Clinton Commercial Historic District
The Clinton Commercial Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Text below includes portions that were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Clinton Commercial Historic District is locally significant for listing in the National Register in the areas of commerce and architecture. The period of significance for the district begins in 1902, the date of the earliest building, and extends to 1951 after which no significant construction occurred within the district. The post-1951 period has been evaluated, and it does not possess exceptional significance, therefore the fifty-year cut-off date is appropriate.
Although Clinton did not officially incorporate until 1822, the town had been the location of Sampson County's seat since 1784. The city's earliest major construction began in the early 1830s with the arrival of several merchant families from Connecticut. Despite several major fires, the town flourished as an educational, trade and political center during the nineteenth century. The 1886 completion of a branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad enabled Clinton to thrive during the latter part of the nineteenth century as an agriculture and timber market.
The period of significance begins in 1902 when a devastating fire destroyed most of Clinton's commercial district. The business community immediately began the task of rebuilding, replacing the former vulnerable frame structures with more substantial and fire-resistant brick buildings. The Clinton Commercial Historic District contains governmental and commercial buildings which are characteristic of the distinctive styles from the first half of the twentieth century. A popular style chosen by many of the town's businessmen was the early-twentieth century Commercial style, identified by the use of patterned masonry wall surfaces, shaped parapets at the roofline, and large rectangular windows. The Classical Revival-style 1902 Powell Building at 118 East Main Street and the Bethune Building (National Register 1986) at 120 East Main Street provide excellent examples of the early-twentieth century use of decorative pressed metal to sheathe commercial buildings. The A.F. Johnson Building (NR 1999), located at 102-104 East Main Street, is a more restrained Classical Revival-style two-story brick building featuring a projecting metal cornice with modillion blocks.
Shortly after the 1902 fire, the town replaced the former frame 1818 courthouse with a much more substantial brick Romanesque Revival style courthouse. The 1904 courthouse received a major face-lift in 1938 when the Works Progress Administration, under the direction of R.R. Markley, architect, remodeled the building in the Colonial Revival style. The Sampson County Courthouse (101 E. Main Street) continues to anchor the downtown commercial district. Several blocks west of the courthouse, the 1936 United States Post Office (109 West Main Street) echoes the Colonial Revival style of the courthouse. Designed by architect Louis A. Simon, the post office is embellished with many patriotic elements, including a carved eagle in a recessed arch over the main entrance.
Another popular style of the early twentieth century can be found in the Clinton Railroad and Freight Depot (NR 1985), located several blocks southwest of the courthouse at 113 West Elizabeth Street, on the edge of the historic district. Dating from c.1917, the brick Craftsman-style passenger depot displays a low hip roof with wide eaves supported by large triangular brackets.
Clinton thrived during the first half of the twentieth century as Sampson County's governmental seat, cultural center, and major business locality. Large department stores, including Barbrey's and Powell's, both located on East Main Street, attracted shoppers from all over the county. The town, continuing to expand, underwent a second major building boom during the early to mid 1940s when former frame buildings, lost to fire or neglect, were replaced with post-war modern one-story brick commercial buildings. The Clinton Commercial Historic District remains a time capsule, as no significant building has taken place since approximately 1950. Several currently vacant buildings are slated for restoration as the city recognizes and seeks to preserve its unique heritage and historically significant built environment.
Historical Background and Commerce Context
Created on April 19, 1784, by the General Assembly, Sampson County was cut from the western half of Duplin County, which had been created from New Hanover County in 1749. The county was named in honor of Colonel John Sampson, a native of Northern Ireland, who immigrated to North Carolina in the-early 1730s. Sampson, a prominent early political leader, was the first Registrar of Deeds in Duplin County and also served on the Royal Councils of Governors Dobbs, Tyron and Martin. Sampson owned approximately 12,000 acres of land and built a house just northeast of Clinton (Butchko, p.11).
Sampson, the largest county in the state, established its own log courthouse with an attached jail and stock by the fall of 1784. Originally known as Rhodes' Cross Roads, the name was changed to Sampson Courthouse in 1801 with the completion of a new courthouse and the establishment of the town's first post office. The name, "Clinton Courthouse," was officially given the village by Act of General Assembly in 1818 (Bass, p.28).
