by Kevin Reid

338 North Elm Street getting ready for a new chapter in its storied history

The address, 338 North Elm Street, holds a significant amount of Greensboro history. Soon, it will hold even more. The new plans for the building are calling for it to be demolished to make way for the forthcoming Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, but the history of the building makes it hard for some to let go.

In the early 1900s, this address held a large, handsome Victorian house that was the home of Branch H. Merrimon and his family. Merrimon worked with his brother, William, at W.B. Merrimon & Co., an insurance agency for Aetna and other companies. These brothers were sons of Augustus Merrimon, a Buncombe County native, who, among other accomplishments, represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1873 to 1879 and served on the North Carolina Supreme Court, the last two years of his life as Chief Justice. The Merrimon brothers had a brother-in-law, Lee Overman, who served in the U.S. Senate for almost 28 years.

John Wesley Long, a doctor from Randolph County, bought the house from Merrimon in 1916 and started a 20-bed hospital there. He died in 1926, but the hospital lived on. Former Governor Jim Hunt was born in that building in 1937. Eventually, the house was razed for a more appropriate hospital building, probably in the mid-1940s. The future of the hospital changed drastically in 1957, when its board of directors purchased a tract of land on North Elam Avenue for the purpose of building at the new location. When the hospital moved to the Elam address in 1961, a new chapter began at 338 North Elm.

The name of the new business, an office building, at the location vacated by the hospital was “Three Thirty- Eight North Elm Building,” just like its address. It was operated by George Roach, a Realtor who was mayor of Greensboro at the time the new building opened. According to Eugene Johnston, the original president of Johnston Properties, “The only thing connected with the old Wesley Long were those walls behind it, which sort of framed the parking lot. A whole new building was built in front of these walls.”

Johnston notes that, “People want to say that the building was the old Wesley Long. It was not the old Wesley Long.”

A strong case can be made that the front doors of the Three Thirty-Eight Building were part of the old hospital that came up in the 1940s .

“The unique thing about this building was these doors,” said longtime tenant Charles Byrnes, standing at the front doors of the building.

The doors opened very wide and closed very slowly. “Why are the doors like this?” Byrnes asked. “So medics could wheel in the patient.”

The original tenants of the new building were Robert J. Pearce and Raymond J. Loflin, two optometrists who would be the first of many doctors in the building over the years. Their practice remained there until the building’s closing last June, though Pearce, upon his retirement, had been replaced by Byrnes in 1975, and Loflin later retired from the practice.

“We never knew the building had private bathrooms because our office was on the north side of the bathroom and all the bathrooms were on the south side,” remembered Byrnes. “The contractor had made a mistake when pouring the original concrete.”

From the beginning, the Three Thirty-Eight North Elm Building had a lot of doctors. The largest practice there, Greensboro Medical Associates, included some of the most prominent physicians in Greensboro’s history, including John Bumgarner, John Moore, David Sillmon and David Grove.

Another early tenant in the building was JA Doggett Realty & Insurance. President James Doggett’s son, Taylor Doggett, worked for his father before spending the latter part of his career with another real estate firm, Robins & Weil.

“I was born in Wesley Long Hospital, and then I was working in an office building on the Wesley Long Hospital site,” Taylor Doggett remembered. “The building was new, but pretty plain, a big-box sort of thing.”

The Atlantic Coast Conference maintained its headquarters in the building from the mid-’60s until the late ’70s. Jim Weaver, and later Robert James, served as conference commissioner during this period.

“I’ll bet at the time their office wasn’t 2,000 square feet,” Byrnes said of the ACC. “I would talk sports with the guys in the hallway, and sometimes we would go to lunch. It was just very much of a low-key operation back then. They may have had 12 employees, including secretaries.”

When Johnston bought the building in 1981, he refurbished it.

“The building was in pretty bad shape when we came in,” Johnston recalled. “We put in a new façade, installed a new mechanical system and upgraded the building quite a bit.”

Byrnes remembered other improvements that came in the wake of Johnston’s arrival.

“The Johnstons rehabbed the building, front to back,” Byrnes said. “The new windows really made a difference because the old ones tended to leak.”

Johnston made changes to the building in other ways. He was elected to represent the 6th District in Congress about the time he purchased the building and set up a congressional office there. He had earned his law degree and was a Certified Public Accountant, both skills he practiced in the building. His last law partner in the 338 building, Sharon Allen, is still with him in the building Johnston Properties moved to this fall at 612 N. Greene St.

Johnston was defeated by Democrat Robin Britt after one term in Congress. Britt, in turn, was defeated by Howard Coble in 1984. When Coble returned the seat to the Republicans, Johnston offered him an office in the building. Coble is still in office, as he waits to be replaced in January by the first new 6th District representative, Mark Walker.

“George Roach wasn’t the only mayor of Greensboro in this building,” Byrnes pointed out. “Bill Knight also had an office here.”

Knight, an accountant by trade, kept, among other things, the record for Coble’s campaign expenses.

There were also many other lawyers besides Johnston and Allen. For starters, Coble was an attorney by trade. Johnston also had other partners in his law practice over the years. Walter Beaver, a patent attorney, had an office at 338 N. Elm, as did other attorneys with different specialties.

There were other businesses housed in the walls of 338 Elm North Street, many of which were crucial to the growth and expansion of Greensboro. The future of the site is definite, and it certainly has some large, and influential shoes to fill. !