the property which was to become Wesley Heights was transferred to the Charlotte Investment Company (Mecklenburg County Deed Book 422, p.131).
The property which was to become Wesley Heights was farmland during the nineteenth century. It belonged to John W. Wadsworth (1835-1895), who owned a livery stable and was a contractor for the first horsedrawn streetcar system in Charlotte. On this land, he raised Holstein cattle on what was called the "J.W. Wadsworth Model Farm" (Alexander, p.7). In 1895, he died and left his property to his widow, four daughters and four living sons. At some point, the Wadsworth Land Company was formed, and plans were made to subdivide the parcel. A survey plat was drawn up in 1911 for the section that lies between the Piedmont and Northern Railroad tracks and the junction of West Trade Street and Tuckaseegee Road. The new neighborhood was to be called Wesley Park. Whether lots were ever offered for public sale from this plan is unknown. What is known, however, is that a son and a daughter chose parcels for themselves. George Price Wadsworth (1879-1930) hired Charlotte architect Louis Asbury to design his spacious home which was built at 400 S. Summit Avenue in 1911. Louise Patton, a daughter, received three lots at 214 Grandin Road where a two-and-one-half story Colonial Revival style house was later erected. It is likely that she also employed the services of an architect. Both of these houses are indicated on a later survey plat, which was published in the newspaper.
The Wadsworth Land Company was either unsuccessful or did not actively pursue the development of Wesley Park. In January of 1920, the land was transferred to the Charlotte Investment Company for $200,000. The debt was payable in the form of twenty bonds of $10,000 each, the first three of which came due on January 1, 1922. In the intervening years, the Charlotte Investment Company redrew the survey plat, laid out the lots, and added improvements, such as sidewalks and public utilities. In redrawing the plat, lots facing the Piedmont and Northern Interurban Railroad tracks, and Lakewood Avenue, which straddled the tracks, were realigned to face the principal streets — Walnut Avenue, S. Summit Avenue and Grandin Road. Otherwise, the layout of the 1911 plat was retained and the vision for Wesley Heights was reborn.
Lot sales began in Wesley Heights on December 7, 1921. The event was marked by an advertisement in the Charlotte Observer encouraging prospective purchasers to "Put Your Savings To Work — Get Ready For The Building Boom — Select A Lot In Wesley Heights." As an incentive, a twenty-five percent discount was offered on the first fifty lots sold. Payment terms were available — ten percent down, twenty percent due by January 1, 1922, and the "remainder on terms to suit the purchaser." For cash buyers, an additional discount of approximately three percent was mentioned. (Charlotte Observer, December 7, 1921)
The sale was an immediate success. A mere five days later, another ad appeared in the newspaper boasting that thirty-two lots had already been sold "to the best people of Charlotte. It stands to reason that such a record would have been impossible unless WESLEY HEIGHTS appealed to their own good judgement as a section in which to live."
This ad further commented that each lot was already improved with "water, sewer, sidewalks, telephone and lighting facilities," and that Grandin Road and Summit Avenue were scheduled for paving during the coming year. (Charlotte Observer, December 11, 1921)
Home construction was encouraged. E.C. Griffith Company offered to finance fifty percent of the combined cost of a house and lot for those who would build within two years. How many homes were built under these conditions is not known, but the City Directories for 1923/24 (the first year streets in Wesley Heights were mentioned) showed three addresses on Grandin Road, seven on Summit Avenue and nine on Walnut Avenue.
After the initial flush of activity, lot sales and construction proceeded steadily. Encouraged by success, the Charlotte Investment Company had plans drawn up for the tract lying in between the Piedmont and Northern Railroad tracks and West Morehead Street. This extended the principal streets from one end of the neighborhood to the other. Unlike the earlier section, the later half does not include cross streets or alleyways. Lot sales and home-building activity began in this section without haste.
Two churches and a public school were erected during the 1920s. The Wesley Heights Graded School (128-32 S. Summit Avenue) was constructed around 1925, probably lending further incitement for families with children to settle in the neighborhood. The Wesley Heights Methodist Episcopal Church (201 Grandin Road) and St. Andrew's Episcopal Church (615 Grandin Road) were built in 1928 and 1929, respectively. The presence of the churches and the school helped form a true community, not merely a residential enclave.