With money from the sale of lots, a two-story Federal-style courthouse was built on high brick piers. Offices were located on the second floor of the frame building, while the first level contained the courtroom, accessed by two outside staircases. This building, remodeled c.1849 in the Greek Revival style, was utilized until 1904, when it was sold and moved to McKoy Street (Patrick-Carr-Herring House National Register Nomination, Section 8, page 5).
When another North Carolina town named "Clinton" gave up its charter in 1822, the Clinton Courthouse post office was permitted to drop the "Courthouse" part of its name and the town officially became known as Clinton. Although the General Assembly had authorized "Clinton Courthouse" in Sampson County to be laid out in 1818, it was not incorporated until 1822 (Bizzell, p.51).
The community was named for Richard Clinton (1721-1796), John Sampson's foster son and Sampson County representative to both the state general assembly and senate (1784-1787, 1789-1795). Clinton also served as one of the first Justices of Sampson County and was the county's first Registrar of Deeds. The 1818 courthouse was built on five acres of land purchased from Richard Clinton for thirty cents an acre (Butchko, p.12).
Sampson County led the state's production of tar, pitch, and turpentine during most of the nineteenth century. Early agricultural products included rice, corn, cotton, and sweet potatoes. It was common for sheep, geese, hogs, and cows to forage over the countryside. Clinton, meanwhile, flourished as an educational, trade, and political center, energized by an influx of Connecticut merchants in the 1830s. Surveyed in 1834, the town limits were established so as not to extend beyond one-fourth of a mile from the courthouse. On December 22, 1852, the North Carolina General Assembly ratified an act for the better regulation of the town of Clinton. Newly-appointed town commissioners, James M. Moseley, Isaac Boykin, Dr. Henry A. Bizzell, John R. Beaman, and Alfred Johnson, resurveyed the town and prepared a plat, extending the town limits to a half-mile each direction from the courthouse (Bass, pp.32-33).
Following the Civil War and the destruction of the commercial district by an 1877 fire, Clinton rebounded as an agriculture and timber market, aided by the completion of a branch of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad (Bishir, p.408). Cotton and tobacco replaced tar, pitch, and turpentine as the cash crop of Sampson County. On April 1, 1887, the first passenger train pulled out of Clinton for Warsaw on a spur of the Wilmington to Weldon Railroad, thereby connecting Clinton to the outside world. The train also provided for efficient and fast delivery of supplies and products for Clinton merchants, replacing the previously utilized slow and unpredictable mule and wagon mode of transporting goods (Bizzell, p.153).
On December 5, 1889, an article in The Caucasian, a Clinton newspaper, describes some of the improvements in town. "Several new businesses on Courthouse Square are identified as the two new stores of F.T. Atkins, a new store occupied by Mrs. M.E. Peterson & Co., the store of T.M. Britt, D.R. Watson's new store, the handsome new brick store of J.E. Royal, a millinery establishment of W.A. Jackson, and the office of the Clinton Loan Association." The article also describes numerous improvements throughout the town, including overhauled mills and cotton gins, new hotels, and new and improved residences (Bizzell, pp.36-37).
Following the 1877 fire, Clinton sustained major damage from several additional fires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1892, fire destroyed the entire block of North Wall Street. Two years later, in 1894, another fire destroyed a number of downtown stores. A fourth major fire, in 1902, burned forty-three of Clinton's downtown buildings, taking with it practically all of East Main Street (Bass, pp.41-42).
In 1904, a large Romanesque Revival-style brick building replaced the 1818 courthouse. The courthouse building (101 E. Main Street) was completely remodeled in 1938-39 in the Colonial Revival style with the addition of two wings at a cost of $100,000. The building has remained essentially the same since that time.
Telephone service also began in Clinton in 1904 with the formation of the Sampson Telephone Company. The company was granted permission by the board of county commissioners to use the public roads and highways of Sampson County for the purpose of erecting, maintaining, and operating telephone poles and lines. The telephone company moved immediately to publish a directory. At the time, there were only fifty-three telephones listed in Clinton. Initial advertisers included grocers, restaurants, a lumber company, a clothing and dry goods store, a drug store, a meat market, a horse, mule, wagon, buggy, and harness business, and the Bank of Clinton (Bizzell, p.172).
In 1910, Clinton became one of the first in a growing number of North Carolina towns to receive electricity. A franchise was granted by the town to C.W. Petty, operating as Sampson Power Company. It became a part of the Carolina Power and Light system in 1923 when the company's transmission system was extended eastward from Fayetteville and the municipal lighting plants at Clinton and Mount Olive were acquired (Bizzell, p.173).
