Preservation Magazine, Winter 2024

Mill Power: Where Workers Once Made Bolts of Flannel, a Busy Mixed-Use Complex Hums Away

Architect Eddie Belk, 74 years old and dressed in a well-worn green T-shirt, khaki pants, and a red-and-white North Carolina State University ball cap, looks over what was once an enormous cotton-spinning room at Revolution Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s an impressive scene: two rows of 14-foot-tall heart-pine columns run down the middle of the expanse, longer than two football fields. Sunlight from the clerestory windows above creates patterns on the polished maple floors. White doors with transom windows on each side of this building and an adjacent one lead to 150 apartments with tall ceilings, recycled-glass countertops, and exposed brick walls. “No matter who I bring in here, they get that smile on their face trying to gather it all in,” he says, noticing my grin. “It’s a wonderful space. I’ll come in here just to spend a minute. Just to enjoy it.”

Decades ago, this space was impressive for different reasons. This was the heart of Revolution Cotton Mills, at one time the largest cotton flannel mill in the world. The spinning room was where hundreds of looms the size of golf carts clattered away, 24 hours a day. Cotton lint filled the air as fans moving along a track, still present on the ceiling, blew debris off the machines. Giant “air washer” units did their best to suck the particles out of the room. Workers, dubbed “lintheads” by those outside the mill communities, would leave their shifts covered in dust. Some came down with brown lung disease caused by inhaling fibers or lost fingers to the rapidly moving looms. Millwork was a dangerous job.

photo by: Kate Medley

Revolution Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina.

This spinning room is one of nine renovated buildings—six contiguous—on the sprawling 42-acre campus of Revolution Mill, a mixed-use development that includes apartments, offices, restaurants, shops, and event spaces. Belk, principal at Belk Architecture in Durham, North Carolina, is eager to show me them all. This is the 14th mill complex that Belk’s firm has worked on, and at 750,000 square feet it isn’t even the largest. That title goes to the 1-million-square-foot American Tobacco factory: nine buildings in Durham that Belk and his team turned into a mixed-use campus, the first tenants arriving in 2005. All told, Belk says he’s redesigned more than 7 million square feet of historic properties since launching his firm on his birthday in 1982. “This is one of my architectural children that I’m proud of,” he says of Revolution Mill in a lilting Carolina drawl. “By the time we got to this one, [old mills] were just something that we understood.”

We began our tour several hours earlier in what was the distribution warehouse, a five-story, brick-clad building that dates to 1915 (with a 1930 addition). Here, workers would store reams of finished flannel awaiting pickup via trains on adjacent tracks. Belk’s firm ended up removing a 40- by 40-foot section of the building’s interior to create a soaring atrium topped by skylights. At night, LED lights mounted on metal rings around concrete support columns shine upward. “It’s just a beautiful sight,” he says.

Traces of the building’s prior use can be found throughout: nicks on the columns from careless forklift operators, scorch marks from some past fire, an old bale press repurposed into a bench. On one concrete support someone has scrawled, “T.W. Nelson, Aug. 27, 1969.”

photo by: Kate Medley

For the interior public spaces at Revolution Mill, architect Eddie Belk retained the complex’s soaring ceilings, huge industrial windows, and original hardwood floors.

photo by: Kate Medley

The former mill spans Greensboro’s North Buffalo Creek.

When Belk and his team surveyed the property in 2013, they found the majority of the mill buildings structurally sound. The sturdy columns and floors had done their jobs, but most structures required new roofs. As in many Southern mills, at some point the windows throughout the complex had been bricked over, as the advent of air washing systems and fluorescent lighting replaced natural ventilation and sunlight. During the rehabilitation, crews removed these bricks and repaired and replicated hundreds of windows and frames throughout, including in the warehouse, dubbed Mill House.

These days, the warehouse holds a coworking space, a nail salon, a cosmetic medical office, a future eatery and market, and three apartments on its ground floor. Upper floors contain another 30 apartments as well as office space, including the homes of two national textile design firms. More than four decades after Revolution Mill’s looms went silent, the textile industry has returned. “These companies have all decided, ‘Well, let’s go back to the mill,’” says Belk. “It seems very appropriate, doesn’t it?”

Revolution Mill’s roots date to 1891, when brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone, the two eldest sons of a prominent German-Jewish immigrant family in Baltimore, formed the Cone Export & Commission Company to broker Southern textile products. Soon they decided to operate their own mills and built their first Greensboro plant, Proximity Cotton Mills, which began weaving denim in 1896. Revolution was the brothers’ second mill; they opened it in 1899 with business partners Emanuel and Herman Sternberger specifically to produce cotton flannel. Six years later the Cones finished building White Oak Cotton Mills, which became the world’s largest denim factory, eventually supplying material for Levi Strauss, Lee, Wrangler, and others. Proximity Print Works, opened in 1912, was the South’s first plant to specialize in printed cotton fabrics.

