By Brandon Lunsford
Cover photo: The Mint Museum of Art 1936, by Whitsett Photography. Courtesy of the Currency Museum Archives
January 11, 2019
In an interesting coincidence, the two locations of the Mint Museum in Charlotte opened their doors to the public during a nearly 75-year period that marked two of America’s most critical financial meltdowns. The Mint Museum of Art opened on October 22, 1936 in the Eastover neighborhood after suffering three years of construction and financial setbacks amid the Great Depression, and the Mint Museum Uptown on North Tryon Street has experienced its own delays before finally opening on October 1, 2010. in the midst of the Great Recession. It’s a curious parallel that illustrates the spirit of survival displayed by two of the city’s cultural treasures. Ellen Show, the Mint’s archivist, is struck by the comparison as she shares black and white photographs of the open farmland that once surrounded the building in Eastover. “I like to think of the Royal Mint as ‘the museum that could’,” she says. Today, the two sites are among the state’s premier institutions allowing visitors to view nationally recognized collections of art and design in a variety of aesthetic mediums, but history first took a few twists.
The fact that the original Mint building on Randolph Road still stands is a small miracle, and its saga begins with Charlotte’s relatively unknown history as America’s first gold rush town. In 1799, twelve-year-old Conrad Reed found a 17-pound gold nugget while exploring his family farm in Cabarrus County, and his father John decided to use the fancy rock as a doorstop. When a visiting jeweler told him how much it was worth, it sparked discoveries around Charlotte and neighboring counties and the town became the center of the nation’s premier gold producing region. Several wealthy local mines appeared, and within a quarter of a century there were between 75 and 100 gold mines within a 20-mile radius of Charlotte as tunnels ran under the downtown streets. In 1835, a federal law was passed authorizing the first three branches of the United States Mint in Georgia, New Orleans, and Charlotte due to the surrounding high gold production. A Federal-style neoclassical building was completed in 1837 next to the United States Post Office building on West Trade Street, between Graham and what would soon become known as Mint Street.
This original building was destroyed by fire in 1844, and a new one was built in its place the following year. Coinmaking slowed following the slightly more famous California Gold Rush of 1849, and the branch itself closed during the Civil War after minting more than $5 million in half. eagles, eagle quarters, and gold dollars from 1838 to 1861. The Mint was used by the Confederate Navy during the conflict and was used as a hospital for a time, but was seized after the war by federal officials and occupied until 1867. It reopened in 1868 as an assay office, which operated until 1913 when gold production in Charlotte largely ceased. Thomas Edison, who spent several months near town engrossed in mineralogical research, spent hours in the old mint foundry conducting experiments. The building was used by the Charlotte Women’s Club for meetings and later as a Red Cross station during World War I, but it could not find a dedicated tenant and plans were made to destroy it in 1931 during the planned expansion of the nearby post office.
The story of the Mint could have ended there, and it certainly would have, had it not been for a very persuasive and driven woman by the name of Mary Myers Dwelle. She was the daughter of John Springs Myers, who had helped turn her farmland into the fashionable suburb of Myers Park in the early 1900s. She was also the granddaughter of Colonel William Myers, who had donated the eight acres of original hilltop land that became Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith University) in 1867. Mrs. Dwelle was, in short, the scion of a family that made a habit of turning rural property into Charlotte history and she was about to add her own contribution.
In her capacity as chair of the art department of the Charlotte Women’s Club, Dwelle had inspired Leila Mechlin, art critic for the Washington Star and secretary of the American Federation of Arts, to address the fate of the Mint building. Mechlin had subsequently suggested in a speech to the club that the construction of an art museum in Charlotte could be considered part of the New Deal federal relief programs put in place by President Roosevelt, intended to offset the devastation and the financial disparities of the Great Depression.
“I think Ms. Dwelle is the driving force behind the founding of the Mint,” Show says. “Henrietta H. Wilkinson, who wrote a brief history of the museum in 1973, called her the “godmother of the Mint,” and many of us here do too because we wouldn’t be here without her efforts. ” In 1933, Dwelle mobilized a coalition of private citizens to raise funds and acquire the Mint Building from the U.S. Treasury Department. The forces she mustered could not prevent its demolition (which was the case in February of that year), but the group managed to purchase the structure’s rubble for $950. Men paid through the Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration who had dismantled the Mint and then painstakingly rebuilt it to the last detail in the Eastover neighborhood, on four acres of land known as “Watkin’s Bottoms” donated by developer EC Griffith. Architect Martin Boyer, Jr., a vocal opponent of the building’s destruction, had participated by providing detailed sketches of the old structure with each stone and beam specifically marked.
After several delays, the Mint Museum of Art finally opened to the public in 1936 as North Carolina’s first art museum, nearly 100 years after the building itself was constructed. It recently celebrated its eightieth anniversary and has become a nationally admired and locally revered institution. In 1976, the Mint was designated a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Site by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, and it became a department of the City of Charlotte; it would remain so until it became a private, not-for-profit corporation in 1992. The museum houses permanent collections of American, European, African, Asian, early American art, American ceramics and decorative art and European, historical costume and fashion, contemporary art, and photography. In 1982, voters overwhelmingly approved $3.5 million in bonds for the construction of a Mint Extension, which gave the building a new address and a more open entrance on Randolph Road. The painstakingly reconstructed facade of the original Mint building now functions as the rear of the museum. The new and improved Mint continued to showcase local artists and host famous exhibitions, including the Ramesses the Great exhibition in 1988-89, which attracted over 600,000 visitors and sparked an ongoing interest in mummies and pharaohs in the imagination of children like yours.
In 1999, the original Mint Museum of Craft + Design opened downtown at 220 North Tryon Street in the renovated Montaldo department store. In 2010, the Craft and Design Collection, along with the American Art and Contemporary Art collections from the Randolph location, moved into the brand new, five-story, 145,000 square foot facility in South Tryon as part of the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus, which also includes the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture, the Knight Theater and the Duke Energy Center.
The story of the Mint Museum’s rise to the top of Charlotte’s arts and culture scene is a story of evolution and survival, which is personified by the story of the original Mint building and the persistence of determined Charlotteans as Mary Myers Dwelle. Instead of becoming another cautionary tale of this city’s tendency to destroy its history, the Mint has managed to survive and carry on that legacy, just not in its original location. No one knows what the future holds for the museum as Charlotte continues to grow, but you can bet he’ll be there and won’t make it easy to get there.
Sources: Ellen Show and the Currency Museum Archives, mintmuseum.org, the Charlotte Observer, and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Monuments Commission.
Find out more about the Currency Museum.