A walk up Main Street is a tour through history

buildings downtown historic

HEIDI HEILBRUNN/Staff

Built in 1882, Huguenot Mill is our oldest extant textile mill and was the first electrified business in the city.


You've attended its festivals. You've lunched, wined, and dined at its shaded sidewalk tables. You have window-shopped its boutiques, browsed at Bentley's, sampled ice cream at the Creamery, listened to jazz at the Hyatt.

You know Main Street. But you haven't really seen it until you have strolled it with history in mind.

Do it before it's too late. Rapid development is bringing joy to city government and merchants, but changing, nevertheless, the face of downtown and beginning to obliterate the last vestiges of past times.

Start at the Reedy River.

Main Street began when Buncombe Road, "the wagon road out of the Western mountains," was laid out at the end of the 18th century. It brought settlers to Greenville and allowed cattle, swine, and turkeys on their way to Augusta to cross the Reedy at its shallowest point -- the ford at Main Street. The graceful 1913 Gower Bridge is the fourth one to span the river here.

As you stroll north to Broad Street, notice the slanting roof of the 1857 Greenville Coach Factory, our oldest extant industrial building, now beautifully refurbished, tucked in behind the Peace Center's Gunter Theatre. Rene's Steakhouse occupies what was once a dirt-floored blacksmith shop on its lowest level. The restored retail buildings close to the river reflect intense short-lived real estate speculation between 1913 and 1916.

At Broad Street, look left (or west, if your mind includes an unerring compass) at the Huguenot Mill, now a stunning office complex. Built in 1882, it is our oldest extant textile mill and was the first electrified business in the city. Workers needed the lights to weave the colored threads for plaid cloth.

Walk a half block north, and find a place to sit and enjoy the old heart of the city. Carefully averting your eyes from City Hall, notice the historic buildings that cluster around Court Square. Unlike most county seats, Greenville does not have the usual courthouse green decorated with Civil War memorabilia.

We have, instead, a 200-year-old configuration -- the outline of the square that once was. Notice the outline: the right-angle indentations at the Poinsett Hotel, Carpenter Brothers Drugstore (now Bellacino's), Soby's patio, and the Greenville Symphony Building. Greenville's first county courthouse once sat in the middle of Main Street; it vanished with the construction of Robert Mills' Record Building in 1823, but its former shape remains intact.

Soby's and Bellacino's were built about 1884; the first as a bicycle shop, the latter for a furniture and casket store. The symphony's headquarters, constructed about 1940, is a nice example of modified Art Deco architecture, while the Westin Poinsett, completed in 1925 and totally renovated eight years ago, is Greenville's grand hotel. It replaced the 1823 Mansion House, the town's first elite hostelry. (John C. Calhoun engaged a second floor room whenever he visited the village.)

Our 1916 courthouse stands between the symphony building and the Poinsett. Interesting for its elaborate Beaux Arts neo-classical architecture, it is memorable as the scene of the 1947 Willie Earle trial, the last lynching trial in South Carolina. As the only Greenville building listed on the National Register as having statewide significance, the former Family Court Building, now the home of Design Strategies, an architectural and planning group, brilliantly combines historical accuracy with contemporary design.

Rest for a minute next to the statue of Joel Poinsett poised to write, or his good friend, Vardry McBee, who sits across the street, hat in hand. The third member of the Unionist triumvirate who tried to keep South Carolina out of Civil War, Benjamin Perry, once lived where Soby's patio beckons.

After paying your respects to our city's early leaders, amble past the pleasant condominium courtyard next to Trattorio Giorgio. Its building was erected at the same time as Bellacino's, but the latter was facaded in "modern" brick in the 1920s, and Giorgio's was (unhistorically but attractively) stuccoed in the early 1990s. East of the courtyard, you can glimpse the renovated 1903 Seidenburg Cigar Factory.

As you continue up to McBee Avenue, you can't miss the former Kimbrell's Furniture Store. Built in Art Deco style in 1940, burned in 1942 and rebuilt soon afterward, it was once one of three furniture stores on the block. Kimbrell's now stands isolated, awaiting a legal decision about its future.

Across the street, at the McBee Avenue corner, Carolina First occupies the site of Greenville's first bank. That building vanished long ago, but the bank's Art Deco front entrance has been a part of the city's history since 1937.

The much renovated Cagle Building stands at the northwest corner of McBee and Main. First built about 1880 as the town's Opera House, it was burned down just months after opening; by 1882, it had been rebuilt, although another fire later destroyed its former third floor.

Continue a few yards and admire the elaborate facades of the 1880s Effird's Department Store and the Greenville Furniture Store, soon to be converted into luxury condominiums. The two blocks between McBee and Coffee Streets were Greenville's prime shopping center for 70 years, but there's been so much "modernization," highly imaginative renovation, and new construction that historic rooflines have almost vanished.

At Coffee Street, though, there's a gem: the 1905 Cauble Building houses Ristorante Bergamo and Coffee Underground. In the 1980s, Courtney Shives unwrapped the ugly aqua aluminum siding that had long covered it, revealing the facade of the former Bank of Commerce and the first home of the Greenville Library. In doing so, he helped spark downtown preservation.

In the next two blocks, there are a number of small stores with architectural details from the boom years of the early 1920s, when retailing moved northward.

You've reached the head of Main Street. To your west is College Street, once the road to the Greenville Female College (1854-1961); to the right, Beattie Place, laid out in the 1950s, when the 1835 Beattie House, the Greenville Woman's Club, was moved there to make way for Memorial Auditorium. The Prevost Building on the southwest corner, for many years the home of Sedran Furs, is distinctive, with few changes since 1940.

Downtown's modern history is reflected in the Daniel Building (1964) and the Hyatt (1982). Hardly historic, perhaps, but they are significant because each was built to trigger downtown revitalization. Old facades have the patina of age and reflect the past; these buildings and Main Street's other new construction predict the growth and change of the future.

Judith Bainbridge