Ellis Street Graded School Historic District

Salisbury City, Rowan County, NC

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The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District exemplifies the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century development of Salisbury with expansion of residential areas around the downtown area. With the growth of local industries and the 1896 establishment of Southern Railway's nearby Spencer Shops service facility, Salisbury prospered and the demand for new housing increased. Two typical patterns of residential development are exhibited in the district: individuals building on large, outlying lots in the late-nineteenth century and later subdividing them for speculative development, and developers acquiring large parcels of fields and woods for subdivision into grids of relatively small building lots. Queen Anne and Italianate style houses in the midst of early-twentieth century period revival houses in the east end of the district and several blocks of Craftsman Bungalows in the west end exemplify these patterns, respectively. The town's growing population also created a need for schools. At the heart of this residential area is the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District's namesake, Ellis Street Graded School, which is both Salisbury's oldest public educational facility and the town's first school, public or private, to utilize an institutional design, in this case a cruciform brick building in the Italianate style. The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District is locally significant for community development due to the patterns it represents and education for the Ellis Street Graded School's long and distinguished history. The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District is also significant for its numerous distinguished and representative examples of the Italianate, Queen Anne, and period revival styles and its concentration of Craftsman Bungalows. The area's period of significance begins in 1867 when the oldest surviving building, the David A. Atwell House I, was constructed and extends through 1948. The termination date encompasses the vast majority of the district's development and complies with the guideline that properties must normally be fifty years old to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. With only three noncontributing primary structures, the district retains a remarkably high degree of historic integrity.

Community Development

Much of the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District represents locally significant examples of organized twentieth century residential development in the creation of uniform building lots and use of common architectural vocabularies. The development of Salisbury followed traditional patterns for a small town influenced by increased access to transportation.

Salisbury has existed as a cultural and economic center since its establishment in 1753 as the county seat and Church of England parish of St. Luke's. After the first railroad line (running from Charlotte to Danville) reached the town in January 1855, Salisbury was never far removed from larger national trends. Due in large part to its location on main railroads, Salisbury was the site of a major arsenal during the Civil War and a large prison for thousands of Union soldiers. Access to markets via the railroad spurred the development of large manufacturing companies in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, mainly tobacco, milling, and distilleries. Local interest in modern education was manifested in the construction of a large brick building, the Ellis Street Graded School, in 1881. The Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCRR), which ran through the northern part of the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District and built the Shober Bridge, was constructed in 1857. With the establishment nearby of the Spencer Shops as the service center for Southern Railway in 1896, there was booming growth in the county, doubling the population between 1900 and 1910 to 16,000 (Brawley, 1977). The population growth and increasing educational standards resulted in a new high school facility which attached to the original school in 1904. The city's growth was significantly affected when the first streetcars began operation in 1905. The streetcar connection to Spencer and the Southern Railway Shops caused the northward growth along N. Main Street during the next decade (North Main Street Historic District, National Register 1985).

The Piedmont Railway Company (the third company to form in Salisbury) created a line in 1907 running from N. Main and W. Council streets to the southeast at the "Yadkin Valley Fair," now the Salisbury Veteran's Affairs Medical Center (Salisbury Evening Post, 1975a) Not surprisingly, the area on the west end of West Council Street began to be developed during this growth spurt of the late 1910s and early 1920s. The subdivision map of the property off A. Rankin's, an early developer in the district, even shows the electric streetcar line coming north on N. Caldwell Street and then turning east on W. Council Street. The school and a few earlier nineteenth century houses occupied by affluent merchants were soon surrounded by the new homes for various professionals, middle class workers and business owners. These new homes signaled the establishment of a prosperous middle-class neighborhood located within easy walking distance of the town center, near the city school, and located on a streetcar line.

The earliest remaining structures are in the northern part of the district: the school (314 N. Ellis Street, 1881), the two houses on the north end of North Ellis Street north of the bridge (Lunn-Feamster House, 420 N. Ellis Street and Payne-Rice House, 428 N. Ellis Street, both c.1878) and the David Atwell House (416 W. Kerr Street, 1867). David Atwell controlled several blocks on West Kerr Street and apparently developed the lots with houses. The C.M. Miller map (1903) shows him, along other family members, as owners of the several blocks on the north side of W. Kerr Street and the 400 block of N. Fulton Street. This area, adjacent but outside the district on North Fulton Street and West Kerr Street appears to have been mainly lots sold to family members rather than a planned development.

