There were settlers to this area by 1750 but the small cluster of buildings that passed for a village was so inconsequential no one got around to naming it. When the residents heard tell of the heroic acts taking place in Lexington, Massachusetts they adopted the name Lexington.
The town’s history is a familiar tale in the Piedmont. Some furniture making and some textile manufacturing fueled the economy. But even after the North Carolina General Assembly sliced away a chunk of Rowan County in 1822 and named it after Revolutionary War General William Lee Davidson who fell in the Battle of Cowan’s Ford and selected Lexington as its county seat, great spurts of growth did not follow.
Lexington fancies itself the “Barbecue Capital of the World” and boasts its own style of smoked meat using a vinegar-based red sauce infused with ketchup, pepper and other spices. The sauce also serves as the seasoning base for “red slaw,” which is coleslaw made by using Lexington-style barbecue sauce in place of mayonnaise. Each October the town plays host to the Lexington Barbecue Festival. The event was the brainchild of Joe Sink, Jr., publisher of Lexington’s daily newspaper, The Dispatch, back in 1984. The first festival was a success with 30,000 people feasting on 3,000 pounds of barbecued pork shoulder and has grown five-fold since.
Main Street in Lexington was built mostly between 1880 and 1920. Few buildings from that time have been destroyed, few buildings have been added since. Most have been modernized and altered to suit new tenants so look up to capture the flavor of Lexington a century ago on our walking tour that will begin in the square where the town’s main streets come together...
Davidson County Courthouse
2 South Main Street
The first courthouse, a brick structure designed by William Nichols, was constructed in the center of the square after Lexington was named the seat of the newly formed Davidson County in 1822. It was demolished in 1858 and this courthouse, set outside the main intersection replaced it. Architect William Asher gave the building a classical Greek temple form, distinguished by Corinthian columns and pilasters, and Italianate details. Constructed at the cost of $20,000, the stucco-covered courthouse was originally painted a fashionable rose color. The building served the Davidson courts for 100 years until 1958 and stands today as one of North Carolina’s transcendent antebellum public buildings.
FACING THE COURTHOUSE, WALK AROUND TO RIGHT, DOWN WEST CENTER STREET.
southwest corner of West Center Street and Court Square
George Franklin Barber began designing houses in DeKalb, Illinois before setting up shop in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1888 at the age of 34. Barber quickly became one of the best-known “mail-order” architects who sold designs and floor plans via catalogs. Barber set himself apart from the other purveyors of architecture through the mail by his willingness to personalize his designs for individual clients at a moderate cost. Barber’s plans were used for houses in all 50 U.S. states, and in nations as far away as Japan and the Philippines. Most of his early designs were of the Victorian Queen Anne style but he later transitioned to Colonial Revival plans. This two-story brick building, with its hipped roof and symmetrical facade, is one of his Colonial Revival designs, executed n 1907 for attorney Emery E. Raper.
NEXT TO THE RAPER BUILDING BEHIND THE COURTHOUSE IS...
8-12 Court Square
While Emery Raper was ensconced in the stylish corner building, this long two-story building of pale patterned brick was developed as offices by a trio of attorneys in the 1920s.
ACROSS CENTER STREET IS...
28 West Center Street
At Lexington City Hall and the adjacent Mayor’s building there are no signs honoring the great politicians that shaped the town but there is a plaque remembering that this was the place where barbecue was first sold in town. The slow-cooked meat was prepared on open pits for folks on court business and farmers peddling their wares on Saturdays and sold under tents.
FACING CITY HALL, WALK DOWN THE ALLEY TO THE RIGHT. BESIDE THE PARKING LOT ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
Former City Barbecue
South Greensboro Alley
Sid Weaver started cooking shoulders using hardwood and put up the first barbecue stand in Lexington across from the courthouse in 1919. Jess Swicegood put up a barbecue tent directly across the street from Weaver. The two men went head-to-head and later upgraded from BBQ tents to small buildings. This brick building from the 1930s was Swicegood’s.
RETURN TO CENTER STREET AND TURN RIGHT. WALK DOWN TO THE CORNER.
Grimes Brothers Mill
West Center Street at State Street
John D. and Thomas J. Grimes constructed a four-story, frame, steam-powered flour mill in Lexington in 1879, which they expanded in 1885 with a four-story brick addition. The mill closed in 1860 and the original frame portion of the mill and later frame additions were demolished in 1961 when West Center Street was widened. The buff brick Italianate addition is all that survives of the Grimes Brothers Mill complex. It stands today as the first roller-process flour mill in North Carolina and the only such surviving mill in Davidson County. The property has been redeveloped as office space.
RETURN TO COURTHOUSE SQUARE AND TURN RIGHT TO BEGIN TOURING SOUTH MAIN STREET. STAY ON THE RIGHT (WEST) SIDE OF THE STREET.
