Saving the saloon

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by Marsh Prause

The Cascade Saloon stands alone, perched in a prominent location between rail lines that set it off from other nearby buildings, a prime position on the edge of Hamburger Square in downtown Greensboro.

Built in 1896, the three-story brick building is directly across the tracks from the former Southern Railway Depot, the focal point of commerce in Greensboro as the 19th Century drew to a close. Topped with elaborate cornices, featuring distinctive demilune windows and striped awnings, the saloon witnessed two world wars and the growth of Greensboro from a population of less than 10,000 to the city as we know today.

Although it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and city council declared it to be a local historic landmark in 2006, the saloon’s impressive historic pedigree stands in sharp contrast to its sorry present-day condition. Stripped of many of its distinctive architectural details, and with its windows boarded up, it is a poster child for deferred maintenance. The building’s 16-inch exterior masonry walls (and a similarly stout interior wall dividing the building into two halves) stand intact, but the interior wood floors have collapsed, and the roof leaks. Action is needed to shore up the masonry walls and stop the leakage if the building is to be stabilized for reuse before it deteriorates past the point of no return.

With the anticlimactic expiration of a 30-day appeal period in late March, the city of Greensboro became the saloon’s official new owner, having acquired the long-vacant property through eminent domain for a fair market value price of $0. The building’s previous owners, Ross and Ann Strange, had owned it since 1974, when Mr. Strange moved printing operations for the Greensboro Times, his local newspaper specializing in legal notices, into the building. The Times stopped operating in the saloon in the mid ’80s, and the Stranges had thereafter used it for storage purposes. The conclusion this year of the building’s four-decade Strange era represents progress, but it is merely the beginning of the end for the saga of the saloon, with the city now poised to chart a course forward that will inevitably culminate in one of two very different outcomes: demolition and a pile of debris, or a new beginning for one of the oldest commercial buildings still standing in Greensboro.

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For about 10 years now I have collaborated with a handful of colleagues from various disciplines including architecture, engineering, real-estate development, law and construction to draw attention to the saloon’s plight and assess alternatives to resolve it. In discussing the saloon over that period with dozens of people, I have encountered widely varying reactions. For some, it is a boarded-up enigma that serves only to marginally distract from the bustle of the otherwise thriving Hamburger Square. But others wonder why the saloon has been excluded from the action all around it and see reasons beyond its architectural distinctiveness and historic significance for saving it — reasons such as economic development and downtown vitality.

On one level, the Cascade Saloon carries potential as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity that helps define Greensboro. We have a very limited, finite supply of 120-year old commercial buildings in the city, and these historic structures on South Elm Street are where many endeavors that contribute to keeping Greensboro cool tend to happen — Triad Stage, Natty Greene’s, Elsewhere and Cheesecakes by Alex, to name a few. These are the kind of establishments that not only enhance quality of life in Greensboro, but that also bring favorable media attention to Greensboro’s unique offerings and export our name regionally. And these are not the kinds of local enterprises that are likely to start out in the modern high-rises of North Elm Street or shopping centers on the suburban fringe. Indeed, one quality that sets Greensboro apart is its mix of an “old downtown” and a “new downtown” — the new downtown on the northern end is important, as modern buildings and amenities there serve to facilitate certain kinds of commerce, but the old downtown and its historic architecture at the southern end are critical to other kinds of commerce. It helps to distinguish Greensboro from other cities with which we are in competition.

It is unsettling to imagine, for example, what Hamburger Square might be like today without Natty Greene’s iconic presence as the indoor-outdoor, local-tourist, day-night anchor that it is. But Natty’s might not have happened for South Elm Street if the historic JW Jones Building that houses it had not been saved through a historic rehabilitation project after it was badly damaged by two fires in one night. Had Natty Greene’s not located there, we would not even be in a position to know what Greensboro had missed out on — but because the Jones Building was saved, we experienced the vitality Natty’s went on to impart for the next decade to one of our city’s main outdoor plazas. Exhibit A: The live Daughtry concert in 2007 that was memorialized in a heavily-played MTV video featuring tens of thousands of people squeezed into Hamburger Square.

