Salisbury’s The Place
For centuries, Salisbury was known as the place to be. Established in 1753 the city was an economic and cultural powerhouse for much of its history. Sustained originally by the region’s ancient forests, fertile soil, and abundant wildlife, Salisbury would later discover opportunity in the grit and steam of the railroad, which carried local products to America’s far-flung markets. Salisbury’s many mills and factories processed tobacco, cotton, metal, and wool, and its machine shops manufactured state-of-the-art locomotive, farm, and industrial equipment to keep the whole operation running and to support regional commerce.
In the decades following the Civil War - during occupation by the Union Army - the population boomed. Between 1870 and 1920, much of the city’s characteristic historic fabric was completed.
Major infrastructure improvements, from modern water and electricity to paved roads and streetcars, made Salisbury a fashionable and progressive destination for North Carolina’s growing population. New streets and neighborhoods were carved from the farmland, incorporating the trendiest architectural styles of the moment. Schools, hospitals, and churches dotted the skyline, and a vibrant civil society emerged which helped improve the quality of life. These and similar successes would continue well into the 20th century.
But like many smaller American cities, Salisbury did not share equally in America’s prosperity following the Second World War. Nationally, the rise of the automobile and a change in attitudes toward space and privacy motivated many households and businesses to flee the city for suburbia. Downtowns everywhere - once recognized as epicenters of American life - took on new and negative associations. As development patterns changed to favor a different way of life, new investment in these stigmatized urban places dwindled.
In Salisbury, as elsewhere, much was lost as a result. Landmark historic buildings, such as the venerable Ford and Vanderford Hotels, were obliterated for new parking, and countless other historic and cultural resources were lost or fell into disrepair. Such dispossession might well have continued for decades were it not for a series of watershed events that occurred in the 1970s, a decade when Salisbury and its leaders would elect to forge a different path forward.
Our History, Our Future: Salisbury Becomes a Leader in Historic Preservation
Built in 1892 at the corner of Innes and Fulton streets, Salisbury’s First Presbyterian Church was an architecturally distinctive and well-known city landmark. Constructed in the handsome Richardsonian Romanesque style, the brick and stone church was beloved by many in the community. Unfortunately, the 1970s was a time when the value of protecting historic buildings was only just beginning to dawn in the nation’s consciousness. Vast urban renewal projects were still annihilating entire neighborhoods from coast-to-coast, and a cult of modernity remained rampant. The church was thus demolished in 1971, leaving only the bell tower remaining.
As chance would have it, the razing of the church coincided with the American Revolution Bicentennial, a period of patriotic celebrations and historical observations across the country.
A torrid public outcry against the demolition followed, and a new kind of movement was born in Salisbury. Following a coordinated advocacy campaign, the Salisbury Historic District was designated in 1975 on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. That same year, City Council moved quickly to establish the West Square neighborhood (where the church was situated) as a Local Historic District, adding robust historic protections and stepping up a preservation awareness initiative. Salisbury is thus distinguished as one of the earliest cities in North Carolina to designate a local historic district.
Since 1975, Salisbury has become a recognized state leader in historic preservation. Salisbury’s progressive leadership put the city at the cutting edge of the historic preservation movement and served as a model for advocates statewide. Since 1975, all of downtown and most of the city’s inner-ring historic neighborhoods have been designated as historic districts, and efforts are underway to protect even more of the city’s historic resources. In total, Salisbury has five (5) Local Historic Districts and ten (10) National Register Historic Districts - an impressive number for a city its size. Most of the city’s historic core is now protected from inappropriate alterations or demolitions, and a culture of preservation is now deeply rooted in the community.
Most recently, City Council approved the designation of the Empire Hotel as a Local Historic Landmark, a new program adopted by City Council in 2017. The city is working closely with the building's developers to transform this highly-visible Beaux-Arts and Art Deco landmark into a major new residential and commercial destination.
The Empire Hotel project reflects the city's long-standing conviction that historic preservation and economic growth go hand-in-hand. When cities reinvest in their historic urban fabric, old buildings become new places and our rootedness in space and time grows stronger.
Like a Phoenix: Downtown on the Rise
The City of Salisbury now administers a variety of programs to support downtown economic growth. These include a robust facade improvement program and an incentive grant for major new residential production and historic rehabilitation projects, summarized below:
The Innes Street Improvement Grant and the Municipal Service District (MSD) Grant programs were started in the 1990s and cover up to 50% of the cost of downtown facade improvements (typically up to $5,000.00). These projects can range from minor repairs and repainting to substantial facade and landscape improvements, including the installation of new pedestrian amenities such as outdoor seating, planers, awnings, face fencing, and lighting.