Black Dog Emporium
22 South Main Street
Look up at this corner brick commercial building from the 1880s to see an unusual wide arched window, segmented by tiny Ionic columns. The window is highlight by geometric blocks of rough-faced granite. The storefront iswrapped by similar pieces of granite. Look further up to see patterned brickwork typical of late 1800s commercial buildings. Step around the corner to see more granite trim on the window lintels and decorative arched brickwork.
102 South Main Street
James Edward March built his first hotel on this site in the 1880s, a two-story frame guest house with a wide wrap-around porch. The building was replaced with a brick structure at the turn of the century which evolved into this grand Neoclassical hostelry on a rusticated base with broad Ionic pilasters, keystoned windows and a modillioned cornice crowned by a decorative parapet. In its original incarnation a multi-columned stone entrance stretched out to the street to greet gust arriving in horse-drawn carriages. The entire street level has been compromised to service recent storefronts so look up to capture the essence of one of Lexington’s most distinctive buildings.
120 South Main Street
This non-descript brick building began life in 1914 as the ornate Princess Theatre where a six-piece orchestra accompanied the top entertainment acts of the day. The glory days of the Princess were short-lived and the space was put to diverse commercial purpose, most notably on the second floor where the photography studio of H. Lee Waters operated for more than 70 years.
200-202 South Main Street
At first glance this two-story building with the decorative golden brick facade appears to be one harmonious composition constructed at the same time but look up for clues as to its evolution. The circular ariel balcony with iron railing in the center does not have a decorative counterpart at the far end. And its three-pane wide window matches only the end window. That middle bay, in fact, was the end of the building when it was first constructed in the early 1920s. The building was doubled in size a few years later. The first floor has been totally altered. The Siceloffs were a pioneering family in Davidson County and E.J. Buchanan was a physician whose office stood on the site of this building’s addition. The developers built the property for a department store, on the site of a former long-time shopper’s destination - Pickett’s Groceries.
United States Post Office
220 South Main Street
A post office was first established in the village of Lexington in 1800 when the population was still less than 100. A little over a century later the town merited this monumental Neoclassical post office, rendered in stone and fronted by a colossal Tuscan portico. It was completed in 1912 and handled Lexington mail until 1967. After that it did duty as the town library and is currently occupied by Arts United of Davidson County.
CROSS THE STREET AND TURN LEFT, WALKING BACK TOWARDS COURTHOUSE SQUARE.
Edward C. Smith Civic Center of Lexington
217 South Main Street
Jones Tilden Hedrick was an energetic entrepreneur whose interests ran from groceries to orange groves in Florida. In 1935 he built the Carolina Theater, the town’s largest, that showed movies and hosted liver performances. Jones died in 1938 at the age of 61 and the Carolina, then owned by the Wilby-Kincey chain, was partially destroyed by fire in 1945. Erle Stillwell, a Hendersonville architect, helmed the reconstruction of the theater. He created a narrow street entrance and long entryway that opened into a space for 779 movie-goers that spread out behind the storefronts. The modern amenities of the Carolina were hailed at its re-opening presentation of the Bob Hope comedy, “The Paleface,” in December of 1948. The Carolina closed in the late 1970s, but reopened a few years later as the Edward C. Smith Civic Center. Behind the modern facade the interior retains some of its original ornate Art Deco wall designs.
103-107 South Main Street
T.B. Eldridge put out the first edition of the Davidson Dispatch on May 6, 1882. Eldridge would eventually depart for Raleigh, where he became mayor, and the paper would land in the hands of Henry Branson Varner, who gave up selling fruit trees for journalism. He changed the name to simply The Dispatch and aggressively promoted his paper to the point where he boasted that it had the largest circulation of any local weekly paper in the United States. He moved the paper into his own building here in the 1910s just as the paper was going semi-weekly. Varner was an early motion picture enthusiast and part of the building housed a movie theater. The newspaper pressroom was in the basement which extended under the sidewalk and Varner installed translucent blocks for the sidewalk that allowed light to penetrate to the presses.
101 South Main Street
This dark red brick building from the 1920s displays its classical aspirations through its contrasting white terra-cotta decorations in the cornice and its urn-emblazoned panels.
23 South Main Street
Long a drug store, this two-story corner commercial building from 1900 distinguishes itself with fancy corbelled brickwork on the upper floor, an ironwork ariel balcony and a granite-outlined ached window sporting decorative leaded glass.
southeast quadrant of the square
This Confederate infantryman was erected by the Robert E. Lee Chapter for the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905. For many years it stood bravely in the center of Main Street and Center before it was finally moved over to this less exciting location, once the site of the town well. You can still see the battle scars from its days in the middle of the road around its granite base.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN COURTHOUSE SQUARE.