The Jones Building is very similar to the nearby Cascade Saloon in many respects, including its age, architecture and size. For all we know, Cascade Saloon could beckon to the next Kayne Fisher and Chris Lester, who founded Natty Greene’s. The next great entrepreneur may be attending one of Greensboro’s seven colleges now, destined to launch an entrepreneurial business with a major impact on Greensboro, but needing the right location in a historic brick building on South Elm Street to help pull it off.

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There are also those who focus on the need to save the saloon due the strategic importance of its location. The saloon is uniquely situated to help bridge the psychological and physical barriers the railroad tracks create between the street’s 300 and 500 blocks. Because it is, unlike most other buildings around it, set off from other buildings on all sides, the saloon’s three stories enjoy a high level of visual prominence, which will only be magnified once it is restored and re-enlivened. But the saloon is more than where the 300 and 500 blocks of South Elm Street meet — it also is where the railroad that made us the “Gate City” runs through town, and where east Greensboro meets our main street via Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Indeed, coming into downtown out of Southside on MLK, the Cascade is front and center, in a position to offer either a very positive or very negative first impression of our main strip to visitors.

The history of the Cascade in that position carries a message of diversity in commerce and tolerance to the extent it harbored an African-American business, operated by Wiley and Ida Weaver, during the early 1900s when Jim Crow laws were pushing other black-owned businesses away from Greensboro’s main commercial street. The Weaver’s café in the Cascade was an example of inclusiveness during a time of widespread discrimination.

Some people observe that the saloon is in a position to help solve the “linearity lament” — that downtown Greensboro needs to grow beyond the strip of concentrated commerce that South Elm Street creates. One of the best current prospects for such non-linear development is along Barnhardt Street, which heads west from South Elm following one of the saloon’s side walls.  The saloon’s location at the intersection of Barnhardt and South Elm positions it to function as a fulcrum, pivoting pedestrians around the corner and down Barnhardt to a pocket of activity now being branded as the Railyard, including the Worx, the coming Cantina and the large parking area and event space the city developed just last year. A restored Cascade Saloon might even have both front and side doors, such that foot traffic could enter on South Elm and exit on Barnhardt and vice-versa; it has been suggested that a general-store type of business would be a great fit that could generate substantial foot traffic while also leveraging the numerous parking spaces recently built nearby.

And because of its close proximity to the railroad tracks, it is almost certain that a new building could never be built where the Cascade now stands. If the Cascade is demolished, the result is almost certain to be a perpetual patch of gravel along the tracks, never to contribute to the vitality of downtown or to the city’s tax base. An analysis conducted by Preservation Greensboro in 2013 estimated that a restored Cascade Saloon would generate almost $200,000 in additional local property taxes over a 30-year period.

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Many of those who believe the saloon should be demolished focus on the costs of saving it.  But supporters of the saloon point out that focus only addresses one-half of the equation. The other half of the equation is what the cost to our community would be of not saving the Cascade Saloon, and over the last 10 years, awareness of that second part of the equation has been growing, despite the difficulty of quantifying some of the costs of not saving the saloon — costs such as the lost potential for a signature entrepreneurial business to call it home, the damage to continuity along South Elm, and the hit the city’s reputation would take for demolishing a historic landmark that it owns.

Putting aside those intangible costs, even the relatively tangible costs are subject to some uncertainty. In 2013, Preservation Greensboro obtained a construction cost estimate of about $500,000 from a well known general contractor to stabilize the saloon — this was after city staff obtained a $2 million estimate covering stabilization and some additional work. Based on discussions with demolition contractors, factoring for complications associated with salvage requirements, and with proximity to the railroad and Elm Street, Preservation Greensboro estimated the cost to demolish the saloon could run in the area of $150,000 to $200,000. Advocates of saving the saloon point out that these estimates collectively suggest that the cost of basic stabilization may not be much greater than the cost of demolition, plus the foregone property taxes the saloon could generate over the next 30 years. Once the intangible costs of demolition are factored, the case for stabilization becomes even more compelling. Going beyond stabilization, commercial demand appears to exist for retail space in Hamburger Square at lease rates such that it would be economically feasible for a private party to pay the city.

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Interestingly, many of those who are inclined to save the Cascade tend to be younger residents who are drawn to places they perceive as unique, and who are concerned about sustainability and implementation of green practices. They point out that the stock of historic buildings on South Elm Street gives Greensboro a level of character, soul and diversity that many of our peer cities are lacking and cannot duplicate. They realize that adaptive reuse of historic buildings in a city’s urban core represents and advanced form of sustainability in action.

