Academy Hill Historic District
The Academy Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright ©
The Academy Hill Historic District is a neighborhood of primarily late 19th and early 20th century buildings which include some of the most significant educational, industrial, and residential buildings in Statesville. At the north end of the Academy Hill Historic District on either side of Mulberry Street are located two of the most historically significant schools in Statesville's educational development — the Statesville Male Academy and the Statesville Graded School. The Statesville Male Academy (now a private residence, 412 Armfield Street) was built in 1874 and served for more than a quarter of a century as a private school for white male children. During many of its years the school operated under the direction of prominent Iredell educator Professor J.H. Hill. It was because of this school that the surrounding area quickly became known as Academy Hill. In 1892, soon after Statesville had begun a system of public graded schools, the Statesville Graded School was built on the opposite side of Mulberry Street from the Academy. Still in use today  as the Mulberry Street School (501 South Mulberry Street), this was the first building constructed specifically for the new school system and served as the only public graded school for white children in Statesville for twenty-three years — until 1915. At the south end of the Academy Hill Historic District is the industrial core, consisting of the J.C. Steele & Sons Brick Machinery Plant (710 South Mulberry Street), one of Statesville's most important industries dating from the late 19th century; the O.W. Slane Glass Co. (720 South Mulberry Street), a ca.1906 mirror manufacturing firm which grew along with the furniture industry in North Carolina; and the L. Ash Tobacco Factory (374 Wise Street), a well-preserved late 19th century tobacco factory typical of many built during that period in the Piedmont. Completing the Academy Hill Historic District are the dwellings, dating primarily from 1885-1930, which surround the schools and form the bridge between them and the industrial buildings. The most architecturally significant of the dwellings are two of the Steele family houses, located just up the bill from the brick machine plant. The J.C. Steele House (624 South Mulberry Street) represents the only domestic example of the Second Empire style in Iredell County, while the C.M. Steele House (612 South Mulberry Street) next door is one of the most colorful and sophisticated examples of the Queen Anne style in Statesville.
The area known as Academy Hill in Statesville began to develop in the late nineteenth century after the Statesville Male Academy was constructed there in 1874. A male academy had been in operation at another location from at least the 1860s, but by 1874 the Statesville Male Academy had begun operation at the place where it would continue to function for more than a quarter of a century. A newspaper article in July, 1874, accounting the upcoming school session described the building as "a large and commodious brick structure constructed expressly for the purpose." It was not, however, until February 5, 1875 that "An Act to Incorporate Trustees of Statesville Academy" was ratified. This Act not only established the trustees of the Statesville Male Academy Association, but authorized them to take title to "the new academy lately erected" for the purpose of establishing and conducting a school for white male children. The school flourished, and by 1890 was being described thusly in the Statesville Landmark, "Statesville Male Academy is a school of high grade, conducted by scholars...an average attendance of 60 pupils — as large as they can conveniently without assistance care for.... They occupy a spacious building, erected for school purposes, on a commanding elevation, which is known locally as Academy Hill, on the southern side of the city...."
Prominent Iredell educator James Henry Hill was the most widely known of the school's principals. Hill attended Snow Creek Academy and Ebenezer Academy and graduated from Davidson College in 1854 as valedictorian of his class. During other periods in his career, Hill served in the state senate and as Clerk of the Iredell Superior Court. However, it was as a teacher and perennial chairman of the Iredell County Board of Education that he is best remembered. For a time he taught at the Concord Female Seminary (now Mitchell College) but was most strongly associated with the Statesville Male Academy, to the point that it was more commonly known as Professor Hill's Academy — no matter who was teacher at the time. In addition, Hill served as the first chairman of the county board of education in 1885 and again from 1900 until he retired in 1917. In 1905 Hill retired from teaching and the session of First Presbyterian Church rented the academy, continuing its operation for several years with A.S. Paxton as teacher. By 1910, however, the Statesville Graded School had taken over high school work and the academy faded into the background. The 1911 Sanborn Map shows that the building was no longer functioning as an academy and that it was, in fact, vacant. (Around 1916 the academy was remodelled by the B.A. Cowans for a residence, which use it retains today.)
The Statesville graded school system which was partially responsible for the demise of the male academy began operation in 1891 after a long hard fight that took up the entire decade of the 1880s. Before 1891 there had been several public schools in Statesville, but they were not a part of a graded school system. In 1891 the townspeople voted to allow the town commissioners to tax them in order to provide for the establishment of the system of graded schools. The schools in this system opened for the first time on September 9, 1891, with Professor D. Matt Thompson as superintendent. (He remained as superintendent for nearly thirty years.) During that first year there was no satisfactory building in town which could be used as a centralized school, so the school had to be spread out in several of the earlier school buildings in Statesville. One of these was a building on Bell Street, where the Leander Knox Lazenby House at 312 West Bell Street now stands. At first, attendance in the school system consisted of less than 200 white children and only about 75 blacks, but before the first year was over, some 500 children had enrolled in the white and black schools. At the same time the school system was beginning, the townspeople voted $10,000 in bonds for the construction of a new building. By the end of the school year (1892), a contract had been signed for the new building, which was to be just across Bell Street from the old school-house (312 West Bell Street) and across Mulberry Street from the academy building. The new school was to be built by D.A. Morrison and W.F. Munday for $7,970.00. By early 1893 the school had been completed and was opened for operation. The first issue of the Landmark in that year noted:
"The building is of brick and contains two stories and a basement. It is heated by a furnace and is fitted up with all the modern conveniences.... On the first floor are rooms of the first, second, third, sixth and seventh grades, the office and the library. The second floor contains rooms for the fourth and fifth grades and the chapel or auditorium. The seventh grade will recite on the second floor.... The building and one for the colored people (by the way a very good frame building) will cost, complete, about $12,000."