Other residents in the area also were involved in providing new lots for houses included Dr. Charles Woodson, who owned the south side of the 400 block of W. Kerr Street, where his house stood (now an empty lot). He took the portions of his property that faced N. Fulton and N. Ellis streets and subdivided them for sale in 1915. In keeping with the larger scale of housing already standing on N. Fulton Street, he formed only two lots facing that street, while creating four smaller lots facing N. Ellis Street.

A few groupings of lots around the intersection of N. Ellis and W. Council streets were sold as individual lots split from larger tracts. Most were sold in the late-nineteenth century, with some sold as late as 1920. For example, 518 W. Council Street (Morton House) was sold in 1897 as the "Morton premises." Another property at the intersection of N. Ellis and W. Council streets, was sold in 1899 from N.C. Wyatt to John M. Fries (428 W. Council Street). The J.J. West estate sold the lot on the southwest corner of W. Council and N. Ellis streets to a family member, who split the lot into two lots, which were sold in 1920 and 1922 (501 W. Council Street and 505 W. Council Street).

In contrast, the western part of West Council Street was developed as two small subdivisions. The first, on the south side of the 600 block, was accumulated in two property acquisitions by James Moyle in 1906 and 1909. (The rear of a few lots was also split from a parcel acquired by Moyle in 1900.) In 1919 Moyle sold off a parcel of four lots (at the southwest corner of North Caldwell and West Council streets) to Brown Insurance and Realty Company which sold the lots individually over the next few years. Moyle sold 619 W. Council Street directly to the individual (Homer Misenheimer) who built and occupied the first house on the lot in 1923.

Frank A. Rankin, of neighboring Cabarrus County, subdivided the remainder of W. Council Street after compiling a two-block area in three years. He acquired the middle of the south side of the 500 block in 1910 from the estate of J.J. West. He purchased the northeast and southeast corners of W. Council and N. Caldwell streets in 1911 from S.E. Swink and part of the north side of the 600 block from L. Ridenhouse the same year. He purchased the rest of the northern side of the 600 block from J.S. Henderson in 1913. Although the plat for Rankin's subdivision is dated 1912, it was not recorded until the following year. The plat shows eleven lots, which Rankin developed himself and sold starting in 1913. (A few of the eleven were subdivided prior to development and sold to purchasers of adjacent developed lots, which accounts for the differences between the original plat and the current tax maps.)

The Dixie Land Company platted and sold most of the lots on West Liberty Street to T.H. Vanderford in 1900. Vanderford formed the Piedmont Railway Company in 1907, which ran down W. Council Street, one block to the south (Post, 1975a). The lots were sold off in subsequent years, many with houses already built. (The development plats cannot be found in the county records, but the deeds from T.H. Vanderford and J. Moyle specifically refer to their plats and numbered lots.) In contrast, Helen and Augustus Price developed a parcel at N. Ellis and W. Liberty Streets with five early Tudor Revival style houses, occupying 418 W. Liberty Street and renting the four on N. Ellis Street (301 N. Ellis Street, 305 N. Ellis Street, 309 N. Ellis Street and 313 N. Ellis Street). The Price family retained ownership of the North Ellis Street houses until the 1960s.

The development of the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District was typical of the early-twentieth century where property owners would sell off portions of the larger parcels as small lots or speculators would accumulate several large parcels and subdivide them for resale. In addition to the expanding growth of neighborhoods around the urban center, such as that seen in this district and the Salisbury Historic District (National Register, 1975, 1988, 1989), the development was also typical of areas near the routes of streetcars.

