A Builder for the Ages
The iconic buildings of architect Charles C. Hartmann
By Billy Ingram
In 1918, Charles Conrad Hartmann was a 29-year-old journeyman architect under the employ of William Lee Stoddart in New York, a firm that specialized in designing some of our nation’s finer hotels. He came to the Triad in 1910 to supervise progress on two projects he had designed, the O.Henry Hotel in Greensboro and the Sheraton in High Point. By 1921, Hartmann had so impressed local business leaders, he was offered a $2.5 million contract to fashion a singularly grandiose headquarters for Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company. With one caveat: Hartmann would have to establish his practice in Greensboro. This he did, resulting in a plethora of architectural gems scattered across the Triad and Piedmont.
Examples of Hartmann’s genius resonate all around us, forever defining our center cities. For instance, in Greensboro, the Country Club Apartments, and Grimsley and Dudley high schools are local landmarks. Atlantic Bank & Trust Building, with its Art Deco design, graces downtown Burlington. His trademark ionic columns add grandeur to Historic Palmer Memorial Institute, site of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, in Sedalia. And the Modernistic splendor that was Lexington Memorial Hospital was repurposed as apartments in 2012.
Throughout his career, Hartmann was an architect who shattered outdated traditions, erecting monuments of stone and steel that somehow manage to exist harmoniously with simpler storefronts blooming around them
An itemized detailing of every home and superstructure he designed could fill volumes. His output was so prodigious we may never know exactly how many structures he had a hand in. Let’s instead examine what Hartmann accomplished in just the first five years of his works during his 45-year-long career here in central North Carolina.
O.Henry Hotel — Greensboro — 1919
In 1919, most small town skylines were defined by church steeples peeking above the trees and little else. That year the O.Henry Hotel literally expanded the horizon in Greensboro, towering over its surroundings to become the city’s tallest building, eight stories of luxury accommodations.
Many locals marveled at the O.Henry’s stunning lobby, punctuated with rows of two-story-high marble, oak and plaster columns below a domed ceiling. Dark veined marble baseboards topped a floor carpeted with wall-to-wall, intricately laid tiles in two alternating designs. Upper tier balconies, Art-Deco, oversized curtained windows, glass-paned doors leading to an elegant dining room contributed to the hotel’s glamour. To guests checking in at the dark marble and oak desk, it must have looked like a Roman emperor’s palace.
As was the custom of the day, the O.Henry was conceived as a city under one roof with a grand ballroom hosting some of the most fashionable affairs of the last century, a full-service restaurant, coffee shop, newsstand, shoeshine station, hair salon, pharmacy and cigar shop. The lower lobby, which had an entrance from Bellemeade Avenue, featured a barbershop and florist. Decades later, it would house WBIG radio studios.
What made the O.Henry so impressive is what ultimately led to its demise. This marvel of 1920s technology, with cavernous spaces to heat and cool, had become a model of inefficiency just as new hotels and motels were springing up in and around the city in the early 1960s. Having to make do with antiquated infrastructure and plummeting occupancy rates, by the 1970s the O.Henry was reduced to little more than a flophouse.
In January 1976, a fifth-floor tenant who had been smoking in bed set off a fire that took his life and resulted in the hotel being shuttered by the fire department for building code violations. The O.Henry, once the pride of the Old North State, succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1979.
Jefferson Standard Life Building — Greensboro — 1922
For a short time the tallest structure between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., the Jefferson Standard Life Building was an opportunity for Charles C. Hartmann to indulge himself and forge a reputation or fall flat on his face. Blending together the disparate architectural influences he was drawn to — Gothic, Art Deco, Baroque, Romanesque, Neoclassical — he confidently sculpted an unlikely masterpiece.
Its 17 stories have been labeled “a veritable catalog of classical ornament,” swathed, as they are, in terra-cotta and granite motifs of every ilk. Above the main entrance, an august bust of Thomas Jefferson gazes out over Elm Street. Below him, richly detailed, swirling water-leaf moldings surround the exterior doorways. The ground floor features huge windows. Above them are relief carvings of a Native American male in silhouette, similar to the one seen on the Buffalo nickel, buttressed on either side by the scales of justice.
The building’s U-shape provided for better air and light distribution on the upper floors. Street-level storefronts included Remington Arms, Lady Fair Beauty Salon, a print shop, law offices, insurance agencies and the studio of architect Charles C. Hartmann.
Twenty-four boxcars of Mount Airy marble went into the interior hallways. Above a bank of elevators, embedded in floor-to-ceiling, cream-colored marble, are three blanched stone tablet sculptures depicting the Founding Fathers, plus a 1919 street scene and the seal of the state of North Carolina encircled by daisies. Adjacent to the elevators, a solid marble staircase spirals from the ground floor to the mezzanine.
A 20-floor addition was constructed on the west side of the Jefferson Standard building in 1990 after the company was acquired by Lincoln Financial. In an unusual move for that period, Lincoln’s architects purposely referenced Hartmann’s distinctive style.
