UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

Every Building Has a Story, on Elm Street

120110Feature_Then&NowIf these walls could talk… Elm Street’s buildings have witnessed nearly a century of life – businesses and families, hustle-bustle and hard times, struggle and rebirth. Can the stories these buildings contain be recovered?

The exhibition “Look. Again. Elm Street,” created by Museum Studies graduate students working under Dr. Benjamin Filene (History), takes up the challenge. It will be on view at the Elm Street Center, 203 South Elm, as part of downtown Greensboro’s special holiday version of First Friday, Dec. 3, from 6 to 9 p.m. This Festival of Lights event, featuring musical groups (including some with UNCG connections) and entertainers at various points along Elm Street, is a popular holiday event for Greensboro. This year, those strolling along Elm Street can appreciate the history of some of the buldings they are passing.

The “Look. Again. Elm Street” project began in August when nine Museum Studies graduate students each chose a historical photograph of a single downtown building. The goal was to breathe life into each space by piecing together the stories of the people who made their lives and livelihoods in these spaces. Featured sites include the Kress Building, Meyer’s Department Store, Schiffman’s, the Green Bean, the Ellis Stone Building, the Deal Printing Building, and others.

“There is great architecture on Elm Street, but sometimes we forget that these buildings were settings where people’s lives played out,” says Filene, director of Public History, who oversaw the project. “The idea was to dig back for tidbits that could humanize the past and show the richness of local history.”

The students’ detective work forms the basis for the exhibition. It shows each of the buildings from multiple vantage points as revealed through historical clues—“then and now” photographs, census records, fire insurance maps, classified ads, oral interviews, and fragments of the architecture itself.

“We always think of buildings as cold,” says student Alaina McKee but a little bit of research can bring them back to life through the people who lived and worked there.” McKee discovered William Meyer, the original proprietor of Meyer’s Department Store. “Even though this man lived one hundred years ago, I was able to relate to him by reading his wedding announcement and other information I found in newspaper articles and public records.”

Each student conducted an oral interview with someone connected to their building. Those interviews often revealed what the building meant to the people who lived and worked there. The interviews will be archived at the Greensboro Historical Museum, as well as by UNCG’s University Archives.

Most of the students are new to Greensboro and experienced Elm Street for the first time during a class outing to look at potential building choices. After working on these buildings for the past four months, many students have formed a connection to their new town. Amelia Gallo, a native of Wilmington, says of the project, “It has been an opportunity to not only learn about the history of Greensboro but the people of Greensboro. The project gave us the chance to become active participants in our new community.”

Now they want to share that information with Greensboro residents as well as visitors to the monthly First Friday event.

In the end, the nine buildings offer nine portals onto the past—not a complete picture of Elm Street’s history but new vantage points that invite one to see downtown with fresh eyes and to imagine what it would have been like to stroll down Elm in an earlier age.