Streetcar lines played an important role in the development of many neighborhoods in Salisbury and North Carolina. The development of the portion of the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District along W. Liberty and W. Council streets in early twentieth century, where the streetcar line was located, is similar to other streetcar neighborhoods, such as the North Main Street Historic District in Salisbury (NR, 1985), the Washington Park Historic District in Winston-Salem (NR, 1992), and Elizabeth Historic District in Charlotte (NR, 1989). The first streetcar suburbs in North Carolina were comprehensive developments centered on establishment of a streetcar line, starting with the Winston-Salem's West End Historic District (NR, 1986) in 1890 and Charlotte's Dilworth Historic District (NR 1987) in 1891. Salisbury's own Fulton Heights Historic District (NR, 1999) in 1902 was also created to support a streetcar line. Other districts, however, such as the Elizabeth Historic District, were formed from several different subdivisions which were simultaneously developed around a streetcar line. The nearby North Main Street Historic District in Salisbury grew along a streetcar route which was established primarily to connect Salisbury and the large employment center at the Southern Railway's Spencer Shops facility. This was similar to the streetcar line which ran through Washington Park Historic District in Winston-Salem to an outlying manufacturing center. Although there were a few planned areas along the N. Main Street streetcar route, such as Steelworth Park, most of the area developed from many sets of subdivided lots. The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District had several smaller scale efforts by developers Moyle, Rankin, and Vanderford. In these districts the development followed the establishment of the streetcar line and a variety of styles are seen resulting from less controlled growth.


As the oldest surviving public school building in Salisbury, the Ellis Street Graded School has local significance as a reflection of one of the most progressive North Carolina school systems beginning in the late-nineteenth century. Salisbury had private and public schools as early as the eighteenth century, and the continuation of that strong support of education in the community was carried into the current public school system established in 1880. Many of Salisbury's business, professional, and civic leaders attended Ellis Street Graded School, which served as a cohesive force in the surrounding neighborhood.

Salisbury's long history of educational facilities dates to the mid-eighteenth century. The city reportedly had a school house from the 1760s in the lot adjacent to the Old English Graveyard. The first building burned down in 1824 but was soon replaced on-site. References indicate that by the 1850s it was a boys school, with the girls attending school at the Blackmer House on S. Fulton Street. A new building was erected in 1858 to replace the dilapidated structure, but the school soon ended operation with the onset of the Civil War (Brawley, n.d., "Earliest School"). The oldest surviving buildings used for education are the private schools in the Salisbury Historic District, only a few blocks south. These include the Hall House, the Blackmer House, the J. Fulton House and the Salisbury Female Academy Building (Salisbury Historic District, NR, 1975;1988,1989).

In 1866 the city opened a school at the site next to the Old English Graveyard, for which tuition was charged. (This area is currently a city parking lot.) For those who could not pay, the alternative was the Salisbury "Free School" at the Lutheran Church which operated into the late 1870s (Hood, 1995; Post, 1975a). In 1867, the Peabody Trust, a post-Civil-War fund established to help southern states, awarded one of its first grants to Salisbury, but the city school did not meet the conditions to receive the money (Hood, 1995; Knight, 1916). A wooden building that stood at N. Church and W. Council streets was used for a city school beginning in 1878 but after two years it burned down and another building was rented on Fisher Street.

The citizens of Salisbury then decided to construct a new building and establish a graded school system, making it one of the first municipalities in the state to establish such a system. The cornerstone was laid in 1880 (Hood, 1995). They chose the location just south of the WNCRR bridge on N. Ellis Street, which at that time was largely empty land with a few houses on W. Kerr and N. Ellis streets. "Last Friday cornerstone of the new Graded School laid.... The building to be an ornament of which Salisbury may be proud. It will be ventilated and heated by a furnace in the basement" (Carolina Watchman, 1880, October 23). A state act was passed on February 25, 1881, to allow public funding to aid in completing the school building. A house at the corner of W. Liberty and N. Ellis streets was used as the superintendent's house (Salisbury City Schools, 1971). The building of the new school was strongly supported by the city's mayor, John A. Ramsay. Some reports credit him with the cruciform plan, while other sources credit Rev. F.J. Murdoch (Post, 1968; Salisbury Graded School, n.d.). A guidebook printed by the WNCRR described the school next to their tracks as "a graded school conducted in a new and elaborate building constructed upon the latest and most approved plan" (The Western N.C. Railway, n.d., p.5). Originally five different grades were taught here.

J.M. Weatherly, the first superintendent, had the northern classroom, toward the railroad tracks. The other original teachers were Miss Cappie Moose, Harry Overman, J.F. Moser and J.M. Hill. The next year, in 1881, the superintendent and principal was R.G. Kizer, who served until 1899. He left to become the county schools superintendent and served in that capacity until 1925 (Post, 1975b).

There were several expansions of the Ellis Street Graded School in the first decades of the twentieth century. In 1901 the wooden outhouse on the rear was replaced with the current brick building, which continued to be used into the 1950s when indoor restrooms were installed. In 1902, a wing of classrooms was added to the west side of the north wing, matching the original building closely in detailing and construction. Both this wing and the bathroom building remain in place.