On June 4, 2013, on the day city council was set to vote on moving to acquire ownership of the saloon, a group of young preservation and sustainability advocates called Greenhorns “heart-bombed” the saloon, affixing a number of colorful paper signs in the shape of hearts to the front of the building bearing handwritten statements such as “History Happened Here,” “I Love Greensboro,” “This Place Matters,” “Take a Stand and Help Me Keep Standing,” “I Have Life Left in Me” and “The Greenest Building is One that is Already Built.”

Greensboro and its peer cities all are capable of arranging to have new buildings constructed in their central business districts, but few have the opportunity to rehabilitate a 120-year old landmark with the potential to enhance local character and sense of place the way Cascade could.

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There is a final level on which saving the saloon matters — to show that the city is capable of achieving a positive outcome after more than a decade of frustration in dealing with the saloon’s owner and railroad interests.

The railroads are the reason the saloon stands where it does, and trains passing through regularly add to the atmosphere in Hamburger Square today. But the position of the North Carolina Railroad with respect to its right-of-way corridor has cast a long shadow over historic redevelopment efforts in Greensboro and other cities in North Carolina, and the saloon is no exception. Railroad interests openly opposed the 2006 designation of the saloon as a local historic landmark, and are reported to reserve the authority to demolish other nearby historic buildings such as the Galyon Depot, the Worx restaurant and the former Southern Railway Depot across the tracks from the Cascade on an as-needed basis.

Like the Cascade Saloon, the Southern Railway Depot, owned today by Norfolk Southern Corporation, was once an iconic building, but has been stripped of much of its original architectural flair, including its conical turret roof and large arched windows.

More so than railroad interests, however, the city’s primary nemesis with respect to the saloon has been the property’s now-former owners, Ross and Ann Strange of Burlington, who fought with the city for years over maintaining the building.

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The 13-year legal stalemate that largely defines the most recent chapter of the saloon’s history and that isolated the saloon from the commercial success of the rest of Hamburger Square began on Aug. 14, 2001. On that day almost 13 years ago, a city building inspector issued a Complaint and Notice of Hearing to the Stranges alleging that the saloon constituted a safety hazard due to decayed exterior and interior building elements. Based on the alleged failure of the Stranges to address the hazardous conditions described in the complaint, the city in May 2002 initiated a quasi-judicial proceeding concerning the saloon’s conditions before the Greensboro Minimum Housing Standards Commission. At the conclusion of a hearing in June 2002, that Commission issued a demolition ordinance calling for the Stranges to repair or demolish the saloon by September 2002, and directing the building inspector to proceed immediately with demolition if the Stranges did not meet the deadline.

This was the first of two demolition ordinances the saloon has survived.

Shortly thereafter, the Stranges brought an action in Guilford County Superior Court, arguing that they had made the required repairs, and that the city was not within its rights to tear it down.

Following a hearing, Superior Court Judge RG Walker signed an order in October 2004 on the commission to conduct further proceedings to address the saloon’s condition. The commission then issued a second demolition ordinance for the saloon in January 2005, calling for the Stranges to repair or demolish the saloon by April 2005, and directing the building inspector to proceed immediately with demolition if the Stranges did not meet the deadline. The Stranges eventually appealed that ruling to the NC Court of Appeals.

In March 2006, the Stranges and the city entered into a mediated settlement agreement to resolve the appeal. Under the terms of that settlement, the demolition order was to be stayed until August 2007, and dissolved upon sale of the saloon to a third party who would repair it. Based on the settlement, the appeal was dismissed in May 2006, but the Stranges never agreed to a sale of the property to a responsible buyer or met other conditions of the agreement. In September 2007, the Stranges executed a deed purporting to convey the saloon to their son in what the city contends was a sham transaction.

In August 2009, the city filed a motion in Guilford County Superior Court seeking to enforce the mediated settlement agreement and to allow demolition to proceed. In December of that year, Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III ruled that the city could proceed to enforce the 2005 demolition order.  In January 2010, the Stranges appealed again, but in September 2011, Superior Court Judge Todd Burke issued an order dismissing the Strange’s appeal based on their failure to take any action to pursue it.