The town realized that it needed a more effective means to combat the ever-present threat of fire, and in 1910, began issuing bonds for the purpose of installing a waterworks system. The town commissioners argued that in addition to the protection waterworks would give the town in case of fire, the improvement in sanitation conditions and the health of the town alone would be worth the cost. A consulting engineer was brought to town in April, 1911, to discuss the costs of installing a waterworks and sewage system in Clinton (Bizzell, p.43).
Clinton's commercial district thrived from the 1920s through the early 1950s. By 1930, the population of Clinton had reached 2,712. Many of its businesses were dependent on the agricultural economy. Several large markets opened in Clinton during the 1930s including the Tobacco Market, the Sampson Fruit and Vegetable Market, a livestock market, and a poultry and egg market. Many of the farmer's markets were located on an empty lot behind the courthouse, drawing local farmers into downtown Clinton, whose commercial enterprises were ready to supply them with anything that could not be produced on the farm.
Downtown department and clothing stores included L.P. Barbrey and Company, dealers in dry goods, notions, shoes, hats, clothing, and millinery, located in the A.F. Johnson Building (NR 2000, 102-104 E. Main Street). Later businesses in the Johnson building included Ed Fleishmans Brothers, a men's clothing retailer, which remained in the building until 1979 and Roses Dime Store (1929-1979). Further down East Main Street could be found Sampson Ace Hardware Store, located in the c.1902 Powell Building (NR 1986, 118 E. Main Street). Pope's Five, Ten, and Twenty-Five Cent Store located at 124 East Main Street in the Herring Building was a popular gathering spot during the 1940s and 50s.
Belk Williams Department Store opened for business in the Slossberg Building (101 North Wall Street) on the corner of West Main and North Wall Street in 1946. They remained in that location until 1975. Another popular store for the ladies during the 1940s and 50s was The Town Shop, situated across the street from Belk Williams at 107 West Main Street.
One of the most prominent businesses downtown during this time period was Butler's Drug Store (204 E. Main Street). Founded by A.B. Butler in 1924, the store remains in business today. Additional businesses located in the buildings encircling the courthouse included jewelry stores, furniture stores, shoe stores, and small grocery stores. Professional businessmen, including doctors, lawyers, dentists, and insurance agents rented office space on the second level of many of the buildings.
Several banks also located in the commercial district. The Bank of Clinton located near the courthouse at 207 East Main Street, opened its doors in 1905 and remained until c.1945, when it was taken over by First Citizens Bank and Trust Company. The Bank of Sampson occupied the building across the street at 132 E. Main Street. It operated in this building until 1934, when it was bought by Joe Reynolds and became known as Reynolds Drug Store.
Clinton also catered to the entertainment needs of the local citizens. The Gem Theater occupied the building at 109 N. Wall Street from the 1930s until the early 1950s. The Clinton Theater (later known as the Austin Theater, opened at 117 Fayetteville Street in 1950. Several popular restaurants were also located near the courthouse. The Carolina Fruit Palace, opened by Solly Kaleel in 1932 at 107 Vance Street remained until the early 1960s. Today, Kaleel's son operates a cafe in the building known as Kaleel's City Grill. The downtown drug stores attracted the teenage crowd with their lunch counters and ice cream soda fountains. Cruising the block around the courthouse in their souped-up automobiles was an ever popular past-time for Clinton's teenagers during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
Clinton's growth during the second half of the twentieth century has been slow and steady. By the 1950s, Clinton was designated as a "city" and was becoming recognized as one of the state's industrial and marketing centers. Clinton owned and operated an auction produce market with office buildings, grading sheds, storage rooms, cotton platform, and poultry and egg market covering a ten-acre plat. A tobacco market had been established in 1945. A meat packing plant established in 1950 processed over 3, 000 hogs each week while a modern poultry processing plant also furnished employment to local citizens. By 1957, Clinton's manufacturing plants produced lumber, fertilizer, ice cream, boats, meal, poultry and livestock feed, awnings, furniture, tobacco oil curers, home heating units, radio electronic parts, garments, and component parts for airplanes (Bass, p.82). Some of the businesses in the downtown commercial district lost their momentum during the 1970s and 80s as improved roads lured the county's citizens to the larger shopping malls in nearby Raleigh.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the city of Clinton continues its pattern of growth and prosperity. The 1996 population of approximately 9,100 is about one-fifth of Sampson County's entire population. The 1980s witnessed the development of Southeastern Business Complex, adjacent to the City of Clinton. Since then, the industrial park has expanded including such industries as Dubose Strapping, Dubose National Energy, and Atlantic Coil Processing. Clinton's downtown commercial district, centered around the courthouse square, remains essentially intact, however, and is enjoying a renaissance as previously vacant buildings are being renovated and occupied by new businesses.