In 1907 a two-story brick structure was built as an addition to the Statesville Graded School. This was necessitated by an increased enrollment and by the addition of a ninth grade (an eighth grade had previously been added), with Latin and Algebra to be taught. An interesting note is that the Statesville Landmark commented editorially that it was not sure that it was the obligation of the public schools to teach high school subjects, since they were a luxury rather than a necessity. In 1910 a tenth grade was added and in 1915 an eleventh grade, but the twelfth grade did not come until the late 1940s. What is now known as the Mulberry Street School was the only public white graded school in Statesville for the first twenty-three years of the graded school system, until the Davie Avenue school was built in 1915.
At about the same time that the schools were developing at the north end of the district, important industrial development was occurring at the south end. The most significant of these industries was the brick machinery firm of J.C. Steele & Sons, still in operation today. James C. Steele had been in the lumber business in Troutman from 1876-1884, at which time he decided to change from lumber to bricks. Steele moved to Statesville and bought a Sword brick-making machine from W.M. Cooper.
He became an agent for the machine, selling them around the state. By 1888 Steele had invented and patented a low-swung truck to haul pallets of bricks and was manufacturing them in a machine shop and foundry on Mulberry Street. By 1892 he had invented a simpler, more cost-efficient brick-making machine. As Steele's business grew in the late nineteenth century, so did his facilities, and by the turn of the century he had expanded from the east to the west side of Mulberry Street, where his plant continued to expand during this century.
Steele sent his four sons to college to study engineering, and by 1899 the firm had become J.C. Steele & Sons. Not only did the company ship brick machines all over the south, it also analyzed clay in order to advise people which type of machine would be best for a particular type of clay. After a brief period during which time the Steeles apparently concentrated totally on brick machinery, they began again to manufacture bricks as well as the machinery, although after 1916 their brick-making companies were located elsewhere. J.C. Steele came to dominate the brick industry in North Carolina, making the state one of the leading brick producing areas of the country and shipping machinery all over the world.
South of J.C. Steele & Co., on the northeast corner of Wise and Mulberry Streets, a tobacco factory was built in the late nineteenth century, one of many which flourished during that period in Statesville. On the 1895 Sanborn Map it was shown as the Rankin Brothers Tobacco Factory, but by 1900 it was being listed as the L. Ash Tobacco Factory. Ludwig Ash was the son of Benjamin Ash, who had been in the tobacco business in Statesville since the early 1880s. Ludwig Ash remained in the chewing tobacco business longer than anyone else in Statesville. His factory on the corner of Wise and Mulberry Streets manufactured tobacco on a seasonal basis from five to seven months a year, producing several brands, among them Full Bloom, Choice, Select, and Good Chew. The factory building, now used as a warehouse, is well preserved and appears to be almost totally unaltered. The three-and-a-half-story brick building, with segmentally arched doors and windows, and front gable end concealed by a crow-stepped parapet, is the epitome of tobacco factory architecture of the late nineteenth century in Piedmont North Carolina.
The third industry to develop within the area of the Academy Hill Historic District was the O.W. Slane Glass Company, located on Mulberry Street just south and across the railroad tracks from J.C. Steele & Co. and across Mulberry Street from the Ash Tobacco Factory. The company was started in 1906 when O.W. Slane came to Statesville from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and organized the glass company for the manufacture of mirrors. The main product has always been mirrors, complementing the growth of the furniture industry in North Carolina. Like J.C. Steele & Co., the O.W. Slane Glass Company became a family venture, in association with O.W. Slane's brother, Fred.
Completing the Academy Hill Historic District is a group of forty dwellings. The majority of these were built between 1886 and 1918, and most are either one or two-story frame dwellings. While most of the houses from this period do not exhibit clear-cut styles, they do, nevertheless, generally reflect Queen Anne, or late Victorian, and various classical revival tendencies. Related by period of construction, style, scale, use of materials, and in some cases by family connections, the houses along with the educational and industrial buildings present a unified whole.
Although the dwellings as a group present a more modest picture than that seen in the Mitchell College Historic District, there are several exceptions, most notably the houses of J.C. Steele and his family. Steele built his house on the northwest corner of Mulberry Street and Western Avenue (624 S. Mulberry Street) on the uphill side of his brick machinery plant, toward the schools. Built during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the house is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, house in the Academy Hill Historic District. Certainly it is the most impressive, appropriate for a man who was not only a prominent industrialist but also served a four-year term as mayor of Statesville during the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1901 one of J.C. Steele's sons, C.M. Steele, built a Queen Anne style, two-story brick house at 612 Mulberry Street, just north of his father's house. Farther up the hill on Mulberry Street and across from the graded school, another of J.C. Steele's sons, H. Oscar Steele, built a house around 1907 (502 S. Mulberry Street).
Other houses, not as impressive architecturally, but joined by family ties are houses at 210 W. Bell Street (C.A. Kyles House) and 220 West Bell Street (T.A. Rimmer House) where members of the Troutman family lived, the Leander Knox Lazenby and Laura A. Lazenby Houses at 312 and 322 West Bell Street, and the Henry W. Miller and Kerry L. Miller Houses at 428 and 444 Armfield Street.
The Academy Hill Historic District is generally in a well-preserved state due to years of continued use, and provides a unified picture of a segment of Statesville's educational, industrial and residential life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
† Laura A. W. Phillips, Consultant for North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Survey and Planning Branch, Academy Hill Historic District, Iredell County, NC, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.