Multi-family housing concepts matured in Wesley Heights during this time. Fifty-seven of the 333 contributing residences in the Wesley Heights Historic District are either duplexes, quadriplexes or apartment buildings. This is a direct reflection of the need for accommodations for those who were single, newly-transplanted residents; or otherwise not ready for home ownership. This was a strong trend nationally, as well as throughout Charlotte, as is evinced by population statistics (18,091 in 1900; 34,014 in 1910; 46,338 in 1920; and 82,675 in 1930). In Wesley Heights, multi-family dwellings were a planned and integral part of the neighborhood, not merely an afterthought as in other areas.
Because there were no established planning practices in Charlotte at the time, the developers of Wesley Heights resorted to using restrictive covenants in order to influence the final form of the neighborhood. These covenants were added to the deeds and regulated such things as setback, fencing, and even the cost of the structure to be built. By doing this, certain minimum standards were maintained, and a degree of cohesion was assured.
The success of Wesley Heights during the 1920s reflects both a nationwide trend toward suburban development during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. More importantly, however, is the fact that Wesley Heights was the first of such developments in Charlotte in which residents relied equally on the private automobile as on public transportation. Previous suburbs in Charlotte were dependent on the presence of the streetcar lines for their appeal and success. Wesley Heights on the other hand, while it was located close to the trolley line, could have succeeded without it. Wesley Heights represents the dawn of the commuter suburb in Charlotte, which would prove to be a pervasive development pattern throughout the twentieth century.
By 1921, when the campaign to sell building lots there began, many people in Charlotte were driving automobiles. There was an auto show in the city in the same year, 1921, where various makes of automobiles and accessories were exhibited (Blythe and Brockman, p.435). In 1925, there were 182 separate businesses with listings in the City Directories under the general heading "Automotive." That included dealers, financers, garages, filling stations and more, but clearly indicates that motoring was commonplace. Statistics bear this out on a national level. Kenneth T. Jackson, writing in Crabgrass Frontier points out that automobile registrations rose 150 percent between 1920 and 1930. He further states that "the decade after the end of World War I was the first in which the road and the car had full impact" (Jackson, p.175).
Whether Wesley Heights would have been quite as successful without its proximity to the Piedmont and Northern Interurban tracks and W. Trade Street Trolley line is arguable. It is evident, however, by counting the number of garages shown on the 1929 Sanborn map that the automobile as a commuter vehicle was an integral fixture in the neighborhood.
While homes were still being erected during the 1930s throughout the older sections of the neighborhood, the pace was considerably slower than during the 1920s. By the end of the 1920s, approximately two-thirds of the neighborhood was developed. The only direction in which it was possible to expand was north. Woodruff Place and Lela Avenue, which connected Woodruff Place to Walnut Avenue and Lakewood Street, were platted in 1932. In the midst of the Great Depression, activity was not as brisk on Woodruff Avenue as in the earlier sections. In fact, the earliest houses on Woodruff Place were not built until 1939. Most of the houses there date from the early 1940s. Since that time, fewer numbers of structures have been erected throughout the neighborhood, and virtually all of them have been built on lots previously undeveloped.
Wesley Heights Historic District reflects the middle class values and means during the 1920s. The architecture is popular rather than academic, and the character is strictly community-oriented and non-commercial. Earlier suburbs in Charlotte included planned areas for commercial activity, to provide basic services to the residents, but Wesley Heights did not. Even the lots that accessed the thoroughfares (W. Trade Street, Tuckaseegee Road and W. Morehead Street), faced out of the neighborhood, and are today not considered to be a part of it. Wesley Heights was insular in a way that no other neighborhood in Charlotte had ever been.
A significant change occurred in the neighborhood during the late 1960s. A sudden shift in population resulted in the virtual overnight transformation from residents strictly of the white race to primarily African-Americans. This came on the heels of the wholesale destruction of the African-American neighborhood of Brooklyn (in Charlotte's Second Ward) due to an urban renewal program. It is possible that plans for the impending construction of Interstate 77 at the edge of the neighborhood caused the original residents to offer their homes for sale. In any event, once the transformation was underway, it was widespread and rapid. A reflection of this was seen in the transfer of the two church properties from Episcopal to Baptist and from Methodist Episcopal to African Methodist Episcopal. The Wesley Heights Methodist Episcopal Church at 201 Grandin Road is now the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and St. Andrew's Episcopal Church at 615 Grandin Road is now St. Mark's Baptist Church.
