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Reedy River in Greenville, S.C.

Dave LeBlanc

Around the same time activist/author Jane Jacobs was unpacking for her new life in Toronto, Max Heller (1919-2011) was setting up office as a new city councillor for Greenville, S.C. The year was 1968, and Ms. Jacobs, fresh from fighting expressways and “urban renewal” in New York, would do it all over again in the Big Smoke, where she’d influence another generation of urban thinkers; Mr. Heller, a former textile mill vice-president who’d escaped the Holocaust, would become Greenville mayor in 1971 and plant seeds for a Jacobs-worthy renaissance that would become the envy of urbanists everywhere.

It’s too bad the two never met.

The Louis Sullivan-style, 10-storey Chamber of Commerce Building.

Dave LeBlanc

As a Torontonian, Greenville, today, is immediately familiar: After incorporating as a city in 1869, their first construction boom occurred soon after; this resulted in dozens and dozens of Victorian buildings with handsome archways and interesting (red) brickwork. It was around this time that the first cotton mills and warehouses – which also resemble Toronto’s industrial buildings – were built. The mills would become so numerous and prosperous – by the mid-20th century Greenville was the textile capital of the world – downtown merchants would respond with large department stores, such as Ivey’s, and, by the 1920s, a luxury hotel (the Poinsett, named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, a U.S. Congressman who brought the Flor de Nochebuena plant back from Mexico).

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Walking Main Street today – as I did over Thanksgiving weekend – one notices other things, too: The Louis Sullivan-style, 10-storey “skyscraper” from 1925 (the Chamber of Commerce Building) and the Beaux-Arts courthouse (now a bookstore) across the street; small, high-end shops in art deco and modern art styles; and perhaps most importantly, extra-wide sidewalks, public art aplenty and a lush, rocky park built around a waterfall, Falls Park on the Reedy, just down a staircase. It’s a walker’s paradise and all of those construction cranes – another “Toronto” sight – means walkers will enjoy it for generations to come.

But it wasn’t always this way.

When Mr. Heller took office, Main Street was a four-lane road, the big stores had decamped for the malls, the little stores were anything but quaint, shady characters dominated and the waterfall was pinned (and forgotten) underneath a concrete wrestler’s hold: a 1960 overpass called Camperdown Bridge. By the late-seventies, the mills began to shut down, which added to the blight.

A statue of U.S. Congressman Joel Roberts Poinsett outside the Poinsett Hotel, a 1920s luxury hotel named after him.

Dave LeBlanc

So, when Mr. Heller and his team suggested a tree planting and sidewalk widening plan in the mid-1970s (as envisioned by West Coast urban planner Lawrence Halprin) many couldn’t see the logic. But when a new Main Street hotel followed in 1982, the Hyatt Regency, other dominoes began to fall, albeit slowly: Zoning laws changed to allow mixed-use development; a handful of offices moved back; the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, which incorporated parts of the 1882 Huguenot Mill, opened in 1990; a major sports arena opened in 1998; the Poinsett Hotel, shuttered since 1987, was restored and returned to the public in 2000; and in 2006, a baseball stadium based on Boston’s Fenway Park opened in the historic West End.

A lush, rocky park built around a waterfall, Falls Park on the Reedy River.

Dave LeBlanc

Interestingly, the same consulting firm, Maryland-based Land Design/Research, was called in by three different Greenville administrations – during the late-1970s, late-1980s and late-1990s – to shape policy and influence growth. Which ultimately worked, as the last (and arguably most important) piece of the puzzle, residential development, fell into place in the 2000s, as townhouses and mid-rise condos such as RiverPlace were built.

But what about all of those mills? A 1913 Greenville News report stated that the “largest cotton mill under one roof in the United States” (Woodside Mill) was located in Greenville, where the “presidents of 41 mills live” and 11 cotton mills with a “capital of $10,000,000” employ 7,000 people. Most of these lived in the adjacent “mill towns” which each had the requisite Baptist and Methodist church, company store, and, in some cases, a barbershop and a community centre. Eventually, Greenville would boast 18 mills that formed a crescent shape around the city (the shape due to the railroad).

