A place for dreamers

by Brian Clarey

For most of us, the mill has always been there, a hulking relic of our industrial past on the wrong side of Elm Street, reminding us of the days when communities did for themselves and an honest day of hard labor was looked upon as something of a sacrament.

Half a lifetime ago, when I worked on Elm and Lee streets, they were all the wrong corners, except maybe for the fish market by the burned-out bakery where there were once plans for a new ballpark, and a grocery, and a man-made waterfront that would surely drive development. There’s been talk of a new Guilford County Schools building and, more recently, a luxury hotel that would funnel revenues back into the neighborhood that has been”¦ re-imagined in a less-forgotten sector of the district.

There was once even talk of the mill “” it featured heavily in the city’s 2006 South Elm Street Redevelopment Plan, which recommended the site, formerly known as the North State Mill or the Daily Bread Mill, for a “small-scale civic plaza.”

But now people are talking about the mill again, and the wild Frenchman who roams its environs, talking about it like there’s something going on over there “” which there is “” and also talking about it like there’s nothing at all going on over there “” which, paradoxically, is also true.

The Frenchman is real: my friend Eric Robert (pronounced row-bear, in that fancy French way), formerly of Lyon but a Greensboro resident since he began his undergraduate studies at UNCG back in the 1980s. And it’s true that he’s spent the last four years “” along with pretty much all of his money and mental energy “” rehabilitating the 100-yearold, 30,000-square-foot structure for”¦ well, that’s kind of the problem.

The spot is suitable for many things: A restaurant, a lounge, an art gallery, offices, apartments and shops could all coexist in this ample space.

But for now the place is like a wallflower, all dressed up and waiting for her first dance of the night.

“I see it as an urban resort, an oasis,” he says, looking out at the wide plaza. “Out here I see tables and umbrellas, maybe a water feature. This [room] would be perfect for a bakery. A wine bar”¦. Everything great they have in big cities, we could have here.”

He’s talking to David Wharton, a UNCG Latin professor with a penchant for preservation, architecture and urban planning. He’s been

involved with the city’s Land Development Ordinance and Downtown Design Guidelines, is an acting member of Preservation Greensboro and chairs the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission. He’s not here in any official capacity “” just another looky-loo here to meet the Frenchman and walk the rooms in this forgotten corner of the Central Business District. But he knows that a structure like this would never “” could never “” be built today.

In a chamber off the first-floor space Robert uses for an office, underneath the 100-year-old wooden silos, Wharton points to a 12-by-12 support beam bowed slightly under its burden.

“Look at the load this beam took,” he says. “I mean, that is a freakin’ load to bend the wood like that.”

Robert smiles. “Every time I give a tour of this place I see new stuff like that,” he says.

The wooden silos, constructed from 10-by-6 boards stacked flat atop one another, have been cut into rooms and nooks on three floors.

After World War II, when metal became available again, the 10 giant silos came up in the rear of the property, along the train tracks. You can see them through the windows in Room B, a white-walled expanse with plate-steel flooring and ceilings high enough to produce a slight echo.

“I love the view,” Wharton says. Robert says he’s thinking about lighting them up at night, like a multi-hued beacon.

And the whirlwind tour of the facility continues, past a staircase fashioned from wood recycled from the building, through a space accented by raw brick and enormous wooden support columns, up into a space that would be perfect for an intimate lounge.

“It took us eight months to sandblast the place,” Robert says “” a hardy layer of fine flour dust coated the walls in a kind of mache, had seeped into the wood and infiltrated the rafters. The plumbing and sprinkler system, he says, was a six-figure deal that took almost a year “” a hard hit, considering he’s using his own cash to make things happen down here on the wrong corner of Elm and Lee. But money’s harder to come by these days, and still the rooms of Robert’s folly wait for their purpose, whatever it may be.

“This is probably going to be my greatest accomplishment,” he says now from a concrete veranda, “but it could be my demise. I’m obsessed. It’s an addiction.”

“So what’s next for you?” Wharton asks. Robert leans against an open door, considers the plaza he’s made at the foot of the old mill.

“I don’t know,” he says.