Home | Whats New | Site Index | Search

McAdenville Historic District

McAdenville Town, Gaston County, NC

The McAdenville Historic District [‡] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

The McAdenville Historic District, located in Gaston County, North Carolina, encompasses most of the historic McAdenville mill village. McAdenville was established around McAden Mills, a textile manufacturing complex established by Charlotte businessman Rufus Yancey McAden in 1881. McAden's first mill, McAden Mill No. 1 (1881-82), is mostly gone, and of McAden Mill No. 2 (1884-85) only the bell tower, medieval turrets, and a castellated facade survive. More complete is McAden Mill No. 3 (Space Dye Plant; 101 Main Street; 1906-07), with its unusual Classical Revival facade survives. R.Y. McAden and his associates developed an adjacent mill village comprised of two-story duplexes and single dwellings constructed of brick, a material rarely used for Southern mill village housing. Fifteen 1880s brick mill houses survive along Main and Poplar streets. On the hill overlooking the mills and village the McAden family erected two large Queen Anne residences of unusual form and detail. In the early and mid-twentieth century a commercial district emerged at the east end of Main Street. Frame mill houses were interspersed among the brick ones and erected along Aviary Court, an offshoot of Main Street. An enclave of privately owned houses including several notable examples of the Late Victorian, Italianate, and Queen Anne styles developed along the west end of Main Street. The social center of the village was the R.Y. McAden Memorial Hall (141 Main Street), a Classical Revival library and assembly hall constructed in 1907. McAden Mills was the largest manufacturer of cotton goods in Gaston County in the early 1880s, but the company's output was eventually eclipsed by mills in Gastonia and the county's other communities. After closing during the Great Depression, the mill was acquired by the Stowe and Pharr families in 1939 and returned to prosperity. The new ownership also revitalized the mill village, which gained a community center and Baptist and Methodist churches in the Colonial Revival style during the late 1940s and 1950s. Today McAdenville is known for its village ambiance and world-famous Christmas Town lights.

The McAdenville Historic District meets National Register criterion in the area of industry and architecture. The period of significance extends from the begin date of construction of McAden Mill No. 2 in 1884, also the approximate date of construction of at least some of the brick mill houses, to 1961, embracing development up through the period of the village's revitalization in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. The period of significance extends into the fifty year period to acknowledge the architectural contribution of the Colonial Revival style McAdenville United Methodist Church (163 Main Street) which was designed in 1960 and completed in 1961. Its classical portico and Colonial Revival design follows the local design trend established with the 1949 Community Building (208 Main Street) and 1956 McAdenville Baptist Church (192 Main Street), in addition to the tall porches added to some of the houses. The period after 1961 is not of exceptional significance. The McAdenville Historic District is of local significance.

Historical Background/Community Development and Industry

R.Y. McAden established McAden Mills and McAdenville in the early 1880s, but a settlement of some sort already existed at the location on the west bank of the South Fork of the Catawba River. In the eighteenth century the site was known as Henderson Shoals, combining the name of the landowner James Henderson and shoals on the river that served as a ford. Around 1800 Adam Alexander Springs (1776-1840) acquired land at the ford, which became known as Springs Shoals. After Springs' death, W.A. Stowe and Jasper Stowe purchased land at Springs Shoals and operated a tanyard there. It was from the Stowe family and others with rights to the property that Rufus Yancey McAden and his executors acquired the Springs Shoals property beginning in 1880.

Charlotte businessman Rufus Yancey McAden (1833-89) pursued a career in politics and finance before branching into the railroad business in 1868. That year he was made vice president of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railroad, which was completed through Gaston County in the early 1870s. McAden managed the construction of the Atlanta and Charlotte line as well as two others, the Spartanburg and Asheville Railroad and the Spartanburg, Union and Columbia Railroad. The enhanced rail service of the era was a factor in the phenomenal rise of textile manufacturing in Gaston County and the surrounding region. North Carolina's cotton manufacturing industry had its beginnings in the region with the establishment of the Lincoln Cotton Mills in Lincoln County in the 1810s (at the time, the Gaston County area was part of Lincoln County, which now adjoins it to the north). During the period 1848 to 1853 three cotton mills were established on Gaston County's South Fork of the Catawba River. One of the mills was begun by Jasper Stowe, who also owned the Springs Shoals property, which he presumably acquired with the intention of eventually establishing a cotton mill there. In addition to its rail connections, Gaston County was a prime location for water-powered cotton manufacturing on account of its many fast-flowing rivers and streams, its location in the midst of a cotton growing region, and the availability of cheap labor. By 1897 Gaston County had the largest number of cotton mills of any county in the state, twenty-two total, representing 10.6 percent of the state total of 207 cotton mills. The county also ranked number one in manufacturing capacity, with 115,034 spindles in operation (eleven percent of the state total).

