Church entwined with NoDa’s history faces demolition

The red brick church at the corner of 36th and McDowell sits forlorn and empty. There are no lively services at what used to be North Charlotte Presbyterian Church, later known as Johnston Memorial Presbyterian. A developer under contract to purchase the plot intends to demolish the church and adjoining pastor’s manse to build a massive apartment complex. But the endangered 1929 building has a rich story to tell about the early days of the Mecklenburg mill village.

Beginnings in the mill village

The North Charlotte Presbyterian Church got its start around 1909, when the mill village was in its infancy. R. B. Alexander, a prominent grocer and active member of the Mecklenburg Presbytery’s mission movement to spread the faith in urban neighborhoods, helped lead a group of white residents in Sunday services and Bible study. Their first, temporary location was a room above a store at the corner of 31st and Caldwell (now 35th and Davidson).

Sometime between 1909 and 1911, services moved to a mill house at 3063 North Alexander, which is still standing although in much-renovated form. Finally, in 1911, the church erected a building of its own near the corner of what is now 35th and Alexander. According to the Charlotte Observer, R.B. Alexander himself paid the construction costs of the simple frame building.

In its early years as a mission, the church had a revolving door of preachers. The first was J.A. Satterfield, who started his career as an employee of the Ada Cotton Mill. Satterfield was not an ordained minister but a trained “mission worker.”

The first ordained minister to serve the congregation was George Cheek, who had just graduated from seminary when he arrived in North Charlotte in 1911. Like the many ministers who followed him, Cheek stayed only a few years before being called to a permanent post.

During its first decade, North Charlotte Presbyterian was often in the news, especially for holding evangelical revivals with visiting preachers whose gifted speaking and singing drew crowds. Two separate revivals held in 1918 in the midst of World War I each lasted 10 days and received coverage in the Observer.  

Rebuilt from the ashes

On December 30, 1928, calamity struck when the wooden church building burned to the ground. The blaze started during the Sunday morning worship service, but there were no reported injuries. Of the interior furnishings, only the piano and the pulpit survived the conflagration.

Plans for rebuilding quickly commenced, with funds from insurance, the Presbytery’s Home Mission Board, and private donations. Well-known Charlotteans stepped up to help. C.W. Johnston, owner of the Johnston Mill, donated the lot at the corner of 32nd and Myers (now 36th and McDowell), while Henry Belk provided the bricks and L.L. Herrin served as builder. While construction was underway, the congregation conducted services at the village community house — probably the assembly room of now-defunct Electric Hall.

The first church service in the new building occurred on December 22, 1929, and made the headlines of the Observer the following day. “Despite snow, sleet and iced streets, the auditorium was filled,” the paper reported. The head of the Home Mission Board gave the sermon, praising the determination of the congregation and calling the structure a “marvelous temple to the service of God.” The church, he said, marked “a new era for this community.”

With a permanent location and a congregation of about 100 members, North Charlotte Presbyterian took its place as an anchor of the Mecklenburg mill village. During the Great Depression, it provided food and clothing to members in need, and the women’s auxiliary held free chicken suppers for the public. Even during those tough economic times, the congregation was able to pay off the church’s debts in 1939, with nearby North Charlotte Baptist Church and Spencer Memorial Methodist Church helping to raise the final $2,250. The church was dedicated in June 1939 and valued at $15,000. Over the next two decades, it brought a variety of benefits to the community, such as vacation Bible school, a kindergarten, more revivals, and team sporting events.

The church also got a more permanent pastor — B. Frank Yandell, who served from 1941 to 1960. Under Yandell, the church grew to almost 300 members. In 1948, North Charlotte Presbyterian became officially self-supporting and no longer a mission. That year, it undertook construction of a seven-room brick pastor’s manse at a cost of about $15,000; the house still stands next to the church. This time, R.W. Johnston, son of C.W., donated the lot. Given the Johnston family’s generosity to the congregation, it’s not surprising that the church took the name Johnston Memorial Presbyterian around 1959.

Hard times for North Charlotte

The church remained an active part of the community even after the textile mills closed, residents moved away, and the neighborhood fell on hard times in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1980, the Observer reported on the church’s efforts to keep North Charlotte from deterioration. Johnston Memorial’s pastor joined three others to form the North Charlotte Ministerial Association, which tackled problems such as vandalism, littering, and inadequate city services. The association sponsored daily hot lunches, enlisted volunteers to winterize the homes of elderly neighbors, and helped 150 residents secure low-interest loans to renovate their mill houses.

Even as Black families moved into the neighborhood, the church remained primarily a white congregation. In a bit of irony, director Jeb Stuart used Johnston Memorial as a setting for his 2010 film, “Blood Done Sign My Name”. The film, based on a bestselling memoir, chronicled the brutal 1970 murder of a Black Vietnam veteran at the hands of three white shopkeepers in Oxford, N.C., and the Black community’s activist response.

By 2019, the Johnston Memorial congregation had dwindled in size and the Presbytery appointed an administrative commission to dissolve the church and explore selling the property. An anticipated sale to megachurch Forest Hill fell through, and the commission subsequently entered into a contract with Ascent Real Estate Capital; the sale is pending approval of the rezoning. The architect for the proposed development told the Observer in April 2021 that preservation of the church is “not on the table.”

Although the modest church didn’t have a renowned architect, a famous pastor, or noteworthy embellishments like stained glass, the building is steeped in history and worthy of preservation and adaptive reuse. According to the Urban Land Institute, the largest network of real estate and land use experts in the country, “Historic community buildings … embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is.” 

Thanks to Michelle and Matt Lemere for research advice.