Lincoln Financial’s high-rise annex is arguably more spectacular than the original structure, currently undergoing a five-year, inside-and-out, floor-by-floor renovation. The extensive upfit involves gutting the interior to the steel framework, then adding new doors and windows, chosen to fit the period.
Sheraton Hotel — High Point — 1921
“A Good Hotel in a Good Town,” the Sheraton opened at 314 North Main Street in 1921. It was designed to accommodate an influx of retailers from all over the nation, coming to the Furniture Capital of the World to do business at the nearby Southern Furniture Exhibition Building.
The hotel’s hefty stone base was dotted with large rounded windows framed in steel, affording a panoramic view of North Main, where large oak and elm trees lined the boulevard on all sides. Overhanging and fanciful metal eaves shaded visitors entering the hotel, a Hartmann signature. The sole design extravagance was a Tuscan-columned cornice atop the penthouse framed in white brick, embellished with Romanesque banisters and bas-reliefs depicting fountains. During the 1920s, the Sheraton featured all the amenities business travelers expected — a barber, beauty shop, cigar stand, the Sheraton Grill, shoe repair, Elliot’s Flowers & Gifts, Western Union and an upholstery shop (this is High Point, after all).
Host to future president John F. Kennedy and longtime broadcast home of WGHP in its heyday, the Sheraton was converted to apartments for seniors in 1982 and underwent another facelift in in 2011. The iconic wrought iron staircases and handsome tiling that defined the interior were restored. Regrettably, the enormous windows were covered over, but you can still see their footprint.
Commercial National Bank — High Point — 1922
A few blocks south from the Sheraton on Main Street sits Hartmann’s next masterpiece, the second major office building ever constructed in High Point. Commercial National Bank headquarters, with seven above-ground floors, features a dramatic arched entryway carved into a stone base. Its upper floors, framed in brick, are graced with terra-cotta columns rising up to an almost gothic entablature below an especially elaborate, temple-like cornic
Commercial National went under during the Depression. Security National Bank made this their main branch in the mid-1930s, merging with American Commercial to become NCNB in 1960 — and later, Bank of America. NCNB commissioned High Point architect William Freeman, a specialist in Modernist designs, (and father to Seasons columnist and architect Peter Freeman) to remodel the interior in 1963.
Christened the Radio Building after its longest tenant, WMFR-AM, this rewired and re-energized landmark retains its status as downtown High Point’s crown jewel.
Mary Taylor House — Greensboro — 1924
Mary Taylor was secretary to Julian Price, Jefferson Standard’s president, the man who lured Hartmann to the Triad. When Taylor told her boss about a quaint little cottage she saw in a movie, expressing a desire to own one like it, Price put Hartmann to the task.
The result was something, well, out of a motion picture. This two-story A-frame Tudor-inspired chalet, razed in 2001, featured a protruding front bay with French windows opening out into a garden. To the left, a round-top wooden door was sheltered by a smaller, shingled A-frame. Looking like something plucked from the Maine countryside, this Irving Park home on Elmwood Drive was painted white with the exception of a ribbon of red bricks below the windows and surrounding the front door. Five years later, Hartmann would also design Julian Price’s sprawling mansion, Hillside on Fisher Park Circle in the Tudor Revival style, but on an infinitely grander scale. (see page 19)
Alamance Hotel — Burlington — 1925
With cleaner lines and an Art Deco flair, this imposing edifice is seen by some as the architect’s most mature work to date.
Burlington was growing at a pace four times faster than the average American city in the 1920s, ranking fifth for hosiery production and second in the nation for the number of new industrial plants and overall expansion. It was entirely fitting that Charles C. Hartmann was tapped to build a Neoclassical seven-story hotel to reflect the city’s economic prominence. Below a terra-cotta parapet, street-side, double decker windows front this red brick building. Upper-floor windows are crowned with cathedral-like extensions, with white stuccoed panels resting between them.
Originally, there were 85 rooms, a barbershop and a private dining room on the mezzanine next to the ballroom. Horizontal metal eaves are positioned over the doors. An up-and coming Elvis Presley passed through them to spend a night here in 1955, when the first-floor restaurant was one of the nicest eateries in the city.
This hotel closed in 1974, spurred by the collapse of the Triad’s manufacturing sector. Yet, it was somehow spared the fate of Greensboro’s O.Henry Hotel and so many once noble titans. Its exterior has seen very little change, and today the Alamance Plaza stands tall as a state-of-the-art residential complex for elderly and disabled individuals.
All of these properties, with the exception of the Mary Taylor House, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Charles C. Hartmann retired in 1966 and died about a decade later. The buildings he designed are, without question, products of their time, bestowing a grace and nobility to public institutions and industry that’s sorely lacking today, given our jaded worldview and frenetic pace. Perhaps that’s part of the structures’ timeless appeal, speaking to the architect’s vision of a bright future as they do — an equally enduring part of Hartmann’s legacy, as the treasured monuments in stone, brick and concrete that still stand. h
Billy Ingram is the author of five books, including Hamburger², a book mostly