Remarkably few homes have been removed from the interior of the neighborhood. The public school at the northwest corner of S. Summit Avenue and W. 4th Street, was demolished in the early 1970s, and several houses were taken for Interstate 77, which was constructed along the eastern edge of the neighborhood. Additionally, West 3rd Street, which was called Westbrook Drive for a time during the 1950s, was widened and resulted in the destruction of eleven properties. It was renamed again, and is now called West 4th Street Extension. Despite these changes, the neighborhood closely resembles its appearance of sixty years ago in character, materials and scale.
Wesley Heights is one of a string of early suburbs circling Charlotte, it has its own character and identity stemming largely from the times and circumstances of its inception. It is unique because it is the only such suburb dating primarily from the boom years of the 1920s. The other neighborhoods in Charlotte were already in place by that time, and relied, out of necessity, on the proximity of public transportation. Wesley Heights, on the other hand, was developed after commuting by automobile had pervaded everyday life.
The architecture in Wesley Heights Historic District exhibits a narrow range of types and styles. It is far more homogeneous than Dilworth, Elizabeth, or virtually any other early suburb in Charlotte. The majority of homes built during the 1920s are Craftsman/Bungalow style, while the 1930s ushered in a diluted version of the Tudor Revival. The Colonial Revival style is represented throughout both decades, but not in large numbers.
Despite the fact that the majority of houses in Wesley Heights were built following published plans, there is a tremendous variety in design along the streetscape. Each house is unique, though many elements (weatherboard or brick veneer, gable roofs, porches, paired windows, etc.) are repeated throughout the neighborhood. It is this repetition of materials, scale and design that gives the neighborhood such a high degree of cohesiveness. By contrast, the earlier Charlotte suburbs had longer periods of development and therefore include a greater mix of architectural types and styles than Wesley Heights does. The Elizabeth Historic District, for example, was the product of five separate subdivisions, and grew up over four decades.
The grandest house in the Wesley Heights Historic District, the George Wadsworth House at 400 S. Summit Avenue is also the earliest. It was designed by renowned Charlotte architect Louis Asbury and built in 1911. Also drawn by Asbury in 1927 and 1928 were the Wesley Heights Methodist Episcopal Church (201 Grandin Road) and the Catawba Apartments (107 Grandin Road). The Catawba is the largest (twelve units in three stories) multi-family dwelling in the neighborhood, and, standing near the junction of W. Trade Street, serves as an anchor for Grandin Road. The other apartment building in the neighborhood, the Bomar Apartments at 305 S. Summit Avenue, was designed and built by the Graham Brothers in 1928. St. Andrew's Episcopal Church at 615 Grandin Road (now St. Mark's Baptist Church) was designed by prominent Charlotte architect William H. Peeps.
On a smaller scale, Fred L. Bonfoey, a Charlotte architect known for designing bungalows, had some commissions in Wesley Heights. Among them is the Severs House at 321 Grandin Road, which he designed in 1924. B.W. Roberts and J.R. Thrower were the architects of record at 409 Grandin Road (Boyd House) and 630 Grandin Road (McGimpsey House) respectively.
Bishir, Catherine W., and Early, Lawrence S. eds. Early Twentieth-Century Suburbs in North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1985.
Black, Allison Harris. "Elizabeth Historic District." Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 26 June 1988. (Typescript.)
Blythe, LeGette and Brockman, Charles. Hornet's Nest. Charlotte: McNally of Charlotte, 1961.
Charlotte Building Standards Department. Building Permits. The author consulted microfilm copies at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Charlotte City Directories. Various years between 1923/24 and 1994.
Charlotte Observer. 7, 11, 30 December 1921.
Clark, Clifford Edward. The American Family Home. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Hanchett, Thomas W. "Charlotte Neighborhood Survey," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Properties Commission, 1984.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Massey, James C. and Maxwell, Shirley. "Builder Style: America's little Houses." Old House Journal, September/October 1990, pp.45-49.
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Mecklenburg County Register of Deeds Office. Deed Books, Deed Indexes, and Map Books.
Oswald, Virginia. "Dilworth Historic District." Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 9 January 1987. (Typescript.)
Sanborn Map Company, Insurance Maps of Charlotte. North Carolina. 1929 and 1953.
Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1981.
† Mary Beth Gatza, Wesley Heights Historic District, Mecklenburg County, NC, nomination document, 1995, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.