Historic West End building moves toward landmark status

For much of the 1970s, the small retail center at 2023 Beatties Ford Road stood as a west Charlotte landmark. Anchored by the original McDonald’s Cafeteria, it also housed a number of other Black-owned business.

Now that building, built by Charlotte native and entrepreneur John McDonald, is on track to become a historic landmark.

City Council has scheduled a public hearing on April 28 to receive community feedback, a required step before landmark status can be conferred.

On its website, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmark Commission says the building was once “one of the most important spaces for the African American community in Charlotte…”

Community leaders often met there, inside McDonald’s Cafeteria, to “organize grassroot efforts to advance civil rights and social justice,” the website states.

Today McDonald’s Cafeteria is the stuff of west Charlotte lore — it moved to a bigger building in 1981 and eventually closed down after the death of its founder. But the small, one-story building where it all began has been reborn, owned by E-Fix Development founder Christopher Dennis.

In November 2021, Dennis welcomed a new tenant — a Chase Bank branch — to anchor the space where community leaders once gathers and soul food once flowed.

What factors go into conferring landmark status?

“It’s often the oldest house on the block or the most architecturally significant building on the street,’ said Stewart Gray, historic resources program manager at the Landmark Commission.

Some locations, while unassuming from the outside, still hold a lot of history, he said.

For example: the Arthur Smith Studio on Central Avenue is where James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Gray said.

Why was the McDonald’s Cafeteria building chosen?

The building is located in the heart of one of the most influential African-American communities in Charlotte, Gray said. After Dennis contacted the Landmark Commission and explained the significance of the building, the commission researched the history of McDonald’s Cafeteria and moved forward with the designation process.

What comes with landmark status?

The location will receive protection from “inappropriate changes, whether that’s from a future owner or from a municipality or government project,” Gary said. The owner also gets a 50% property tax deferral.

How does the tax deferral work?

The tax deferral remains in place for as long as the location is a local landmark, said Jack Thompson, executive director of the Landmark Commission. The money saved from the deferred taxes can then allow property owners to invest to preserve the location.

How will landmark status impact the community?

“I think it sets the tone,” said Dennis, the property’s owner. “We’re constantly tearing things down to build new things. I think it sets the tone that some things have such significance that we need to sometimes stop and figure out what does that really mean to the culture and the community.”

He added: “When you see places that have historic destinations, you want to go see more about them. That’s what we want for Beatties Ford Road. We’re driving the narrative that we care about our communities and that these types of buildings need destinations that make people want to come and see the true narrative.”

How will this help the area financially?

“Beatties Ford Road has one of the highest traffic patterns in Charlotte,” Dennis said. “Our goal with these developments has been to ensure that we create a place where people want to come shop, live, play and work in the community.

“We want people to come to the destination and not only visit the history but also be able to look at the opportunities and resources that we’re bringing into the community with this development,” he added. “Then on top of that, be able to spend those dollars in our communities and restrengthen a community that has been overlooked for a number of years.”

What does it mean to you that this location could become a local landmark?

“We are excited because it’s been a journey and a part of a dream,” Dennis said. “The big thing about it is the legacy piece of it. Mr. McDonald played a vital role in the history of Beatties Ford Road. A lot of people don’t know his story. I told my team, ‘We can’t do the norm here. We’ve got to focus on preserving his legacy.’ ”

A family member speaks

Kisha Poage, a granddaughter of John McDonald, said she is grateful to see the landmark process move forward. At one point, she said, she worried that her grandfather’s legacy might be lost.

“For my grandfather, it was about his people and the community,” she said. “I appreciate (Christopher) Dennis and his team for keeping that legacy alive.

Once it is designated, it would mean the world to me and my family,” she added. “I have a grandchild now; it’s a story and a legacy that he will know. He can say, ‘Oh, that was my great-great-great-grandfather.’ It’ll be amazing.”

This article was published as part of our West End Journalism Project, which is funded by a grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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