McAden Mills claimed to be the first textile mill in the South to install electric lights. According to historian Billy Miller, "In 1884 Thomas Alva Edison came to McAdenville to oversee and help install the first electrical generator in the South...The lights hung from the ceiling of the mills and were spaced about thirty feet apart." "People came from everywhere," Miller adds, to gawk at the miraculous new lighting technology. Robert Ragan dates the electrification to 1883 and states that Mill No. 1 was the first electrically lighted textile mill in the world. According to another account, mill engineer George A. Gray oversaw the installation of the lights in 1882. Gray is believed to have superintended the construction of the McAden Mills, so his involvement with the electrical engineering is likely, but the date of the lighting installation was most likely 1884, which suggests it was done in conjunction with the building of Mill No. 2 in 1884-85. The lights were powered by an Edison No.31 Hydro Electric Dynamo, which remained in use until 1955 and is now displayed in the textiles exhibit at the Gaston County Museum in Dallas, North Carolina. For powering the machinery in Mill No. 2, the mill may have had a second mill race.

McAden Mills employed men, women, and children — "mostly women and children in the early days," notes Robert Ragan. The story of Dan Lorance provides a child's perspective on life at the mill. In 1885, at the age of six, Lorance and a relative walked to McAdenville from Lincoln County to see "light in a bottle." Lorance went to work at the mill in 1888 and was paid fifteen cents for a twelve-hour day. His family took the money and gave him a twenty-five cents allowance. By 1896 Lorance had been made an overseer and his wages were increased to $1.00 a day. Lorance's father, Lafayette Lorance, operated the mule-drawn narrow-gauge freight railroad that connected the mills at McAdenville with the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line Railway at Lowell. Known as the "dump," the line extended along Poplar Street and was in existence by 1889. According to Lorance family tradition, Lafayette Lawrence once got into a dispute with the company management over one of his children. Lorance wanted the child to go to school whereas general manager R.R. Ray wanted the child to work in the mill. As Robert Ragan notes of Gaston County's mill owners, they "did not encourage education in the early days, and many children dropped out of school by the eighth grade to contribute to their family's income, just as they had on the farms in earlier times." The Lorance family account does not record how the dispute was resolved, although a public school is known to have been established in McAdenville by the early twentieth century. The family aspect of millwork is also illustrated by the Roberts family. Three generations of Roberts family members worked for the mill from 1896 to the early twenty-first century. Their standing in the community is also reflected by the fact that J.N. Roberts served, in 1896, as one of McAdenville's early mayors.

According to Billy Miller, who drew his information from long-time residents of the town, McAdenville's mills and its brick mill houses — once known as "Brick Row" — were built with contract prison labor. Specific information as to the date of the brick mill houses has not come to light, although most accounts agree they were built in the 1880s, and their style and construction and the needs of the expanding mill workforce also point to that period. Most likely the first brick mill houses were built in 1882 or 1883, since Mill No. 1 went into production during the second half of 1882 and McAdenville was incorporated soon after in February 1883.

McAdenville is best known today for its popular Christmas Town USA lights. In 1956 (or 1957, accounts differ) the McAdenville Men's Club decorated a few trees around the McAdenville Community Center (208 Main Street). The mill management adopted the nascent initiative and William Pharr's wife, Catherine Stowe Pharr, suggested a color scheme of red, green, and white lights. In the late 1950s the mill began to plant spruce trees throughout the town to augment the Christmas theme. Many spruces were lost during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 but have since been replanted. In 1999 over 300,000 vehicles toured the town-wide event and in 2004 more than 375 trees were decorated. The spruces and other evergreen plantings lend visual appeal to McAdenville year round.


The fifteen surviving McAdenville brick mill houses are of two types. The duplexes, which are the majority, have a wide form with dual front entries that signal the side-by-side living units within. The narrower single-entry houses, which were presumably intended for occupancy by a single family each, survive only at 123 and 143 Poplar Street and 149 Main Street. Both the duplexes and single dwellings have two-room-deep plans. A number of the duplexes have decorative gable treatments consisting of a spare gridwork of attached boards, a simplified Queen Anne or Stick style influence. Many of the houses have changes in the color of the brickwork that suggest different brick lots were used in construction. Such variation is often seen in period industrial construction and the party walls of commercial buildings where appearance was not paramount, but is rare in domestic construction. It seems likely the houses were built with front porches, although evidence for this is sketchy. A 1910s photograph shows what may be the house at 142-144 Main Street without a front porch, and according to historian Billy Miller other brick mill houses on the street lacked porches at the time. In the 1940s at least some of the Main Street houses had one-story porches with decorative roof balustrades. The Poplar Street houses had one-story hip-roofed porches in the 1940s. The porches illustrated in 1940s photographs were apparently added after the change of ownership in 1939 and represent one of the many improvements made to the village after the neglect of the depression and war years. The great variety in the form and details of the porches, most noticeably the mix of one- and two-story forms, was presumably done to vary their appearance for aesthetic effect, although some of the variation is due to changes over time. As built, the houses lacked indoor plumbing. Historian Joseph Separk stated in 1949 that the town's residences "have the advantage of water, sewerage, and lights." In 1956 and/or 1957 one-story frame rear additions containing modern bathrooms and kitchens were made to the 1880s brick mill houses.