Following discussions with Downtown Greensboro Inc. and Preservation Greensboro, the Greensboro City Council voted on June 4, 2013 to move to acquire the saloon through eminent domain in the interest of preserving a historic landmark. A judgment in favor of the city entered on Feb. 28, 2014 declared the city to be the owner of the saloon, finding that $0 constituted just compensation to be paid to the Stranges for the saloon given its condition.

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The saloon’s present predicament represents a confluence of themes of preservation, economic development and capital. It also reflects that Greensboro has been poorly equipped to deal with non-residential building maintenance issues. Hamburger Square is the closest thing Greensboro has to an iconic public space on the city’s main street, and yet we have been unable for almost 15 years to find a way to definitively address what many see as blight.

There is no debate that the Cascade Saloon is a landmark, part of Greensboro’s historic fabric, but saving the saloon transcends the history of the building itself to touch more expansively on Greensboro’s present and its future. It is about vision for what South Elm Street could be like in 20 years and about Greensboro demonstrating now that it can take charge of its own destiny by successfully tackling small-scale challenges that carry outsized importance. After 13 years of litigation and a perception that it was frozen in its tracks by railroad interests and recalcitrant owners, the city has earned itself the privilege, as the saloon’s new owner, of determining what to do with it. Ownership gives the city options it lacked in a regulatory capacity because the city’s ordinances clearly allowed it to seek to compel the Stranges to demolish the building, but did not clearly give the city authority to compel the Stranges to stabilize, much less restore, the building.

Has the city really come this far only to demolish the saloon? Public opinion seems to be growing that it would be shortsighted to spend up to $200,000 to demolish a historic landmark, sending tons of debris to a landfill, and to forfeit another $200,000 or so in local property taxes over the next 30 years. Instead the city could invest a slightly larger amount in a green project to renew an asset that will return money to the city when the stabilized building is sold back into the private sector, and that will pay ongoing dividends for the entire community by generating commerce, connectivity and vitality for South Elm Street in a way that no other similarly priced project could. Under the alternative demolition scenario, every city dollar spent on demolition would be a dollar invested in what is likely to be a vacant gravel lot — a missing link in South Elm Street’s success that will undermine the vitality of a prime public space for perpetuity.

The Cascade Saloon has clearly come to a crossroads, after almost 15 years of unproductive legal limbo and hand wringing. But the city of Greensboro is also at a crossroads, and decisions we make in the near future with respect to the saloon’s fate will speak volumes about the direction in which we are headed.

It is crunch time for the Cascade Saloon, and the stakes are high.

  • David Craft

    Good summation. We do have Daniel Craft and John Lomax to thank for the saving of the Jones building. They are still majority owners of it today.

  • eric robert

    Interesting how Preservation Greensboro cares so much about some structures when it refuses to support to other historically significant buildings…

    Where is the outrage about the Dixie building? Where is the support/consultancy for the 102 year old Flour Mill (which I own)…

    It seems that preservation Greensboro is extremely selective in its support.

    A returned phone call would have been nice Mr executive director!

    • My sentiments exactly. I was on that Commission which voted to demolish the building, although on the last vote Ross Strange’s attorney had me recused because of my outrage towards Strange for having let the building deteriorate beyond hope. What is missing in this piece is the imminent danger posed by the structure’s present condition and its close proximity to the railroad tracks (10 feet). I happen to live a mere 200 feet from that location which is quite disconcerting.

  • Read the article? Don’t forget to vote in our Barometer about what should happen with the saloon: https://triad-city-beat.com/barometer-what-should-happen-to-the-cascade-saloon/

  • Lorrie Price

    What tenants do you think would be attracted to this building? There are currently many store fronts sitting empty on South Elm, and many of those for close to a decade or more. This building has sadly seen it’s day, it’s past helping. It’s a shame nothing was done to save it many years ago. It’s not just the wood on the inside that is gone, there are roof tiles that fly off and bricks that fall off, and that is a danger. It’s an eye sore and stops people from crossing the tracks to see the treasures that await on the other side. Galleries, restaurants, businesses. All in beautiful historic buildings. Why spend millions shoring up and refurbishing the Cascade when there is no way to know if it would even be rented out. And what are you saving anyway? Just the facade. So shore it up and turn it into a park or sculpture garden… something that will bring people across the tracks. Use our tax payer dollars to help the businesses that are already in the SouthEnd. You paint a much rosier picture in your article than actuality.