Greensboro Journal: Revitalization of Historic Carolina Mill Town

Night skyline of Greensboro with downtown in background, and Amtrak station foreground. (Photo courtesy Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

By Ron Bernthal

In the mid 1950’s Greensboro, North Carolina, was the second largest city in the state, only Charlotte had more people, but Greensboro was the state’s industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, where busy textile mills and nearby furniture factories resulted in a prosperous downtown and wealthy residential neighborhoods.

In the 1960’s, however, as the mills and furniture factories in Greensboro, and in nearby High Point, closed due to lower labor costs in Asia, Greensboro’s economy went into a tail spin, and the civil rights protests, which overtook the South during this period, added to the city’s malaise.
“The African- American civil rights protest movement in the South began here in Greensboro, at our downtown Woolworth’s, with the January, 1960, lunch counter sit-in,” said Matthew Young, assistant director of the Greensboro Historical Museum. “After the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of Guildford Court House, where General Nathaniel Greene led the patriots into battle, and who the city is named after, and the surrender of Confederate of troops in Greensboro in 1865, the 1960 protest was the third most important event in the city’s history.”

Mr. Young said that the Woolworth store sit-in, started when four students from the city’s Agricultural & Tech College were refused service at the store’s lunch counter, quickly spread throughout to other cities throughout the South, which in-turn led to marches and other demonstrations leading up the passing of the country’s instrumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. “This first protest in downtown Greensboro helped define the city. Although it presented a negative picture of the city at first, the community came together, both whites and blacks, a major event that, in the long run, actually made it a better city. ”

Elm Street, downtown Greensboro (photo courtesy Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The historic Woolworth store and its iconic lunch counter is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (www.sitinmovement.org), a major city attraction. Many of the city’s old apparel mills have been converted into loft apartments or commercial spaces, and a professional theatre company now occupies the former Montgomery Ward department store. The new Carolina SciQuarium (www.greensboroscience.org/attractions/sciquarium), part of the Greensboro Science Center, opened during the summer, 2013, at the same time as the Greensboro City Council voted to spend $60 million to build a modern, downtown performing arts center. The Greensboro Coliseum Entertainment Complex (www.greensborocoliseum.com), opened in the late 1950’s, is undergoing a $24 million restoration, and the nearby 78,323-square-foot indoor Greensboro Aquatic Center, opened in 2011, is a state-of-the-art facility featuring state-of-the-art concepts in aquatic design. Several national and international swimming and diving competitions have taken place at this facility. Greensboro also continues to expand its environmentally friendly greenways, a city treasure that has grown to almost 90 miles of parks, biking and hiking trails, and public art projects.

New Greensboro Aquatic Center has hosted international and national diving and swimming competitions (photo courtesy Greensboro Area Conventiuon & Visitors Bureau)

The revitalization of the Southside neighborhood, once one of the city’s most prosperous residential districts, has been especially gratifying to local city planners. City View at Southside has been one of the most successful multi-family residential developments in downtown in recent years. Now at 272 total apartments, the complex is at 95% occupancy. Other projects include the $10 million Greenway at Fisher Park apartments, the $3 million Deep Roots grocery store and the $26 million Lee Street/South Elm redevelopment, all contributing to the revitalization efforts. Another major development in Greensboro was the construction of The Proximity Hotel, undertaken by the local firm, Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels. The award-winning Proximity, built from the ground up in 2007, was the first LEED Platinum-certified hotel in the country.

The Proximity Hotel (pictured above) and its sister property, The O’ Henry Hotel, both with unique art and design features, attract business and upscale visitors to Greensboro. (photo courtesy Proximity Hotel)

Two of Greensboro’s largest former industrial facilities, Revolution Mill and the Mock-Judson-Voehringer hosiery mill, while not technically in downtown Greensboro, are part of the city’s overall revitalization plan. The Mock-Judson-Voehringer project involves a $20 million conversion to 150 loft-style apartments, and Revolution Mill is currently filled with office and event space, with plans to continue restoring and redeveloping the 630,000-square-foot former Cone Mills textile plant.

Greensboro’s historic Revolution Mill has been converted into offices for local firms. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The 196-unit Greenway at Fisher Park apartments is a modern, eco-friendly residential project on the edge of the 4-mile Greenway downtown biking loop. Situated on 4.5 acres, on the former site of a 50 year-old automobile dealership, the design and location of the these new apartments are luring singles and families back to downtown Greensboro. Two developers in Greensboro are looking to add to the downtown skyline by proposing to build new hotels in the city. “The decision to fund the new Greensboro Performing Arts Center has incluenced by decision to look into building a hotel in Greensboro,” said Roy Carroll, one of the local developers. Another developer, Randall Kaplan, announced that he is working with Wyndham Hotels & Resorts on a multimillon-dollar new property in downtown.

“These new investments in downtown Greensboro are validating the things that have been put in place, and the direction that the community is going in for some time, and it is becoming a reality,” said Pat Danahy from the Greensboro Partnership.

Greensboro resident Emerson Spivey outside the former Woolworth Department Store, site of 1960 lunch counter civil rights protest,. now the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro. (photo Ron Bernthal)

We have so many amenities downtown now,” said Emerson Spivey, a longtime resident of the city. “We have a downtown food market, sports facilities, art galleries, and they are building more residential units. There are people moving downtown because there are things to do here these days.”