McAdenville's surviving frame mill houses are typical of the kinds of mill houses built in the county and the region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The two that stand at 129 and 131 Elm Street have the simple gabled three-bay form, front porch, and rear wings (with evidence of extension) that was normative for the area. Later examples were built as infill between 1880s brick houses on Poplar Street (147, 155, and 165 Poplar Street) and on lots acquired by the mill in the privately-owned enclave on the west end of Main Street (for example, 291 and 297 Main Street). These have hip roofs and the occasional Craftsman style treatment such as exposed rafter ends and triangular roof brackets. The three Poplar Street houses appear to have been intentionally varied through the use of different front porch forms: one attached, one inset, and one cantilevered on brackets. The largest surviving group of frame mill houses in the village is located on Aviary Court off of Main Street. One of the eight houses (123 Aviary Court) has a high hip roof, four-over-four windows, and porch posts with molded decoration, features consistent with a date of construction at the very end of the nineteenth century or the opening years of the twentieth, whereas the seven other houses, which may date to the 1910s, have side-gable roofs and simpler treatments.

Situated on high ground overlooking the mills and mill village are three large frame houses that were constructed for the mill owners and top management in the late nineteenth century. The largest of the group is the McAden House at 149 Park Drive. The two-and-a-half-story house is reported to have been built as a part-time residence for the principal mill owner, R.Y. McAden (d.1889), and his wife, Mary, in the 1880s. However, an 1880s date would be extremely early for the Colonial Revival influence seen in the gambrel roof and other features. Queen Anne influence is seen in the turned posts and brackets of the wraparound porch, the pierced ornament of a second-story balcony, and the intricate turned and sawn detail of the mantels on the interior. If the house was built in the 1880s, as most sources indicate, it was the work of an architect with an advanced understanding of period styles. Another McAden family house is that of Benjamin and Lottie McAden, built in the 1880s at 120 Hallie Bentley Drive. The one-story house, which combines elements of the Italianate and Queen Anne styles, has a complex form with multiple gables, porches, and turret-like corner elements (perhaps conceptually related to the corner turrets of Mill No. 2). Elaborate mantels and overmantels and plaster ceiling medallions with scrolling foliated forms ornament the interior. The house was built for Benjamin T. McAden (d.1888), a son of R.Y. McAden and the treasurer of McAden Mills, and his wife, Lottie. The third house in the group (215 Main Street) was built in the 1890s for Robert Rankin Ray, a McAden Mills employee who rose through the ranks to become general manager of the mill's cotton spinning and weaving operations in the 1890s. The two-story house, which was greatly modified in the Colonial Revival style in the mid-twentieth century, appears to have started out as a relatively conventional Late Victorian residence featuring an L-shaped plan with an off-center front gable wing and a two-tier front porch. The house became the residence of William and Catherine Stowe Pharr after Mr. Pharr and his partners acquired McAden Mills in 1939. The Pharrs made extensive improvements to the house and grounds through the end of the twentieth century. One of William Pharr's projects was the McAdenville Aviary Gardens, developed in the mid-1960s in the stream valley behind his house. The Gardens, which have been closed since they were damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, include a whimsical collection of rock bird houses and a classical pavilion surrounded by cascading rock-lined pools. Because of the dates of the resources, the McAdenville Aviary Gardens have been excluded from the McAdenville Historic District.

Charlotte architect James Mackson McMichael (1872-1957) provided McAdenville with one of its most sophisticated historic buildings in 1907 when he designed the R.Y. McAden Memorial Hall (141 Main Street). McMichael was a Pennsylvania native who established his practice in Charlotte in 1901. According to one account, McMichael's firm designed over fifty churches in the Charlotte area and between nine hundred and a thousand buildings nationwide. McMichael's crisply ornamented community hall and library features a pedimented classical entryway that befits a building dedicated to learning and one that functioned as the community's de facto town hall. Inside, the slanted tops of the bookshelves running under the many library windows facilitated reading and combated eye strain, indicating a progressive understanding of the needs and comfort of users (McMichael also designed Charlotte's early twentieth century public library, now demolished). The original lighting scheme in the upstairs meeting hall, which features dozens of incandescent bulbs, is a rare survival and relates to the recreational, social, and political uses of the hall during evening hours when mill hands and their families had free time. McMichael's firm may be considered a candidate for the design of the Classical Revival facade of Mill No. 3, built in 1906-07 and like McAden Hall a prominent village building. Michael Southern and Catherine Bishir comment that Mill No. 3 "has apparently the state's only classically detailed mill facade."

An important architectural development of the latter part of the twentieth century, apparently in the 1960s, was the addition of the covered walkway that links commercial and civic buildings along the east end of Main Street. The walkway is reminiscent of the covered walkways that were built for shopping plazas during the era. At or about the same time infill buildings in modernist and Colonial Revival styles were constructed between pre-existing 1880s mill houses and historic-period commercial buildings to form contiguous commercial blocks along the street.

‡ J. Daniel Pezzoni, Landmark Preservation Association, McAdenville Historic District, Gaston County, N.C., nomination document, 2008, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Aviary Court • Elm Street • Ford Drive • Hallie Bentley Drive • Main Street • Park Drive • Poplar Street • Route 7