Clinton owes its beginnings to its selection as the county seat. Consequently, it is the courthouse, and not the railroad depot which was the focus of the business district and the street layout. It was not until 1886, when the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad built a spur from Warsaw to Clinton, that the railroad made an impact on the town.
Clinton Commercial Historic District centers on the square dominated by the Sampson County Courthouse. In 1938, a Public Works Administration-sponsored Colonial Revival-style courthouse replaced the original 1904 Romanesque Revival-style building. Designed by R.R. Markley, the courthouse features two projecting wings, a two-story porch supported by square columns, and a central cupola.
Enclosing the square are one- and two-story brick commercial buildings from the turn of the century. Some feature pressed-metal facades such as the Powell and Bethune Buildings (NR), built after a fire that destroyed their predecessors. South of the courthouse stands the chief reminder of railroad days, the long brick Clinton Depot and Freight Station (NR), built c.1917 in the Craftsman style.
By the 1910s and 20s, many of southeastern North Carolina's small towns assumed a typical form, which many have maintained to the present. Similar to Clinton, a business core of two to perhaps four or five blocks centers on a courthouse square or a railroad depot. The streets were generally paved in the 1920s and concrete sidewalks installed about the same time that power lines were run. Replacing older frame buildings, the commercial buildings built from the 1890s to the 1920s generally consisted of one- and two-story brick blocks with plate-glass windows and simple corbelled brick cornices. A few of the more upscale buildings boasted of pressed metal fronts. Lawyers, doctors, and dentists occupied second-floor office space.
The majority of the buildings in the Clinton Commercial Historic District were constructed after the 1902 catastrophic fire which destroyed much of the town's architectural fabric. The more elaborate commercial buildings in the district are situated across East Main Street from the courthouse. This row of two-story brick buildings were all constructed shortly after the fire and seem to make a statement that Clinton not only would not be defeated by the fire but would rebuild bigger and better than before.
The previously mentioned Classical Revival-style Powell Building (118 E. Main Street) and the Bethune Building (120 E. Main Street) were embellished with decorative friezes, cornices, and ornate pressed-metal sheathing, standing out as architectural landmarks in Sampson County. While somewhat more subdued, the remaining four buildings on the block tend to be larger and exhibit more architectural adornment than the remainder of Clinton's commercial buildings. These include the c.1902 Classical Revival-style A.F. Johnson Building at 102-104 E. Main Street (NR 2000) with its pressed metal projecting cornice and the c.1902 Herring Building (124 E. Main Street), also embellished with Classical Revival details, including a decorated cornice supported by modillion blocks. The c.1902 Bank of Sampson (132 E. Main Street) located on the corner of East Main and Lisbon streets, also features classically-inspired modillion blocks supporting a projecting cornice. The c.1904 Dr. Lee Building (108-110 E. Main Street), suffered a major fire in 1965 and the upper level of the front facade was replaced with a post-war Modern-style aluminum panel.
The remaining buildings facing the courthouse, situated along North Wall, Vance, and Sampson streets, are more typical early-twentieth century Commercial-style buildings. Most have undergone some alteration of their first-story facades, but the original architectural detailing of the upper levels remains evident. Features common to these buildings include corbelled tables at the roofline, recessed panels, parapeted roof lines, patterned brickwork, and rectangular windows.
One block west of the courthouse is the 1936 United States Post Office (109 W. Main Street) designed by Louis A. Simon. Built in the Colonial Revival style, the post office features an elaborate door surround including Doric columns flanking the double-leaf front door and a leaded-glass fanlight transom surmounted by a carved eagle. It is interesting to note that the Colonial Revival design of the post office coincided with the redesign of the Sampson County Courthouse in the Colonial Revival style.