Hotel Review: O. Henry Hotel & Proximity Hotel, Greensboro, NC

O. Henry Hotel, Greensboro, NC (photo courtesy O. Henry Hotel)

Hotel Review: O. Henry Hotel & Proximity Hotel, Greensboro, NC

BY RON BERNTHAL

During a recent visit to Greensboro, North Carolina, I stayed at the O. Henry Hotel, a locally owned property that opened in 1998. The original O. Henry Hotel was built in downtown Greensboro in 1919, and was a city landmark until it was demolished in the 1970’s. The new O. Henry has also become a city landmark in much the same way, by using local materials in its construction (incorporating various design cues from its historic predecessor) and becoming a gathering spot for Greensboro’s business and artistic community. It would be impossible, however, to write about the O. Henry without also including the Proximity Hotel, its sister property down the road which opened in late 2007. Both hotels were designed, built and owned by the same local firm, Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels. The 131-room O. Henry and the 147-room Proximity are AAA Four Diamond hotels, with the Proximity being the first hotel property in America to be certified LEED Platinum.

The O. Henry is more traditional in style and ambience, and reflects Greensboro and North Carolina’s history throughout the property (the author O. Henry was born in Greensboro as William Sydney Porter in 1862). My room was extremely comfortable with nice carpeting, artist-in-residence Chip Holton prints on the walls, a microwave and fridge hidden behind dark wood cabinet doors, a large work desk, two Queen bed’s and two lovely upholstered sitting chairs. The room windows, with real awnings, offered city views, and actually opened for outside air, a nice room feature rarely seen in hotels these days.

O. Henry Hotel King room layout (photo courtesy O. Henry Hotel)

Other room details included a very large, glass shower stall, two granite vanities, an attractive black & white checkered tile bathroom floor, and a seersucker blanket cover that was laundered daily, instead of the usual never-washed bed spread. Some of the complimentary room amenities included gourmet coffee, with real half-and-half, bottled water and custom-made pillows. Breakfast, included in the room rate, was served in the hotel’s Pavilion garden room, with traditional North Carolina favorites (homemade biscuits, sausage gravy, and stone milled grits from the historic Old Mill of Guilford) as well as the usual array of breakfast buffet items.

The original O. Henry Hotel in downtown Greensboro had 300 rooms and was one of the largest and most deluxe hotels in North Carolina. It was closed in the 1960’s when interstate highways and suburban growth transformed many American cities, drawing businesses away from downtown. The hotel was demolished in the 1970’s.

The O. Henry’s on-site restaurant is Green Valley Grill, an attractive space with a 30-foot ceiling, European-inspired artwork, and a wide selection of lunch and dinner entrees. Both the restaurant and the adjacent bar area, with its eclectic styling, are popular for business luncheons and after-work drinks and dinner.

For guests arriving by air into Piedmont Triad International Airport, both the O. Henry and Proximity hotel’s provide complimentary airport transfers using the hotels’ roomy London Taxis or restored Checker Cabs. These eye-catching vehicles are also available to shuttle guests between the two properties, although it’s only an eight-minute walk in nice weather.

Proximity Hotel, Greensboro, NC (photo courtesy Proximity Hotel)

The Proximity Hotel is newer than the O. Henry, and designed with an industrial/textile mill look that works really well in Greensboro, a former textile hub where historic mills still dot the countryside in all directions. During my visit to the O. Henry I walked over to the Proximity (only quarter-mile away) and toured the property.

The guest rooms and public areas are artsy and modern. I liked the industrial piping that line the hallway ceilings and in some of the rooms, as well as the innovative “guest living rooms” located near the elevators on floors 3-8, where guests can congregate for snacks or drinks, or to use the computer terminal and printer in each “living room.” This is a novel way of offering a convenient mini-business and social center on each floor.

Proximity Hotel, Loft King room (photo courtesy Proximity Hotel)

Guest room furnishings are custom-designed, ceilings are ten-feet high with huge windows, and lots of commissioned artwork can be found in the rooms and public areas of the property. Like its sister property, the Proximity seems to be an attractive meetings venue with lots of flexible event space that include natural light, state-of-the art sound and lighting, and complimentary high-speed internet throughout the property. A fully-equipped fitness center is located near the outdoor pool, and nearby jogging and biking trails are part of the city’s Greenway, an ongoing project linking parks and trails that will eventually comprise 90 miles. The fitness center has a limited number of bicycles available for guest use.

The hotel’s signature dining venue is Print Works Bistro, adjacent to the hotel and extremely popular with guests and local residents. With a dining area featuring three walls of windows, and an outdoor patio overlooking a stream, Print Works offers an extensive wine selection and menu items like pan seared sea scallops, North Carolina mountain trout, Angus beef filet mignon, and lots of small plates and salads. As part of the hotel’s sustainability practices, the Bistro’s bar is made of salvaged, solid walnut from trees that came down in storms.

Sustainability at Proximity is seriously practiced here. While most hotels ask guests to refrain from having their towels washed every day, this property goes a lot further than that. There are 100 solar panels on the hotel’s roof, heating most of the water for the hotel and restaurant, and by using more energy efficient materials and technology during the construction process the hotel claims it uses about 40 percent less energy than more conventional hotels. The stream and 2.5-acre natural terrain adjacent to the property was restored during construction, and a green, vegetated rooftop will be planted atop the restaurant.

Greensboro skyline at night, with Amtrak station in foreground (photo courtesy Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau)

For guests staying at either hotel, dining charges at O. Henry’s Green Valley Grill, or Proximity’s Print Works Bistro, can be charged to your room. Another dining option would be Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a casual Greensboro restaurant opened by the hotels’ owners, Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels, about 20 years ago and still extremely popular. Try the cornmeal crusted Carolina catfish for lunch. Guests at either hotel can also charge meal purchases at Lucky 32 to their room.

O. Henry Hotel
624 Green Valley Road
Greensboro, NC 27408
Phone: 336-854-2000
www.ohenryhotel.com

Proximity Hotel
704 Green Valley Road
Greensboro, NC 27408
Phone: 336-379-8200
www.proximityhotel.com