Salisbury was the second system in the state, after Wilmington, to have eleven grades. In order to accommodate the additional grades, in 1904 Salisbury Public High School was built to the south of the 1881 building, to which it was attached, and the original building became known as the Ellis Street Elementary School. (Some accounts call the newer building the "Ellis Street High School," but the cornerstone, which was relocated to inside the Ellis Street Graded School vestibule after demolition of the high school, states "Salisbury Public High School.") The high school building had a large square portion on the street side with turreted towers on the corners. On the rear was essentially half of an octagon with projecting wings on each facet.

A T-shaped section was added to the south end of the high school in 1922, at the corner of West Liberty and North Ellis streets to replace the earlier wooden house that originally served as the superintendent's residence and later served as classrooms. The 1922 addition became a freestanding building when the rest of the high school was razed in 1967.

The Ellis Street Graded School complex served as Salisbury's only public school for twenty-five years, until 1915 when the Salisbury City Schools built their second school, originally the East Innes Street School. A third elementary school, Henderson School, was built in 1916. The subsequent construction of the Boyden High School in 1926 shifted the high school grades from the Ellis Street complex to the new building (Hood, 1995). The shift happened at Christmas of that year, but initially only the seventh grade was moved to the 'old' high school. To "allow time for remodeling and reseating the Ellis School to make it suited for fifth and sixth grade students," fifth and sixth grades were not transferred from the other schools until the next academic year (Salisbury City Schools Board minutes, 12/8/26).

In response to the sudden death of its principal, Frank B. John, in 1928, the Ellis Street Graded School was renamed to the Frank B. John School that same year. The school continued as an elementary school until 1965. After the 1904 high school building was demolished in 1967, the remaining buildings were retrofitted as the school system administrative offices (Hood, 1983).

Part of the success of education in Salisbury's schools probably related to the nearby sources for trained teachers. Zion Parnassus, a college established near Salisbury in 1785, had the first normal department in the state. (Normal schools provided teacher training.) Six of the institute's trainees were in the University of North Carolina's first graduating class, which had only seven students (Knight, n.d.). In 1880, the state-supported Salisbury Normal Institute was established in Salisbury, which trained teachers for the black schools.

Ellis Street Graded School appears to have had a traditional educational program and to have experienced some of the same controversial issues as other communities, such as disagreement over the teaching of the Bible. In 1902 there was purportedly a local heresy 'trial' of the principal Charles L. Coon, who had told the students that some Biblical stories were only illustrative; it is unclear if there was really a trial, or if the events occurred during the 1899 school board meeting at which this issue was raised (Post. n.d.; Salisbury Graded School Committee, 11/3/1899). This public controversy foreshadowed the nationally recognized 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, which pitted biblical teachings against other, less literal views.

The staff of the Ellis Street Elementary School were recognized for leadership in pedagogy in the twentieth century. During the 1920s numerous educational experts and international visitors visited the school. For example, in 1928, Dr. M.R. Trabue, a 'national expert,' complimented the school, at the same time that a German contingency was visiting the school during a study of the American educational system (School City Schools Board, 5/29/28). By 1928 there were 619 students in the school. It dropped in the 1930s and 1940s to over 400 students a year.

Numerous individuals associated with the Ellis Street Graded School contributed to its educational significance. Among them was Nina DeBerry, principal of the school from 1929 to 1937 was Nena DeBerry. She began teaching at the school in 1914. She spoke at several conferences on the elementary education program at Salisbury, such as the practice school at N.C. State University in 1925 and the State Teachers meeting of Tennessee in 1926. She took a sabbatical in 1935 in order to go to University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to study and teach. She finally resigned from the school to take a teaching position at the State Teacher's College in Fredericksburg, Virginia (Salisbury City Schools Board minutes; 11/10/25, 4/13/26, 9/29/36; 9/14/37).

Probably one of most influential people associated with the school was Edith Clark. She was asked to leave her teaching position in 1935 to go to work at the small city library (Salisbury City Schools Board, 12/17/35). At the time she was living in the historic district at 404 W. Kerr Street. In 1936 she became the director of the Rowan Public Library, a position which she continued to hold until 1971. Born in 1910 Miss Clark was the first professional librarian of Rowan County. Graduating from the Women's College of UNC, now UNC-Greensboro, she had a degree in Library Science. The daughter of the First Presbyterian church minister Dr. Byron Clark, she made an indelible impression on Salisbury and Rowan County's library system. (Post, 1994; Scott, 1976). Her interest in local history and genealogy made that a speciality of the Rowan County library. The present local history room, named for her, is recognized as one of the best in the region.


