The Johnston Mill: A look at past, present, and future of NoDa cornerstone

What if your office building or workplace became someone’s home? Imagine explaining to a turn-of-the-century mill worker that the dusty lint and fiber covered floors would someday be a place to Netflix & chill. Imagine explaining Netflix.

North Charlotte’s third and final mill complex to be preserved and renovated into housing is underway at the Johnston Mill. Located on the corner of NoDa’s downtown crossroads of 36th and Davidson, the Johnston Mill has been one of the most significant entities in the neighborhood for more than a century. 

The Johnston Mill complex extends from the LYNX light rail platform at 36th Street to the back of the Dog Bar parking lot, and continues along Davidson Street adjoining the Mecklenburg Mill, which completed a similar renovation in June 2015.

Johnston Mill: Early years 1915-1945

The name of Charles W. Johnston is ubiquitous with Charlotte. NoDa neighbors will recognize the surname in our YMCA, the Presbyterian Church on 36th (featured in last month’s issue of NoDa News), Charles Avenue, and Whiting Avenue (formerly known as Johnston Avenue); across the city you will find Johnston Road leading to Ballantyne, and there was even a skyscraper in uptown with the Johnston name. 

W. Johnston built the first portion of the Johnston Mill in 1916 on land that once was part of the Mecklenburg Mill Village. Seventeen mill houses once existed here as 37th and Mercury streets once extended across Davidson. But Johnston consolidated ownership and propriety of the three North Charlotte Mills and built his namesake mill here. 

The view of the Johnston Mill from any NoDa street can be misleading: From 36th Street, you will see a long stretch of two dozen arched brick windows in the oldest facade from 1916. Closest to the LYNX, on one end, you will notice the 1926 picker room and tower facing the railroads. On the other side, forming the top of the “T,” you can see the 1930 addition closest to the Dog Bar parking lot. 

Several auxiliary buildings didn’t make it to the rehabilitation and have been lost to time, including: most recently the machine shop on 36th Street that blocked the view into the complex from much of the street, several wooden cotton warehouse buildings with train sidings and platforms on both sides of the picker room, and a preserved historic mill home prominently placed in the parking area between the Johnston and Mecklenburg. 

Johnston Mill: Company town 1946-1975

Let’s not underestimate the importance of the Johnston patriarchy’s impact on North Charlotte. Although C.W. Johnston doesn’t get credit for designing North Charlotte and its signature twin mill villages and downtown, Johnston ended up as either the owner, proprietor, or provider of all three North Charlotte mills, villages, and many community hubs for his employees. 

Mill workers often jumped from mill to mill, but stayed within the purview of the Johnston Companies, living in Johnston-owned mill houses, and extending into their civic and recreational lives. Three generations of Johnstons contributed to the fabric of North Charlotte for seven decades until 1975, including Charles, his son R. Horace, and finally his grandson David, who commissioned Charlotte’s first indoor swimming pool and YMCA in his grandfather’s honor.

Johnston Mill: Fits and starts 1975-2008

Textile manufacturing defined Charlotte from the turn of the century, through the world wars, and into the 1960s. But as jobs moved out, so too did many residents of North Charlotte. The Mecklenburg Mill was only used for warehousing by the end of WWII, and the third generation owner David Johnston presided over the dissolvement of Highland Park Mill #3 in June of 1969, and the sale and dissolvement of his family’s final and namesake Johnston Mill in 1975.

The Johnston Mill was sold to a Gastonia-based textile company in 1975, and sold again in 1976 to a Greenville, S.C.-based firm for use as warehousing. In 1980, Rock Hill-based Stark Enterprises purchased the Johnston warehouse. 

Throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s, North Charlotte’s industrial hum was quiet, save for the sound of tractor trailers barreling through downtown on the way to and from the trainyards, rattling the windows of the remaining businesses and mill homes. Stark Enterprises had been using the Johnston for warehousing, but started to notice a possible new use.

By the mid-1980s, many abandoned and neglected storefronts on Davidson Street were finding new life with artists and owners like Ruth Ava Lyons and Paul Sires, and Paul McBroom. By the end of the 1980s, the City of Charlotte took notice of NoDa’s revival, and The Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission recognized the three underused mills as historic properties, leading the way to tax credits for preservation efforts. In 1990, Stark bought the adjacent Mecklenburg Mill to complement the Johnston, and announced plans to renovate them into housing. 

In 1993, Stark sold the project and both mills to developers Jim Mezzanote and Carol Little of Trenton Properties, who had a history of renovating the Hoskins Mill in West Charlotte. A 1993 Charlotte Observer article features many details about Trenton Property’s renovation plans:

“The Johnston Mill Apartments in 1993 would rent for $289 per month and featured a single room with arched brick windows, and a bathroom. Renters were families who made between $9,600 – $24,350. A lot of care was given to the perception of safety; security entrances, a full time family support liaison to help residents find employment, and the presence of Charlotte Police on site in their own boxing academy located in an adjacent building between the mills. This facility would later become a daycare too. Residents were given a membership to the Johnston YMCA with their lease.”

The newly formed Historic North Charlotte Neighborhood Association (which is now your NoDa NBA) had concerns from the beginning. President Craig Isaac is quoted in the Observer saying, “We don’t need more people in the neighborhood [until] we have more jobs.” The Association was wary of concentrating so many families of low income together, and worried about the estimated 200 children’s safety in North Charlotte’s heavy industrial areas. HNCNA was more upbeat about the Trenton Properties plans for the Mecklenburg Mill, however: to feature 61 live-in studios for artists, a common art room area with kiln, and gallery space open to the public. Both mill apartments opened, but the enticing Mecklenburg Mill artists’ space never materialized. 

