Charlotte's tearing down a 91-year-old building with, uh, quite a history
One of the city's oldest buildings is being demolished, and its full story hasn't been told until now. So, was it historic? Or was it just old?
Charlotte, famously, tears down its historic buildings. So, what if I were to tell you that right now, right this very minute, developers are pulling down the home of a quarter-century-old business that inhabits a building that went up sometime around 1930. How would you feel about this? Would you be mad? Aren’t you angry that Charlotte is, once again, erasing its past?
If you’re upset, then consider this: The building I’m talking about is the Uptown Cabaret.
This is all I’m going to say about the goings-on inside the Uptown Cabaret: The buffet was better than you’d think.
As for the outside, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a more modern piece of architecture. “It looks like a 2004 Taco Bell,” says Clayton Sealey, who runs the CLTdevelopment Twitter account and also serves as a volunteer Planning Commissioner for the City of Charlotte. He had no idea that the building was historic. “About a year ago, I was making a joke about the Uptown Cabaret and then I was like: ‘Huh, I wonder what year this building was built,’” he says. “And then I found out much to my surprise that the building was more than 90 years old.”
Sealey is in his 30s and grew up nearby in Dilworth. To him, the Uptown Cabaret has always been in that building. He’d also like to declare: He’s never been inside.
So what’s going in its place? You guessed it: Something tall and shiny.
On that very spot, developers are building a $700 million dollar project. One tower will have 409 apartments. The other will contain 42 stories of offices. There will also be stores and restaurants. It’ll be mostly done by 2025.
There will be no strip club on the property. The Uptown Cabaret says it’ll reopen somewhere else next year. There will be no tributes to the land’s former occupants, even though as a Dad Joke Enthusiast, I really dig this idea:
I digress. Nobody has been publicly up in arms about the loss of this building or the business that occupied it. And I’d say nobody, except for the rapidly vanishing species of Original Charlottean, really remembers it being anything else other than what it’s been for the last 28 years: a strip club. Yet, the building itself went up during the Great Depression, when Charlotte’s population was just 82,675 (today, it’s ten times that). It has a very long history. Just not one that anyone can really remember. So, here’s the mostly forgotten story of that building, which leads to this question: In a city that complains about a lack of preservation, where do you put the dividing line between historic and just plain old?
The Origin Story: Antiques, Auto Loans, and Escort Services
First off, this building straddles the gray area between Uptown and South End Charlotte, right at the corner of South Tryon and Morehead Streets, a little south of the Belk Freeway. This feels right in the heart of Charlotte now, but was firmly in the suburbs during the Depression. Real estate records say the two-story building was erected in 1932, but old fire insurance maps appear to show it there in 1929. Newspaper ads from the time indicate that the first occupant was a grocery store. There wasn’t much else nearby.
In 1934, the building became home to Reese’s Antiques Shop, which declared itself to have the “South’s finest collection of authentic antiques.” This wasn’t, like, a junky antiques store. The owners, Simon and Florence Perlin, would make regular trips to Europe to find chandeliers, china, chairs, oil paintings, furniture, and more. It was a Charlotte fixture in that spot for two decades until it moved out to Providence Road in Myers Park in 1954. It remained there until the Perlins closed it and retired in 1989.
After Reese’s moved out of that two-story building at Morehead and Tryon, Charlotte financier E.B. Stone renovated it into a “very modern” style and moved his company into the top floor in August 1956. “The building, with bright blending colors, features a large glass front, fluorescent lighting, air conditioning, acoustical ceilings, and asphalt tile floors,” read a story in the Charlotte News.
At one point, 100 people worked at the headquarters on East Morehead Street. By the early 1960s, E.B. Stone Finance had $23 million a year in revenues, mostly from making auto loans during the postwar boom. Stone himself served on Charlotte’s Zoning board.
There were other offices inside, including an IBM service facility, but in the following decades, a lot of businesses came and went. In 1973, it was home to Palmetto Security Services, where wannabe security officers were encouraged to apply in person. Carolina Plasma Corp. moved in around 1975, and ads encouraged people to come in, give a little plasma, and make a quick buck ($2 extra bucks if you mentioned the ad in the paper!). It was a home rental office, an insurance company, and so on. In 1978, an escort service moved in. Even though the tenants downstairs seemed to get a little less prestiegous, E.B. Stone and his company remained on the top floor throughout the 1970s, and ran a small loan office for customers right next door.
In 1984, according to records from the North Carolina Secretary of State, E.B. Stone Finance ceased to exist (Stone himself died in 1988). That same year, the property’s longtime landlord, the J.H. Cutter Company, sold it to Joseph and Diane Vandevere, who ran Key Realty in Charlotte. The E.B. Stone name came off the building. In 1988, the building was home to a computer store (offering an IBM Model 30 with a 20 megabyte hard drive and a monochrome monitor for the low low price of $2,239!) It became a carpet store, then a print shop, then the Champion Map Co. in 1994. No business seemed to stick around for very long. Then, in 1995, this aging, mundane, gray building got some new neighbors, and everything changed.
