Friday, April 16
Residential Subdivisions: Elizabeth Heights--Charlotte
With Elizabeth Avenue, Piedmont Park, and Oakhurst development underway, W. S. Alexander decided it was time to develop the land beyond the end of Elizabeth Avenue. In 1904 he and his partners filed a plat for Elizabeth Heights. It set out Hawthorne Lane (then called Kingston), East Eighth Street, and much of East Seventh, East Fifth, Lamar, Clement, Clarice, Ridgeway, and Laurel.
The most important feature of the new design was the large park at its center. The city reservoir which had occupied the hollow parallel to Seventh Street had been drained about 1900 and replaced by a new larger reservoir north of the city (today the site of the Oaklawn Cemetery). Alexander and other adjoining landowners decided to donate this low-lying, poorly-drained land to the city, at the same time that Abbott and Stephens donated the parkland that was to become the Sunnyside Rose Garden. The result was Independence Park, which officially became Charlotte's first public park on August 1, 1904.
In November of that year the city created the Charlotte Park and Tree Commission to oversee construction of the facility. The Commission also took on the refurbishing of two other public spaces, the old town cemetery behind First Presbyterian Church in the center of the city, and the area called Vance Square around the Post Office and United States Mint Building on West Trade Street. The Commission's executive secretary was Piedmont Park developer George Stephens and the membership consisted largely of the men who had donated the Independence tract.
By June of 1905 the Commission had made contact with several landscape architects for the purpose of soliciting proposals for the three projects. Their final choice was John Nolen, a student completing his last year in the School of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University. The Independence project represented an important step in the designer's budding career.
In 1904, nearly a year before graduation, he began landscaping private homes in Ardmore and a West Philadelphia factory ground for Joseph Fels, the famed soap tycoon . On May 29, 1905, Nolen noted in his diary, "Definite Engagement for Charlotte, N.C. First Important landscape work." This was his first real breakthrough to civic work, thanks to the recommendation of [Harvard] President Eliot and several professors. Here Nolen began his lifelong friendship with George Stephens. Nolen was allowed to forego his final exams in order to begin the Charlotte work, but he hurried home in late June to receive his Master of Arts degree from Harvard, at commencement attended by President Theodore Roosevelt.
The choice of John Nolen was to prove extremely propitious for Charlotte and North Carolina in general. From his start with Independence Park, Nolen went on to become one of the most important landscape architects and city planners of the early twentieth century. He executed over 400 projects nationwide before his death in 1937, ranging from private estates to masterplans for cities (including Madison, Wisconsin, and San Diego, California) to some of America's first regional plans. Nolen also helped found city planning's first professional organizations and wrote and lectured prolifically on behalf of parks and planning . Nolen's friendship with Stephens resulted in a number of North Carolina projects. These included the Kanuga Lake resort community (now an Episcopal Church retreat), Charlotte's Myers Park suburb, city plans for Asheville and Charlotte, and a major expansion of the campus of Stephens' alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Unfortunately it is not possible to determine which elements of today's Independence Park are part of John Nolen's original design. Nolen's plans for the park are lost, and are believed to have been destroyed before his professional papers were placed in the archives of Cornell University. It is known that winding Park Drive bordering the area was already mapped before Nolen arrived, but it is likely that he determined the park's internal geography. Many of the present trees are arranged with a studied informality in keeping with Nolen's naturalistic philosophy.
Subsequently, two noteworthy Charlotte landscape architects have contributed to Independence Park. Helen Hodge, one of the first female members of the profession in the South, created the Arhelger Memorial Glen at Hawthorne Lane and Seventh Street in 1931. A stone pavilion, pool, and miniature cascade honor the memory of Lillian Arhelger, a school teacher who fell to her death while rescuing a young charge on a field trip to a mountain waterfall. Leigh Colyer, believed to have been among the Carolinas' earliest landscape architects, is said to have added the circular rose garden that now occupies the southeast end of the park.
With the construction of Independence Park, the two blocks of Hawthorne Lane between it and Elizabeth Avenue became some of Charlotte's most desirable residential real estate. The street already commanded an impressive vista down Elizabeth Hill toward town, and it was adjacent to the tennis courts, landscaped lawns, and frequent concerts of Elizabeth College. The location attracted such affluent citizens as James Staten, a real estate man and manager of the Little-Long drygoods store. Staten commissioned local architect Franklin Gordon to design a white- columned Neo-Classical house at Hawthorne Lane and Park Drive overlooking the park in 1914."
"Independence Park has experienced enormous change since its creation in 1905-06. As early as 1910, the residents of the surrounding neighborhood were clamoring for the expenditure of more public money on maintenance.19 Rebuffed by the Board of Aldermen, the members of the Commission borrowed funds on their own signatures. In 1914, an experimental playground for children was constructed in the park.20 The City built an Armory-Auditorium in 1929 at the western end of the park. Memorial Stadium was completed in 1937. Park Center was erected in the 1950's to replace the Armory-Auditorium, which burned in 1954. In 1957, the City withdrew its plans to locate the Health Department in Independence Park because of the public outcry which this proposal produced in the community." (1980 Report)