Four Faces of Charlotte

by Country Inns & Suites
Thursday, August 19, 2010

 With a four-square foundation symbolized by four downtown statues and an abundance of art, Charlotte, the Queen City of North Carolina, also teems with spectator sports.

By Irwin Speizer

The giant gold miner, pan in hand, is likely to be the first thing that catches your eye as you approach Independence Square, the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. This is the mythic heart of the city, an ancient Native American crossroads now crowded with skyscrapers that all seem to have sprouted yesterday. The miner looms 25 feet high, a bronze sentry standing guard over the bankers and financial wizards hurrying to the next deal. He is part of a family of four sculptures by Raymond Kaskey, one on each corner, that serve as a homage to the city’s near past and its emerging future. They are also a convenient guide to Charlotte’s arts and culture.

The Statues at Independence Square are earnest and direct, like the city they represent, and to make sure there’s no mistaking their meaning, each one displays an engraved title in its base. The miner symbolizes commerce; the woman mill worker, industry. The railroad worker stands for transportation. And the mother hoisting her child to the patch of sky visible between the office towers represents the future. Follow the hints offered by these statues and you get a pretty good overview of Charlotte’s heritage.

The Art of Downtown

You don’t need to look far to find examples of the marriage of commerce and culture. It’s in the modernistic architecture that dominates uptown, and in the lobbies of those buildings, which serve as showcases of the generous support of the arts that characterizes the compact downtown business district.

Step into the lobby of the tallest building in Charlotte, the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center which dominates Independence Square, and you face a vibrant fresco by North Carolina native Ben Long, depicting a swarm of humanity hard at the task of building the future. Commissioned by the bank, the fresco consists of three panels, each 23 feet high by 18 feet wide, keeping at least a couple of visitors spellbound at any given moment. Just down Tryon Street is another Long fresco, commissioned by the bank for the arcade dome of the Transamerica Square building.

Another modern office building worth a visit is the Carillon Building, about two blocks east on Trade Street. The local offices of the U.S. Attorney are in this building, but you’d never guess it from the avant-garde art in the lobby. The centerpiece, titled Cascade, is a 40-foot-high Rube Goldberg–inspired mobile of rusted gears, wheels, animal skulls and other odd relics combined by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely into a perpetually churning piece of mechanical art that anchors a permanent collection.

Two uptown museums that provide a kind of cultural counterpoint are the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Both are within a stone’s throw of each other, making a day of art and culture rather convenient.

Riding the Rails, Panning for Gold

The sculpted railroad worker recalls Charlotte’s long history as a transportation and commercial crossroads, which picked up speed with the coming of the railroads. At one time, the city also boasted a streetcar system. The Charlotte Trolley is no longer the transportation staple it used to be, but you can certainly ride Car #85 on part of the Norfolk Southern railroad between Tremont Avenue in Historic South End and uptown’s 9th Street if you so choose. The only difference now is that the Charlotte Trolley shares the tracks with The Lynx Blue Line, Charlotte’s light-rail service and the only light-rail service in the state.

The Charlotte Trolley’s Powerhouse Museum, where you can take a self-guided tour, is situated in Historic South End. This area of old red-brick cotton mills that, although renovated into shops, restaurants, offices and apartments, still contrasts with the sleek modernism of uptown. South End was once the industrial heart of Charlotte, the place where the mill worker depicted by one of the Statues at Independence Square might have spent her days toiling over spinning machines. Back in uptown, Levine Museum of the New South explores the heritage and culture of Charlotte and the South since the Civil War, with permanent and changing exhibits that invite visitors to find out more about such things as the textile industry, race relations and cotton.

As for that gold miner, his vocation is probably closest to Charlotte’s distinction today as a banking and finance center. Charlotte grew up as a gold-mining town, complete with its own branch of the U.S. Mint in the 1800s. That building is today Mint Museum Randolph. Mint Museum Uptown is slated to open later this year.

To find out where the old Charlotte Mint got its gold, head to the Reed Gold Mine, about a 30-minute drive east of Charlotte, where farmer John Reed touched off the nation’s first gold rush when his son found a 17-pound gold rock on his property in 1799. The mine offers tours and lets you test your luck at finding your own gold—and perhaps feel your own “gold rush”—by sloshing sandy water around in a pan just like that miner at Independence Square.

Serious About Sports

The one item missing from the sculpted group is a statue for Charlotte’s love of big-time spectator sports. Charlotte is the acknowledged capital of NASCAR, and no trip here is complete without a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a half-hour drive northeast in Concord and Uptown’s NASCAR Hall of Fame ( Major races draw crowds in excess of 100,000, but during off weeks you can take a tour of the track, which puts you in a van for a lap around the track. Many NASCAR race teams in the area are open to visitors, such as Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville and Hendrick Motorsports in Harrisburg.

Charlotte’s other spectator sports include the Charlotte Bobcats NBA franchise and the Carolina Panthers NFL team. The city is also home to a pair of minor-league professional teams, the Charlotte Checkers of the East Coast Hockey League and the Charlotte Knights Triple-A baseball team. The Knights play in a stadium about a half-hour drive south, in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

More than 200 years ago, George Washington went through Charlotte and dubbed it a “trifling place.” These days, Washington wouldn’t have slept here—there’s just too much going on in Charlotte.

Writer Irwin Speizer covers the topics of business, politics and culture.