The renovation of the Johnston Apartments was a problem from the beginning. Many structural problems were covered up with cosmetic fixes, and by 2005 or 2006 code enforcement stepped in.

Charlotte artist Nat Lancaster remembered his time living in the Mecklenburg Apartments one fateful day in 2006. He recalled the Johnston Mill had already been closed when he received a knock on his door: “It was about 3:30 in the afternoon and I was getting ready for my shift at Mellow Mushroom, when two firemen and the police showed up and told me I had 20 minutes to pack whatever I can and evacuate my apartment.” Nat went to work, and movers cleared out all belongings from the units. When he was reunited with his belongings, they included even the dirty dishes from the sink in boxes. 

The Johnston and Mecklenburg Mills again were covered in plywood and fenced off, and in 2007 the City of Charlotte created a committee to explore the future of the complex. HNCNA members were allowed to tour the buildings and, according to Kevin Sutton and Hollis Nixon of the HNCNA, they found collapsed floors and trees growing inside the building. Most signs were pointing to the mills being demolished and the land sold off, but in an attempt to save the history and fabric of NoDa, the HNCNA reached out to a Minneapolis-based developer called Artspace, who specialized in rehabbing old buildings for artist use. The HNCNA even went as far as printing T-shirts saying “WE WANT ARTSPACE,” but the partnership never materialized, and in 2007 the City of Charlotte awarded the bid to Tuscan Group.

Johnston Mill: Community built 2011-2015

NoDa and city leadership worked for years to pick a suitor for our signature mills. The demographics of NoDa changed significantly too. From the HNCNA’s concerns for the safety and wellbeing of children growing up here in 1993, to remaining in touch with the artists who rebuilt North Charlotte, to the 2008 housing and market crash that led to the closure of most NoDa galleries, by 2011 the NoDa Association’s priorities had to change.

Boston-based Community Builders’ bid to purchase and save the Johnston and Mecklenburg Mill in 2011 was realized in 2015, when the Mecklenburg Mill completed renovation and opened with a grand ceremony presided over by city officials and then-NoDa NBA president Hollis Nixon. Nixon’s dedication to saving these buildings is a testament and tribute to the work put in over decades by her predecessors, and when she cut the ribbon on the preserved Mecklenburg Mill in 2015, it was for all of us. Six years later, Community Builders are now working on the Johnston Mill portion of the project. 

Johnston Mill: What’s inside today?

Samet Corp, the construction firm tasked with preserving and renovating the Johnston Mill, gave me a tour of the project. From the street, the rows of windows seem far away, and perhaps unremarkable. But the brick facade is strong and inspiring up close. The shell of the building is entirely brick, aside from a basement in the section closest to the Dog Bar made from poured concrete that was a later addition. 

The original hall, two stories running parallel to 36th Street, has no interior partitions or walls and is wide open with sunlight pouring in from both sides. The photos (right/left) show the open wooden plank floors that housed the textile machinery and workers. This may be the last time these enormous rooms are able to be viewed in their original totality, before they are partitioned into condos. The age and wear of the original maple and yellow pine floors (birds eye, ambrosia, curly, and yellow pine) brought in from Vermont, Michigan, or Wisconsin, and cut and milled on site in 1915, is evident. These floors can’t be saved in the renovation, so they are meticulously being pulled up and stored by a local craftsman who plans to make furniture and home decor. (We’ll follow up on this project later this year, as the plan is to keep as much of the Johnston’s original hardwoods in North Charlotte as possible.) Below the bottom level floorboards we find the brick piers built on dirt that hasn’t seen daylight in over a century.

Hewn wooden posts hold up the second story and roof in the original 1915 section. These posts will remain, but will likely not be visible in the finished condos. Metal posts hold up the 1930 ceilings, from the basement to the second floor. The brickwork is similar in both parts of the Johnston, but slight aesthetic choices like rounded corners in the later section convey the story of a building that began as utilitarian, and progressed into pride. 

There are several “towers” on the Johnston Mill: The first is closest to the LYNX and began as the picker room. Trains used to pull right up to the front of this tower, where there was a freight platform, trestle, and several auxiliary buildings used for shipping and receiving. This tower was converted in 1926 to include an industrial winch elevator to move supplies up or down in the building. The original 24-window facade facing 36th Street also had a tower addition built around this time. This tower represented a pivot toward the roads and modernization, as trucking began to take over, and bathrooms were built. The other three towers are on the 1930 side closest to Dog Bar. Including the tower we see today with white paint scrawling JOHNSTON MFG CO., these three towers are stairwells for access to the offices located here, which overlook most of NoDa and view into the villages.

Johnston Mill: Future

Old brick, dusty hardwood beams and floors, and decades of art and graffiti are all that’s left inside the Johnston Mill today. But by this time next year, we should see 84 apartments. New buildings will rise around the mill too. Community Builders will create an entirely new condo building in the 36th Street parking area, flanked by new retail at street level. Future plans for infill buildings between the Johnston and Mecklenburg will take the place of the old boxing academy site. And for the first time in decade, North Charlotte’s mills will be full of activity once again.