Clinton underwent another building boom during the 1940s. At this time some of the town's older frame hotels and boarding houses situated adjacent to the commercial district were either demolished or destroyed by fire. They tended to be replaced by one-story brick commercial buildings constructed in the post-war Modern style. These commercial structures took the shape of common brick buildings with flat roofs and large expanses of plate-glass windows, devoid of much architectural detail.
Several garages and auto showrooms were built in downtown Clinton during the first half of the twentieth century. The best of these is the c.1911 Henry Vann Building at 104 Fayetteville Street. This impressive yellow brick Commercial-style building features a multi-stepped parapet, paired rectangular windows, and flat brick pilasters dividing the large building into sections. The first floor was divided into a large showroom area and office space. Vann Motor Company was located in the building for many years. The c.1935 Williams Building at 218-220 McKoy Street, is another handsome automobile showroom built in the Commercial-style. Similar to the Vann Building, the Williams building is divided into sections by flat brick pilasters. It features a central stepped parapet, paired rectangular windows, and inset accent stones on the facade.
Several small automobile service stations are included in the Clinton Commercial Historic District. The c.1935 Standard Oil Station (103 Fayetteville Street), located on a triangular lot where Fayetteville Street joins North Wall Street, exhibits the influence of the Art Moderne style with its curved office walls and glass-block windows. The curved walls and metal sheathing of the ticket office on the 1950 Clinton Theater located at 117 Fayetteville Street is also reminiscent of the Art Moderne style.
One of the most handsome buildings within the Clinton Commercial Historic District is the 1935 Tudor Revival-style Crumpler-Honeycutt Funeral Home located at 118 Fayetteville Street. Built to resemble a large country-style residence, the funeral home exhibits half-timbering on the upper level, as well as multiple gables and a corbelled interior chimney.
The overwhelming bulk of Sampson County's surviving commercial buildings date from the first decades of the twentieth century. One- and two-story brick commercial structures are found in Salemburg, Roseboro, and Clinton. These brick buildings are essentially expanded versions of the one-story variety and were given a heightened sense of stylistic ornamentation, usually in the form of a metal cornice or decorative stone lintels and sills.
The town of Burgaw [see Burgaw Historic District, NR 1999], in adjacent Pender County, is similar to Clinton in many respects. Also a county seat, Burgaw's commercial district centers on the courthouse square and the impressive 1934 brick Georgian Revival courthouse. Bounded by broad streets, modest one- and two-story early-twentieth century brick commercial buildings define the perimeter of the square. And like Clinton, the railroad depot is situated several blocks from the courthouse square on the outskirts of the commercial district.
The Clinton Commercial Historic District is free of industrial buildings which tended to be located on the outskirts of the town. Several residential historic districts are located immediately adjacent to the downtown district. The Clinton Commercial Historic District is a mix of early- and mid-twentieth-century commercial buildings, along with the 1930s remodeled courthouse and post office. The few designated non-contributing buildings in the Clinton Commercial Historic District are due primarily to inappropriate changes to the buildings' historic fabric.
Bass, Cora The Sampson County Yearbook, 1956-57. Clinton: Bass Publishing Company, 1957.
Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Bishir, Catherine W. and Michael T. Southern A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
Bizzell, Oscar M. Heritage of Sampson County, North Carolina, 1784- 1984. The Sampson County Historical Society in cooperation with Hunter Publishing Company: Winston-Salem, 1984.
Butchko, Tom An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Sampson County. Contemporary Lith: Raleigh, NC
Butchko, Tom National Register Nomination for the Powell-Bethune Buildings (1986). Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History files.
Butchko, Tom National Register Nomination for the Clinton Depot and Freight Station (1985). Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History files.
Clinton City Directories, Sampson County Library, 1960-1998.
Keane, Beth. National Register Nomination for the Johnson Building, Sampson County (1999). Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History.
Reeb, Mary. National Register Nomination for the Patrick-Carr-Herring House, Sampson County (1992). Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History files.
Reynolds, James Ingram A Personal History of Clinton and Sampson County. An unpublished manuscript. Clinton, April, 1991.
Sampson County Deed Books, Office of Register of Deeds, Sampson County Courthouse.
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The Sampson Independent. Sampson Silhouette, Remembering Sampson County, 1900-2000. December 31, 2000.
† Beth Keane, Retrospective, Clinton Commercial Historic District, Sampson County, NC, nomination document, 2001, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.