Ninety years later, as the rest of Greenville flourished, these mills – which once produced millions of miles gingham, military canvas, twill, and basic broadcloth and built the city in the process – remained forgotten.

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The Brandon Mill was built in 1899 and closed in 1977.

Dave LeBlanc

“Ellison Adger Smyth decided to build his mill out of tan brick and black mortar instead of the traditional red brick and white mortar,” said historian Don Koonce as we pulled up to Dunean Mill during a driving tour of the remaining 13 mills. While part of Dunean sits empty, a company that manufactures airbags occupies some of the building.

We’ve just come from (Captain O.P.) Mills Mill, which began operation in 1897 and closed in 1978 (converted to condominiums in 2004). Interestingly, upon moving to Greenville in 1975, Mr. Koonce, surprised that there were no records of where the mills were located, did the research himself and produced his own map. “This was the ballpark,” he continued, filling me in about the importance of the Textile League. “You’ve heard the name Shoeless Joe Jackson? He played there.”

After having a look at Judson Mill, which will soon turn into rental apartments, and the Piedmont Plush Mill, which now houses Serendipity Labs Coworking, we arrive at Brandon Mill, built in 1899 and closed in 1977.

Renovated interiors of Brandon Mill, Grenville, S.C.

Dave LeBlanc

“This is one of my favourite mills, this is really cool,” Mr. Koonce said as we walked into the Art Center. “Artists have studios upstairs … and they do a lot of workshops with children; the developers have tried very hard to maintain the character of these buildings.” Converted to rental apartments in 2016, a quick check online reveals a 1,000-square-foot unit with a 16-feet ceiling, the “Pablo Picasso,” on offer for US$1,455 a month, and a 2,500-square-foot. “Jimmy Hendrix” suite for $3,190. “And it’s so incredible that this is happening, when, 10 years ago, they were all empty,” said Mr. Koonce, who spent nine years producing a documentary on the history of the mills for PBS.

We drive past others: Woodside Mill (1902), whose owners started Myrtle Beach (now being adapted into 307 apartments); Monaghan Mill (1900, converted to rental apartments in 2006); and Poe Mill (1896), where only two smokestacks remain, as well as the approximately 600 mill village homes.

The renovated Brandon Mill has been converted into rental apartments.

Don Koonce/The Globe and Mail

As the mills themselves get reinvented, the “bar is coming up” in these surrounding mill villages, added Mr. Koonce, who worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, as “people are buying houses, fixing up houses.” In three years, he added, the Swamp Rabbit Trail – a 35-kilometre walking and bicycling trail that follows the path of an old railroad corridor – will connect to the mills, since some are more than five kms from the centre of town.

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Once that happens, the most Jacobian downtown in the United States will have “eyes on the street” just about everywhere else, too.

Portions of Mr. LeBlanc’s trip were paid for by VisitGreenvilleSC. They did not review or approve this article.

If You Go…

Fourteen hours by car and 90-minutes (in the air) by plane, Greenville is a quick getaway for Toronto snowbirds.

Although Asheville, N.C., is only 100 kilometres away, Greenville doesn’t have the same neo-hippie, new age aspect … not a man-bun in sight. Instead, expect Asheville’s liberalism buoyed by a clean, upscale city full of art-lovers and foodies. And while the foodie scene is somewhat new – every local I spoke with says it took off less than a decade ago – there are wine bars, new-twist Southern restaurants, steakhouses, French bistros and ethnic mom-and-pops up and down Main Street.

In addition to downtown’s Victorian and deco architecture, check out Greenville’s modernist city hall (1973) and the 25-storey Daniel Building (1964-66). Take John Nolan’s architecture tour (greenvillehistorytours.com) and he’ll reveal where the city’s only Frank Lloyd Wright home is located.

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To stay in the heart of the action, rooms at the Poinsett (now a Westin) start at US$185 a night; for a quieter time, the six-month-old Homewood Suites is a 10-minute walk away for a few dollars less.

Not to be missed is the Fall for Greenville festival each October, where most of Main Street is closed for tastings and music performances; started in 1982, the festival now welcomes more than 250,000 visitors to celebrate.

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