Berryhill House

Berryhill House

Italianate style features low-pitched, projecting roofs, square towers, tall, slender windows and undulating modillion brackets. The Berryhill House in Fourth Ward owes its existence to the need for a bellows factory in Charlotte.

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In 1879, Charlotte was a small town with telegraph poles lining the dirt streets, which were filled with horses and buggies. Back in those days, blacksmiths were an essential part of the economy, shoeing horses and turning out metal parts for wagons. And blacksmiths needed bellows for their forges.

That year, brothers John and George Newcomb and their families left White Plains, N.Y., to establish a bellows factory in Charlotte to supply forges. George and his wife, Annie Augusta, had two small children, George, born in 1869, and Gussie, born in 1871.

The Newcombs did well, with the family's income increased by the millinary store Gussie and and her sister-in-law, Susie, bought in 1881 at 24 West Trade Street.

In both their business and personal lives, the Newcomb families were closely intertwined. While John and George operated the bellows factory, later turning it into a planing mill for the construction business, their wives sold fancy bonnets to the well-to-do women of Charlotte.

They did so well that on February 16, 1884, Gussie and Susie—two very enterprising women—purchased the two vacant lots at North Pine and West Ninth streets in Fourth Ward for $1,400, quite a lot of money in those days. The lots were in a convenient location, halfway between the millinary shop and their husbands' factory.

A few months later, the two families went in together to borrow $3,600 to build twin houses in the latest style. John and Gussie claimed the prime corner lot, but for several years they all owned the land in common.

Thanks to the Newcomb brothers' factory, which conveniently produced millwork for the two houses, the families moved in later that same year, 1884.

The Italian Influence

The Italian villa style, featuring a box-like building with a flat roof and overhang, had found its way into American architecture by the early 1840s, popularized in America by Andrew Jackson Downing. His numerous pattern books were used by designers and architects to introduce versions of Gothic Revival in this country.

Early versions of the Italianate house were simple square or rectangular boxes with little decorative detailing other than window crowns. In the 1850-1880 period, designers created a more elaborate, High Victorian Italianate style, like the Berryhill/Newcomb house. Typically the style is interpreted with low-pitched, projecting roofs, square towers, tall, slender windows and undulating modillion brackets.

By the time the Newcombs built their house, innovations in factory machinery made it possible for middle-class people to add fancier touches.

And that's just what the Newcombs did, using fretwork patterns from the handbook of Charles Eastlake to create elaborate brackets for the head of the columns on their houses.

"It was easy for the Newcombs—well, not easy, but easier than it would have been for other people—to build this type of column, because they had a planing mill nearby where they could produce this sort of thing easily and quickly," said Charlotte architect Jack Boyte. "It was made possible The great use of milled work on the Berryhill House, Charlotte, NC by the advent of new technology. It was not all hand-done, as it had been previously."

The house is an example of what the invention of recently-designed steam-powered machinery did for architecture, Boyte said. "The Victorian period benefits from that. One of the features is the elaborate scrollwork, the great use of milled work on the Berryhill House."

Besides elaborate fretwork, High Victorian Italianate houses typically feature entranceways with glass panels and transoms, and porches that span the front of the houses.

Growth Spurt

The Newcombs were making their mark in Charlotte just as the city was poised on the brink of an astonishing growth spurt. From 1886 to 1892, Charlotte added three new cotton mills, an electric streetcar network, and a water and sewer system. James Latta developed Dilworth, the city's first suburban neighborhood. Charlotte saw a new city hall and post office building go up, as well as a hospital for African Americans, known as the Good Samaritan, believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

There was also a professional baseball team, a Lutheran Seminary for Women, known as Elizabeth College, and the city's first YMCA building. The school system, which began with schools in each of the four wards, had advanced to the point of hiring the city's first modern superintendent of schools. During this time, The Charlotte News began its afternoon publication to compete with the short-lived Charlotte Chronicle (1886-1892).

The Newcomb families continued to thrive and paid off the mortgage on their homes in less than five years, on August 20, 1889. John Newcomb was active in the community. The family attended St. Peter's Episcopal Church and possibly took part in the parish's project to build the Good Samaritan Hospital. John was also active in the Masons and another benevolent society of that era, known as the Royal Arcanium.

The Newcomb Fortunes Change

Two years later, in 1891, things turned sour for the Newcombs. Perhaps they had lived beyond their means, or the economy had cooled and the building industry suffered. Or possibly George simply wanted to seek a new way of life elsewhere. Quite likely, John's health was declining. But whatever happened, the brothers sold their manufacturing business and severed their common ownership of the two lots.