A Strip Club With 25 Feet To Spare
In 1995, Charlotte was riding high. A brand new Charlotte Convention Center opened uptown. A football stadium for the Carolina Panthers football team was under construction. Charlotte’s leaders and its city boosters were just crowing about all of the economic development that was going to happen in and around uptown. One of the first people who acted upon all of this buzz was a 53-year-old man named Daniel Seeman, who looked at the old gray office building at Tryon and Morehead and saw potential. “The location is almost idyllic,” he said of its spot near the stadium and the convention center.
So, he applied for a permit.
To open a strip club.
Seeman called it an “upscale” topless bar that would cater “to the upper-middle-class businessman coming in.” He and his co-investor Brian Dominick had never actually owned one before, but they had the money to open the club, they said, and they’d found a management company in Florida that would actually run it. It would be classy if not understated, Seeman said. It wouldn’t have big lights. Just a sign that read “The Dollhouse.”
Boosters fetched their fainting couches. “[Charlotte has] become world-class in a variety of ways,” the head of the Dilworth Community Development Corporation told the Charlotte Observer in 1995. “I think we’ve been focusing so much on the world-class good side that it didn’t occur to us that world-class brings in a seedier side.”
Other boosters said city ordinances surely wouldn’t allow a strip club to set up shop in that spot. They also worried that others might try to open up more nearby, thereby creating a red light district. Seeman said that wouldn’t happen. He’d looked at a 1994 city ordinance that banned strip clubs from being within 1,000 feet of a residential district, church, park, playground, school, or child-care center. Based on that, his building at Morehead and Tryon was the only place in the area where his topless bar could open, and ordinances said another one couldn’t open within 500 feet of his. Some boosters noted that the Morehead YMCA, which qualified as a child-care center, was nearby. So city workers went out and measured the distance on foot, then came back later with a professional surveyor. The verdict: The strip club was 1,025 feet away from the Y. It had 25 feet to spare. So the city issued a permit, and the club opened in 1995. It later changed its name to the Uptown Cabaret.
“Would the stadium be the catalyst taxpayers were promised?” Charlotte Observer columnist Tom Sorensen wrote in 1997. “Yes. Quickly, the first business came. It came with a pink awning. Who knew it would be a strip joint? Give it up for the Uptown Cabaret.”
It’s had a history befitting of an upscale strip club since then. There have been crimes, raids concerning lewdness, and so on. A Carolina Panther was arrested, tried, and later acquitted of punching a guy there in 2009. It was around that time that the club expanded, and provided what might be one of the only clues that it was in an old building: The original brick and windows were revealed before the renovation.
But even as the rest of Charlotte kept growing and getting more expensive, the club remained. Eventually Dominick shifted into more mainstream businesses. In 2010, he moved an old diner from Kings Mountain to the corner of South Tryon and Carson Boulevard and opened the 24-hour Midnight Diner. He’d picked up that property in 2004, which made him the landlord of the Ascot Inn, which was notorious for its heart-shaped Jacuzzis, mirrored ceilings, and low rates (here’s a 2007 Creative Loafing story about the Ascot that will make your grandma blush).
The Ascot Inn was demolished in 2011. The Midnight Diner has since moved to 420 East Trade Street in Uptown and reopened. And the Uptown Cabaret is coming down as we speak. In a way, it’s a fairly historic moment. This single block with a 24-hour diner, a grungy motel, and a strip club was the last physical reminder of a different center city, one with a little less polish and a little more vice. That era, in that particular spot, has now crossed into history.
But does that make the 91-year-old building that’s been hiding behind a strip club’s facade historic? Subjectively, that’s up to you. But objectively, if someone had protested hard enough, could they have landed the Uptown Cabaret on, say, the National Register of Historic Places? I posed this question to Sealey and Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett.
“It would have to be connected to a significant event in time, or a significant architectural style,” Sealey told me.
“I don’t think so,” Hanchett said. “Too many exterior changes fairly recently.”
Even if he could have gotten a historic designation, there’s no way it would have made financial sense. Dominick’s group, which had been trying to sell that property for more than a decade, finally sold off the land to the new developers for $35 million. That’s more profit than a strip club and a 24-hour diner would have ever made on their own.
In the end, it may be far more interesting to think about the reckoning that came after the Uptown Cabaret opened in 1995, which proved that not everybody shared in a squeaky-clean vision of Charlotte’s future. “This is something that’s coming,” the head of the Dilworth Community Development Corporation told the Observer in 1995, after they and others lost their zoning battle to keep the strip club out. “And I guess deep down I’m not saying it’s bad or good. I’m saying that people need to look at it and see if this is what they want.”