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Charlotte’s next historic landmark may be this office tower on Independence Boulevard

·5 min read

Thousands drive by it every day, but many may not know its name or history.

It’s the tall, white, cubical building located off Independence Boulevard, not far from where the thoroughfare connects with Albemarle Road.

The Ervin Building — also known as the Varnadore Building — has captured the hearts of many in east Charlotte. Just before emptying out, the property was home to LGBTQ+ groups and businesses, including qnotes newspaper, which warmly called the building in a 2017 story the “Queer Tower.”

Over the past few years, the building has fallen into disrepair. But, with a neighborhood-led initiative, the building seems to be getting its rebirth.

“The building’s been dilapidating and in a state of disrepair for quite some time,” said Charlotte City Council member Matt Newton, who represents the area. “Given its historical value ... no one wanted to see it torn down.”

Five years ago, Chris Mau, who’s lived in east Charlotte for 21 years, helped gather neighbors in support of renovating the building.

“The more people I spoke with, the more I came to understand that there was some kind of significance with the building,” Mau said. “It seemed to have a history to it, but nobody knew exactly what it was.”

Mau helped assemble 36 neighborhoods to support the rezoning of the land, a key step to revive the building.

Gvest Capital has taken over the renovation of the near 60-year-old building. Plans call for modern office space featuring a rooftop bar and restaurant.

Charlotte wants to use its vacant land to tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis

Historic preservation

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) on Monday voted unanimously in support of designating the Ervin building as a historic local landmark. The recommendation goes to City Council for a final vote.

The designation would lead to tax benefits. The property tax benefit is meant to incentivize historic preservation, said Jack Thomson, executive director of the HLC.

Though the building is only about 60-years-old, the general age cutoff for a property to be eligible for a historic local landmark designation is about 50 years, Thomson said.

The Ervin building came to the attention of the HLC after a survey identified it as a good example of mid-century modernist architecture.

Charles Ervin, who built the building, was listed as the South’s largest home builder in 1958 and constructed at least 10,000 homes in the greater Charlotte area. Ervin was known for building customizable homes at a relatively low cost, according to the HLC designation report.

The company was not without controversy and was “entangled in racial disputes until the company folded in the mid-1970s,” the designation report said. It faced racial discrimination charges for a South Carolina development alleging that potential Black homebuyers were turned away.

Written neighborhood histories, including in Oaklawn Park and University Park, as well as advertisements by Ervin’s company and others, which ran in the Observer in the 1950s, show deep and persistent housing segregation in Charlotte. Although Ervin is noted to have been one of the few developers who built homes for both white and Black families during that time, it is also true that many of the neighborhoods he built were off limits to Black families, due to deed restrictions barring Black home buyers. In some ads, Ervin’s company specifically marketed new residential developments for Black families — the assumption being that the rest were only for white people.

The Observer reported in May that Gvest Capital plans to install a painted mural at the renovated Ervin building of Dorothy Counts-Scoggins, who was the first Black student to integrate Charlotte schools. “The lobby of the repurposed tower will include historical information about Charles Ervin,” the Observer reported.

The tower was originally called the Ervin Building but later became more commonly called the Varnadore Building, renamed in 1992 after Jim Varnadore “whose real-estate firm took up two stories of the building,” CharlotteFive reported several years.

Revitalizing east Charlotte

Beyond Ervin’s legacy, the building itself seems to hold great importance in the minds and hearts of residents of East Charlotte.

“To save this building would be great,” said Diane Langevin, president of the Winterfield Neighborhood Association. “I mean I remember when I first moved to Charlotte — that was a premier building back then. So, it would positively affect all the neighborhoods around the area once it’s refurbished.”

There seems to be excitement among the nearby neighborhoods, but cautious excitement.

“It’s hard because I’ve been involved for going on five years, so it’s getting excited, but you get hesitantly excited because you know nothing happens smoothly,” said Carolyn Millen, president of Eastway Park/Sheffield Park neighborhood. “You just hope at this point that everything is on schedule and it keeps moving.”

Many are hoping that renovations to the Ervin building are the ticket needed to turn around the reputation of east Charlotte.

“I feel like east Charlotte’s been kind of an underdog,” Mau said. “It’s not been cast as the shining star that it really is. People see the deterioration in the main corridors and just make an assessment that the whole thing’s like that.”

Newton said he hopes the building becomes a catalyst for additional growth.

“It’s about recapturing that vibrancy, that dynamic character of the corridor,” Newton said. “The building does that.”

What’s next for Varnadore building?

Moving forward, the Charlotte City Council will hold a public hearing on whether to designate the Ervin building as a historic local landmark. A date has not been specified of when the council will vote.

If the Ervin building gains designation as a historic local landmark, the HLC would review the developer’s rehabilitation plans to ensure that it follows any necessary historic preservation regulations.

“In this particular case, we feel very confident that what we will see from the owner will meet our standards,” Thomson said.

Building developer Richard Gee confirmed that Gvest Capital would work with the HLC if the Ervin building gains designation as a historic local landmark.

For now, it seems that original neighborhood push to revitalize the Ervin building may be paying off.

“I’m hoping that maybe a little over a year from now myself and my neighbors and others will be standing on a rooftop restaurant with the owners of the building and toasting that the vision was completed,” Millen said.

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