The variety of building types and styles in the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District contributes to Salisbury's reputation as a showcase of historic architecture. At the center of the neighborhood, the Ellis Street Graded School buildings are distinctive examples of institutional architecture, while the residential realm ranges from post-bellum Italianate houses to Craftsman Bungalows gleaned from plan books.

The construction of the Ellis Street Graded School introduced a new type of school building in Salisbury. Previously, local schools were based on a standard residential plan or added to a church building. For instance, the Hall House and Blackmer House are both central hall plans, while the Salisbury Female Academy is a side hall plan (all are located in the Salisbury Historic District). With the advent of the graded school, the students were divided into different grades which required more rooms be constructed than could normally be handled in a traditional residential plan. The Ellis Street Graded School utilized the cruciform plan which allowed for the central monitoring of all rooms from a single point at the center of the building. Later Salisbury schools followed the nationally popular double-loaded hall layout (seen also in the South Wing), typically in a rectangular plan. The importance of the Ellis Street Graded School also extends to its Italianate design, evident in the arched hoods, pilasters, and monitor.

The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District's houses represent popular styles from each decade between 1860 and 1950, except for the 1880s. Comparison of the homes provides graphic examples of changes in building styles, personal affluence, and scale over time. The earliest house is the Italianate 1867 David A. Atwell House I (416 W. Kerr Street), a rare and richly ornamented example in Salisbury of an early post-Civil War house. Several houses were built in the 1870s in the Italianate style, including the Payne-Rice House (428 N. Ellis Street) and Lunn-Feamster House (420 N. Ellis Street). The 1890s houses show a contrast and variety of styles, such as the Queen Anne David Atwell House II (404 W. Kerr Street), with rich textures and irregular massing, and the Morton House (518 W. Council Street) based on simpler vernacular sources. The large Queen Anne style of the Atwell House II shows awareness of the emerging national style, as well as showing an evolution from his 1867 house.

Examples of popular styles are also seen in each decade of the twentieth century. Similar to Salisbury's North Main Street Historic District (NR, 1984), which is primarily early-twentieth century housing, the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District contains a significant number of bungalows. The six Craftsman Bungalows on West Council Street are noteworthy as a grouping that retain their wood-shingle siding. One of the most distinctive of these is the 1913 house at 519 W. Council Street which, in addition to wood shingle siding, shows clear Craftsman Bungalow details: low pitched roof, decorative support brackets under the gables, full width porch with square posts on piers starting at ground level. Simpler in detail, the houses found on North Ellis and West Liberty streets, such as 619 W. Liberty Street, are important as another concentration of intact bungalows.

Nationally, the Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival are the two most popular early-twentieth century period revival styles and both are represented in the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District by intact examples. The Tudor Revival house at 318 N. Fulton Street is pictured in A Field Guide to American Houses (McAlester & McAlester, 1984, p.365) and is a notable example of that style. Smaller, but no less noteworthy, examples on North Ellis Street help demonstrate the variety of sizes of homes which were built in this popular style. Later, less ornate brick examples, from the 1940s are found at 605 W. Council Street and 525 W. Liberty Street. The Ellis Street Graded School Historic District includes examples of the Colonial Revival style including 324 N. Fulton Street, which has the large symmetrical facade, small porch, side gable roof, and the use of dentil moldings, and the Blackmer/Woodson House (317 N. Fulton Street) which was an older house 'updated' to this popular style with the addition of a small porch and elliptical fanlight over the door.

Also surviving in the Ellis Street Graded School Historic District are several examples of intact early-twentieth century automobile garages, such as those at 514 W. Council Street and 321 N. Ellis Street, which were built simultaneously with their associated houses. As demonstrated in these excellent examples, they often were built to closely resemble the style and materials of the house.


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‡ David Bergstone, Historic Preservation Consultant, Ellis Street Graded School Historic District, Rowan County, N.C., nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Caldwell Street North • Council Street West • Ellis Street North • Fulton Street North • Kerr Street West • Liberty Street West

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