Greensboro grew and prospered in the nineteenth century due to its location at the intersection of two major transportation routes; the north-south road from Virginia to Fayetteville; and the east west railroad that connected Charlotte to the seaport of Morehead City. The Fayetteville Road is known today as Battleground Avenue north of downtown, Elm Street through downtown, and Martin Luther King Jr Drive south of the city.
At the intersection of these two trade routes is a three-story brick landmark known as the Cascade Saloon, itself at a metaphorical intersection of major Gate City themes of business, culture, and ethnicity. Over 110 years old, this building might be on the verge of preservation that could unite downtown Greensboro, or pending destruction that could divide the historic district at the railroad tracks.
The building was constructed in 1896 on South Elm Street between the North Carolina Railroad tracks to the north, and a spur of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway to the south. This unusual location between two rail lines resulted in the structure having no adjacent buildings, resulting in its stand-alone setting and high-profile presence along Greensboro’s main business street. Although the architect of the building is unknown, it is clearly part of a family of Elm Street buildings designed by the same hand. Shared characterizes of these buildings include Mount Airy Granite window sills and lintels, use of patterned brickwork, and elaborate cornices.
The structure originally had twin storefronts, the northernmost addressed as 408 South Elm Street and the southernmost as 410. The earliest records of the building in 1897 include grocer George. T. McLamb in 408, and saloon owner Samuel J. McCauley in unit 410. By 1907, two new businesses moved into the building, including Wiley Weaver’s “eating house” or café, in the space at 408. Weaver and his wife Ida were African-American, and the couple had just been married in 1903 in High Point and lived in a home on North Macon Street in East Greensboro. They operated the café at a time when Jim Crow Laws sought to segregate African-Americans away from white-owned businesses. The fact that the Weavers ran their business on Greensboro’s main commercial street is an unusual footnote in Greensboro’s history. By 1913, the café was operated as the Cascade Billiard Parlor, one of only five pool halls in the city. It was during this time that the building was photographed for what is now an iconic view of old Greensboro (image, right: see far left).
Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, numerous businesses occupied the twin spaces at 408 and 410, and even the upper floors. These included cafes, cigar manufacturers, grocers, furniture sales, and a roller rink. Baker Furniture Company occupied the building through the 1950s and 60s, and in 1974 the building was home to the Greensboro Times.
The Greensboro Times was a newspaper published by attorney Ross Strange, who acquired the building to house his publishing operations. The paper was discontinued around 1980 and the structure has remained vacant since that time. In 1982, thanks to the efforts of the Old Greensboro Preservation Society, portions of Elm Street including the Cascade Saloon were included on the National Register of Historic Places.
As South Elm Street enjoyed a revival, preservationists grew increasingly concerned with the state of the Cascade Saloon as it deteriorated throughout the 1990s. Downtown developed as a popular home for artists and antique dealers who were lured by the charming architecture of the street, and their investments and improvements were followed by retailers and restaurants. However, the Cascade Saloon, a centerpiece to the neighborhood, remained dark. City officials, concerned with the abandonment of the building, sought to have the structure destroyed.
In 2005, Ross Strange sought to have the building recognized as a Guilford County Landmark property by the Greensboro City Council. The designation triggered delays in demolition but also awarded the property owner with a 50% property tax deferral. The tax deferral, applicable to all Landmarked properties, is intended to assuage the cost of maintenance of historic properties. However, the Cascade Saloon continued to deteriorate with no visible improvements to stabilize the structure.
To complicate matters, the adjacent North Carolina Railroad claims a right-of-way that includes the Cascade Saloon. If the building is destroyed, the railroad will likely block any reconstruction on the parcel, denying Greensboro the tax revenue, the connectivity north and south of the tracks, and economic revenue that the property could contribute to the city as a rehabilitated and occupied structure. If removed (mock photo, right), the railroad would likely only allow replacement with a gravel parking lot, creating a wide rift separating the 300 and 500 blocks of Elm Street.
Today, the Cascade Saloon remains at a crossroads. Although it is privately owned, the building cannot be left to deteriorate as it has for the past 30 years. However, as a Landmark property in a neighborhood recognized as one of the best “big city” downtowns in North Carolina, the structure mustn’t be destroyed. The aesthetics, economics, and environmental sustainability of the site all indicate the building is best preserved through a careful restoration program that takes advantage of state and federal tax credits, which could compensate the total project costs by as much as 40%.
Concerned citizens are drawn to this case from a variety of perspectives, including history and architecture, the vibrancy of downtown, the movement to restore buildings for sustainability and even building our city’s tax base. You can help efforts by joining the Save Cascade Saloon Facebook page or by watching announcements from Preservation Greensboro about these efforts.