Hip to Be Square

O.Henry Square continues to thrive

By Billy Eye

“A hick town is one in which there is no place to go where you shouldn’t be.” — Alexander Woolcott

The point
at which Bellemeade and Greene converge, where the 300-block of Battleground sprouts from a two-lane trickle into a gushing river of vehicles, was once referred to as O.Henry Square. May still be, for all I know.

This is a rare intersection with five corners. And around 1935, what had been a shaded residential neighborhood was slowly transformed as robust commerce began fueling a quiet downtown expansion.

Granted, nearby there’s a 110-room hotel with almost 300 upscale apartments under construction that will hug O.Henry Square to the west. Still, there are many intriguing sites that would be familiar to folks 50 years ago. Look around and you can see vestiges of an era when downtown’s hip pocket was devoted to insurance, finance, automotive repair and used cars; a corridor where, even to this day, businesses set down roots and remain in place for decades. In the not too distant past, 1968 for instance, O.Henry Square was dominated by the rear of the O.Henry Hotel, Chandler Tire and the Central Fire Station to the east, the Greensboro branch of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance to the west, and Universal City Credit to the north.

And today, approaching the square from the south, rounding the corner from North Greene onto Bellemeade, Martin’s Frame & Art Shop continues to anchor a collection of mostly glass-fronted storefronts dating back to 1940, currently vacant but in excellent condition.

In 1968, the angular, glass-front unit adjacent to Martin’s at 253 North Greene was General Greene Grill. Along with Peter Pan Cafe (now a convenience store two blocks south) this was where the area’s gay gentlemen not-so-surreptitiously congregated from the 1950s into the ’70s. Apparently, it was obvious to just about anyone who unknowingly meandered in.

This was Greensboro’s Tenderloin District, such as it was, where young men passing by the General Greene would hear someone from the lunch counter shout out, “Fresh meat!” Institutional memories linger, gay men were still cruising Commerce Street, half a block west, well into the 1990s.

The unit next door sports a fanciful façade with Italianate-inspired columns and mantels highlighting the second floor.

Jefferson Standard Life Insurance’s one-story Greensboro sales office was situated across Bellemeade (today supplanted by Charles Aris’ high-tech headquarters). In 1973, the Odd Fellows constructed their two-story Buena Vista No. 21 lodge hall next door, incorporating what had been Jefferson’s side parking deck and dramatic porte-cochère for their front lot. 

The Undercurrent Restaurant, just steps from the Odd Fellows Lodge, is a magnificent 21st-century reclamation project of a stately 1951 building, a stunning makeover from grimy to glam. Customers of Dixie Sales & Service would scarcely believe this was where transmissions, drivetrains, STP, Delco batteries and the like were sold and installed. Dixie operated here for more than half a century.

The entire structure, including the attached former repair garage (converted into office space) was thoroughly and completely re-imagined in 2006 before Undercurrent moved in. Elongated picture windows were carved into the building’s sides for added brightness; impressive touches adorn the roomy interior. Undercurrent’s open-face frontage with glass-brick accents still echoes how it looked all those years ago, only now instead of fixing cars it’s fixing some of Greensboro’s finest food in elegant surroundings.

Holding down the corner of Battleground and West Lindsay are two more erstwhile storefronts, both thriving in modern times. Uncorking fine wines for almost 20 years at this location, Zeto’s showroom was, back in the day, our local Sherwin-Williams dealer. Across Lindsay was Milton R. Barnes Furriers from the 1930s until the mid-1970s when this building briefly housed Dr. Music. Currently, it’s a State Farm Insurance broker’s office.

Next, along the 400 block of Battleground is the quasi-Moderne –Spivey Office Building, the King Korn Redemption Center was an occupant in ’68, where shoppers traded books of stamps they’d collected from retailers, basically loyalty points, for appliances and home furnishings.

Everyone who was anyone recovered their living room heirlooms at Murphy’s Drapery and Upholstery Shop on the corner of Battleground and Smith Street. That sturdy dark brick plant with large, metal-framed showroom windows is currently an artist’s studio and law offices.

Across Battleground stands another downtown stalwart, Smith Street Diner. When this two-story multi-use was completed in 1936, Gus Moutafis Restaurant and Legion Barber Shop were the initial ground floor tenants. Moutafis also resided in the Burke Apartments upstairs until, a couple of years later, the restaurateur relocated, opening the aptly named Carolina Lunch across from the Carolina Theatre where he plated plantation-style fare for decades.

With a loyal clientele, James Everhart continued barbering at Legion’s original site until around 1966. It’s where many a baby boomer got their first clipping.

By 1968, Lanier’s Soda Shop had combined both street-level spaces for dishing out hot fudge sundaes and banana splits. From 1977 until 2000, Robinson’s Restaurant made this their “Home of good food and friendly atmosphere” before Smith Street Diner started slinging old-fashioned country-style platters tasting very much like what you’d have been served at dozens of downtown eateries a half-century ago. Smith Street Diner’s food is so popular, eager weekend patrons, jockeying to be seated, can be seen crowding the sidewalk out front.

A time traveler from 1968, gazing south from Battleground and Smith, would find these surroundings surprisingly recognizable. Nearby auto repair shops dating back to the 1930s are still doing their thing, and everywhere you look there’s a sense of architectural continuity, in itself a rarity.

Here’s hoping O.Henry Square retains its singular charm well into the future so folks continue flocking to this funky oasis where architectural antiquities from a long-gone era heighten our understanding of how past and present interconnect, enhancing our quality of life in meaningful but immeasurable ways.   OH

Billy Eye moved downtown in 1997 when folks would say, “Why would you want to live downtown? There’s nothing but bums there!” Contact him at billy@tvparty.com. 

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