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REVOLUTION EVOLUTION

South side of Revolution Mill under renovation

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An iconic structure from Greensboro’s past as a textile empire continues its renovation for a second life as a mixed used complex.

Revolution Mill is part of a nearly two million square foot campus hidden away just blocks from State Street and Greensboro County Club.

Brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone started Revolution Mill in the 1890s after realizing that it would be easier to process the raw materials needed to make denim and other textiles closer to where the cotton was grown. Cone Mills operated the building until 1982.

Revolution Mill is symbolic of Greensboro’s history as a textile capital. Historic preservation efforts led by Self-Help Ventures Fund of Durham and architect Eddie Belk, are continuing to turn the space into a business and residential center with a style that fuses industrial and modern.

Preservation Greensboro Inc. Executive Director Benjamin Briggs described Revolution Mill’s significance to Greensboro while stressing the importance of stabilizing the structure.

“Greensboro was a defining city in the textile industry in the U.S.,” said Briggs. “And this mill was a defining building for Greensboro.”

According to Briggs, Revolution Mill was the largest producer of flannel in the world during the 1930s. The level of denim production and the reputation for quality attracted Wrangler and other smaller jean manufacturers throughout the years.

The importance of denim and textiles to this region cannot be overstated. Almost any family with Greensboro roots that stretch back to the early 1900s has ties to textiles.

Since the decline of the textile industry in Greensboro, the City has tried to find its new identity in a post-manufacturing age.

When the Cone Mill complex was no longer used to process cotton, its iconic smokestacks and water towers seemed to fade into inevitable disrepair in a way that echoed the former significance of Greensboro itself.

Then in 2003 Revolution Studios LLC took over the space with plans to convert the buildings into offices. Revolution Mill Studios currently houses more than 50 businesses in light-filled rooms with maple floors, high ceilings and glass cubicle enclosures.

Self-Help took over ownership of the mill in September 2012.

The non-profit owns 15 other historic properties in North Carolina and is finishing the work started by the building’s former owner.

Martin Eakes, a self-made businessman and Greensboro area native, founded the non-profit nearly 30 years ago. Eakes put his trust in the hardworking poor, and believed that they could make enough money to pay back any loans they took out to start small businesses. What started as a small credit union in Durham has grown into one of the largest non-profit community lenders in the country.

Members of Preservation Greensboro toured the building, and sections currently under construction, on July 23. The stripped-down condition of the space allowed those on the tour to get a closer look at some of the original features.

Self-Help plans to stabilize the building on the South side where Buffalo Creek runs. This major renovation will involve replacing many of the monitor windows.

Briggs also refers to Belk as a “star architect” who shaped the design of buildings in Durham that include The American Underground coworking space, which was once a tobacco factory.

“Greensboro will soon have ‘a Belk’,” said Briggs.

Self-Help Development Associate for Revolution Mill Emma Schropp explained some of the work that had been done to the mill, and plans for the future renovations. According to Schropp the mill will include 100 to 160 apartments. Self-Help is also courting manufacturers who could benefit from the mill’s cavernous space.

When looking at the big red dying vats, still shiny and intact after over 100 years, it’s easy to imagine the copper vats of a brewery inside the walls. Stone Brewing toured the space in the spring, but the building didn’t quite fit their specifications. Schropp is hopeful that another brewpub might come along and open up a restaurant and facility within stumbling distance of the apartments.

The apparent isolation of the campus could potentially create obstacles.

Even though Revolution Mill is closer to nearby shops and neighborhoods than it seems, it really feels like a remote complex tucked away in the open fields. Some people may want to feel the peace of retreat, but Self-Help is working to connect Revolution Mill to other parts of the City for those who would rather not feel exiled.

Self-Help has been in talks with the City to look at building a trail to link Revolution Mill with the downtown greenway and with Moses Cone’s namesake hospital, just over a mile away. The apartments would potentially be marketed to people employed by the hospital.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan toured the space last month and said that the mill complex could become a must-visit enclave. “I think it has the potential to be a destination,” said Vaughan. “And it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Councilman Zack Matheny, who oversees District Three where Revolution Mill is located, is also excited by the mill’s potential. “It’s incredible,” said Matheny. “For Self-Help to come in an buy it, and continue to enhance it, is awesome.” Matheny also noted the attention to detail that has been utilized during the restoration process.

Briggs praised Self-Help’s vision to preserve original elements of the building. The building is flooded with natural light from the huge monitor windows that line the red brick walls. Sills made from Mt. Airy granite accent the windows. The exposed beams are sturdy and bare.

“This is about honoring history as it really was instead of recreating it,” said Briggs.

Briggs and Preservation Greensboro have been involved as advisors with expert knowledge of the materials used to build the mill. Briggs has been able to date and identify the origin of many bricks, stones and beams in the building.

Whether people in Greensboro decide they want to take up residence in Revolution Mill, or just visit it for an afternoon, it would be nearly impossible not to appreciate the beauty and scope of the restoration project. If the space is realized as an operable and livable retreat that preserves a relic from Greensboro’s golden age, then Revolution Mill could represent both the past and the future for the city. !

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