Woodside Building once the tallest in Carolinas

buildings downtown historic

"I am," John T. Woodside said in 1917, "the richest man in Greenville."

And he probably was. As president of the Woodside Cotton Mills, he and his three brothers owned the 112,000-spindle Woodside Mill in Greenville, "the largest complete cotton mill in the United States," the Fountain Inn Manufacturing Co., Simpsonville Mill, Easley Cotton Mills, the Farmers and Merchants National Bank, the Woodside National Bank, the Bank of Woodville, the Citizens Bank of Taylors, the Farmers Loan and Trust Co. and Woodside Securities.

All that cash needed a home, and Woodside wanted a downtown monument. He got one. On Dec. 24, 1919, accompanied by his brothers, he announced "Greenville's Greatest Christmas Present." Woodside Securities would construct a skyscraper on the site of an old barbershop on the east side of South Main Street midway between Washington Street and McBee Avenue. With 17 stories, it would be the tallest building in the two Carolinas.

It took three years, many consultations and $1.25 million before the Woodside Building was finished. A New York architectural firm supplied the plans; the Manhattan engineers who had worked on the Woolworth Building, then the tallest in the world, lent their advice. Somewhere along the way, architects realized that a building in Raleigh might be taller than the 180-foot structure they envisioned, so they added a rooftop garden and parapet for boasting rights. (Its final official height was 190 feet, 6 inches. Take that, Raleigh!)

Ground for the new structure was broken during the summer of 1920, and then, floor by floor, the massive steel structure rose from the ground as all Greenville gaped in astonishment.

To encourage interest and enthusiasm, in February 1921, when the steel frame had reached the 12th floor, a "Human Fly" came to town and advertised that he would make an exhibition climb straight up the front of the unfinished building. A crowd gathered to watch the spectacle. Then "Slim Jones," one of its structural ironworkers, challenged the daredevil to a race to the top.

The stunt man, already on the fourth floor, waited honorably until his challenger was even with him before starting. Then, at a signal, the two men raced toward the uppermost steel beams. Jones won easily, and to emphasize his mastery, performed stunts on the beam while waiting for his opponent.

By the summer of 1923, Greenvillians' interest was at a fever pitch. Newspapers touted the Woodside Building as "the tallest structure in any city of under 100,000 people in the world." Chamber of Commerce officials, together with their Jaycees and Women's Bureau and members of four civic clubs, announced that they would supply guides, information and refreshments for the memorable and historic dedication on June 18.

The daylong opening celebration (from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) brought out hundreds of the town's elite as well as thousands of its curious. The elite dined and danced on the rooftop after listening respectfully to Mayor H.C. Harvely and the president of the South Carolina Bankers' Association, but anyone could ride the elevators.

And that two-story lobby was a wonder -- a combination of white marble, polished French plate mirrors, Ionic columns, elaborately tiled floors, and gilt added wherever possible. An orchestra played throughout the day on the mezzanine. The Greenville Music Club performed in the lobby.

The Woodside National Bank and the Merchants and Planters Bank stood on either side of the first floor and mezzanine. Woodside Securities had an upper-floor office, as did many of the city's financial, real estate and professional firms. Because the building was an immediate landmark, nearly every office had been leased by the time of the dedication.

That landmark endured through good times and bad. It was 2 years old when the new Chamber of Commerce Building and the Poinsett Hotel (a project led and partially financed by John T. Woodside) opened. It saw the panic in October 1929, when depositors stormed the Woodside Bank to withdraw their funds, its takeover by the Peoples Bank, the collapse of the Woodsides' empire in 1930, the failure of the Peoples Bank in January 1932, and the coming of South Carolina National Bank.

It was the tallest and most prestigious building in Greenville for more than 40 years. At Christmastime in those politically incorrect days, offices on all sides of the building were illuminated at night to form lighted crosses. Youngsters craned their necks upward to see if Superman would launch himself from its extraordinary height after dental appointments in one of its professional offices. Brides-to-be had their portraits made in the Coxe Photography Studio on its 17th floor. Secretaries, shoppers and businessmen lunched at its first-floor restaurant, the Grill.

But time brought changes. After 1964, the new Daniel Building dwarfed it. The roof garden was long abandoned; hallways and offices were cramped; plumbing and wiring were problematic; the gilt faded. Newer buildings with modern facilities attracted its longtime occupants. Furthermore, Main Street was in trouble.

Businesses and retail shops were leaving downtown. Perhaps, city officials hoped, modernizing would help. Aluminum siding began to cover the facades of old commercial structures. But South Carolina National, which had purchased the building in 1951, wanted an entirely new and more convenient office complex. In December 1972, bank officials announced that the Woodside Building would be razed and replaced with a sleek new facility.

It took more than 10 months to demolish the sturdily constructed building. Workmen had so much difficulty that they had to disassemble it floor by floor. By the fall of 1973, though, its elaborate facade, its ivory, mirrors, tiles and columns had finally given way to "progress."

Today, the SCN name, long a Greenville fixture, has vanished; so has its building. Wachovia Bank, with its hidden atrium and street-front entrance, has replaced the Woodside Building's replacement. Perhaps that is progress.

But I wish that, just once, I could have danced on its roof.

Judith Bainbridge