Soon after that, George and Susie sold their house and lot and moved to Richmond.

John Newcomb decided to return to the bellows manufacturing trade and built a factory behind their home on the corner lot. But the very next year he died, at the age of 47. His wife, Annie Augusta, remained in the house by herself. She continued to operate the millinary shop until her health grew frail, and she gave up the business in 1898.

Soon after her father's death, Gussie married Earnest Wiley Berryhill, and in 1894, they had their only child, J. Newcomb Berryhill. In 1898, Earnest purchased the little grocery store at 401 West Ninth Street and moved his family into the house with his mother-in-law. That's when the Berryhill name became associated with the house.

Meanwhile, Annie Augusta's son was also going through difficult times. He and his wife lost an infant child at birth. In 1905, his wife died at the age of 34. The next year, George lost of one his three sons who was 9 years old.

Seeking Shelter at the Family Home

George, unable to cope with so many losses, moved back into the Berryhill house to live with his mother and his sister's family. The large, comfortable house sheltered other family members as well; Annie Augusta's sister, Mary, had come to Charlotte with her husband, Henry Landridge, to move in with Annie Augusta. Thanks largely to Earnest, they had found a safe haven.

Earnest was much respected in the neighborhood. People would see him out in his horse and wagon, delivering groceries to people in need. His son, Newcomb, worked side-by-side with his father at the store, helping him deliver groceries to their customers.

Earnest died on February 9, 1931, followed just two years later by his mother-in-law. Annie Augusta Newcomb, who died on her 83rd birthday, lived in the family home for 45 years. With her sister Mary's death in 1934, Gussie Newcomb Berryhill was left to live alone in the house on the corner of North Poplar and West Ninth streets.

The Berryhill House, which provided a home for so many people, had six years of grace left. When Gussie suffered a stroke in 1940, her son placed her in a nursing home and turned the house into a four-unit apartment house.

Newcomb Berryhill spent most of his time managing the apartments in the old family home. He sold the grocery business, but kept the building and lived in the house behind the store. His mother died 16 years after a stroke, at age 84. The grocery store closed the same year, in 1956.

Decline of Fourth Ward

By the late 1940s, Fourth Ward was well into its downward slide, and the Berryhill House almost went down with it. The neighborhood attracted vagrants, drug peddlers and prostitutes. Few people ventured there in the daytime, let alone at night, unless they had unsavory business to conduct. In fact, a house across the street from the Berryhill House had a wrought-iron fence around it, with a gate and call box so customers could identify themselves.

By the mid-1970s, the once beloved Berryhill House had a tax value of only $720. The lot it sat on was worth far more, appraised for tax purposes at $12,770. The house next to it had been torn down, and in all likelihood, the Berryhill House was fated for demolition.

"When I first came back to Charlotte in 1951, Fourth Ward was a slum," said architect Jack Boyte. "The affluent people who had lived there had died or moved away. They left the houses empty, or with tenants who didn't keep them up."

Just as things looked hopeless for the Berryhill House, the Junior League of Charlotte stepped in. The members ventured where few others would, to save the house and ultimately, Fourth Ward. They bought the house and property from Newcomb and Lenora Berryhill on October. 28, 1975. Four months later, they had set up the nonprofit Berryhill Preservation Co. to protect the house until it was fully renovated and sold, with a historic designation.

"The Junior League did extraordinary research," said Boyte, who wrote the report for the house's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Berryhill House, by itself, wouldn't be that important. But it is one of the few remaining structures to tell us what life in these homes was like during the late 19th century in Charlotte. "This building is significant locally," Boyte said in his written description, "because it is very nearly alone in illustrating the widespread Eclectic Victorian residential design in Charlotte."

And, because of the efforts of the Junior League, the restoration of the Berryhill House sparked the turning point for all of Fourth Ward, which has become once again a highly desirable neighborhood.

"Fourth Ward is one of the most impressive examples of Victorian-era restoration, if not in North Carolina, then in the Southern Piedmont," Boyte said.

Brackets at top of columns

The highly elaborate exterior ornamentation seen in the column brackets was produced at the Newcomb Brothers planing mill, with the aid of the newly invented machine-powered band saw and the patterns from architect Charles Eastlake. These are commonly known as "Eastlake Columns." "The house is an example of what the invention of steam-powered machinery did for architecture.... One of the features is the elaborate scrollwork, the great use of milled work on the Berryhill House." - Jack Boyte.

Charlotte's Historic Homes

Acknowledgements:

# Survey & Research Reports, "The Charlotte Observer, Its Time and Place, 1869-1986," By Jack Claiborne; interviews with Jack Boyte.
# http://www.cmhpf.org

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