Like other mill owners in the region, the Cones built self-sufficient villages for their employees. The company provided land for churches, stores, schools, playing fields, and recreation centers, and constructed hundreds of simple clapboard company-owned houses that workers leased. Black employees lived in a separate village and often worked lower-paying jobs at the mills or toiled in the houses of company higher-ups who occupied an area dubbed “Snob Hill.” By the 1940s, more than 2,600 workers lived in 1,500 houses around the four plants.

photo by: Kate Medley

The massive hallway of the former cotton-spinning room.

But by the 1970s, the American textile industry was in decline, as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Revolution Mill produced its last flannel in 1982, and the complex was left to deteriorate. The local economy also declined as workers sought opportunities elsewhere. The other Cone mills closed, with White Oak hanging on until early 2018—one of the last remaining denim mills in the country.

Proximity Cotton Mills was razed, and many thought Revolution Mill would suffer the same fate. “Mills were not celebrated as part of North Carolina history at all,” says Benjamin Briggs, head of Preservation North Carolina, who previously consulted on the rehabilitation of Revolution as executive director of Preservation Greensboro. He says lawsuits from brown lung and the rapid decline of United States–made textiles precipitated the demolition of historic mills across the state. “How did you deal with our deep textile mill history?” asks Briggs. “You got rid of it.”

photo by: Kate Medley

Butcher Taylor Armstrong helps a customer at Kau butcher shop and market, which will move to another Revolution Mill building soon.

But starting in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, a couple of local developers, Jim Peeples and Frank Auman, saw an opportunity. They purchased Revolution Mill and transformed several buildings into office and event space. Although the economic bust of 2008 forced the pair to abandon their plans, Briggs credits the duo with saving the complex. In 2012 one of their creditors, Self-Help Ventures Fund, a Durham-based nonprofit and community development lender, acquired the property. It has since pumped more than $140 million into the project, with just over $40 million coming from federal and state historic tax credits and about $13 million from New Markets Tax Credits. The National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), a for-profit subsidiary of the National Trust, provided critical tax credit financing needed for the Mill House rehabilitation, completed in May 2023.

Self-Help tapped Chicago native Nick Piornack, who had previously redeveloped historic buildings in Greensboro’s South End into a bustling restaurant and entertainment scene, as business development manager. Piornack says his role was to help “sell the sizzle,” but at that point, there wasn’t much of a spark. Although the mill sits just two miles northeast of downtown, it might have been another world. “The people downtown and in more wealthy areas had no reason to come here,” says Piornack, now general manager of the property. “It’s an old mill and it’s collapsing. How the heck are we going to get this thing back on the map?”

Piornack thought Revolution Mill was a project that “people had to touch.” He began inviting different groups—young professionals, garden clubs, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis members—luring them with the promise of free food and drinks and “behind the scenes” tours. Using renderings created by Belk, he painted pictures of the mill’s future. “You’ll see this place in two years and you won’t believe it,” he told them. For several years, Piornack sold the promise, telling everyone he could. “All of a sudden, the buzz started,” he says. “People were telling people, ‘Boy, you won’t believe what they are doing over there!’ It just snowballed.”

photo by: Kate Medley

Artist Felix Semper has held studio space at the mill since 2014.

The first tenants were artists, who loved the natural light the large windows provided. Among them was Felix Semper, who originally set up his studio in what was Revolution’s two-story dye house. Now his studio occupies one of five remaining structures that formerly held equipment for the air washing system. Under a bank of windows, Semper paints pop culture sculptures—Pringles cans, Nike shoes, Superman’s head—that he creates from thousands of pieces of cut and glued paper. When finished, they fancifully expand and contract like accordions. “This building is an inspiration for creativity,” says Semper, born in Cuba, whose work has been collected by celebrities from Paula Abdul to Ryan Seacrest. “The lighting is incredible, and I get my sparks of creativity here. You feel the history of the building and it just inspires me. An artist needs that.”

As Belk leads me around the complex, I’m amazed at the variety of businesses here. There are law offices and logistics firms. A biomedical lab and a yoga studio. Headshots line the walls of a modeling agency. In a room decorated with framed vintage shirts made from Revolution Cotton Mills flannel, the owners of a “wine concierge” set up for a tasting.

According to Piornack, there are about 140 businesses in all, and nearly every space has been claimed. Incredibly, he says, just one business failed during the pandemic. Self-Help was able to process Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans quickly through its credit union, and rent payments were deferred when necessary.

“The lighting is incredible, and I get my sparks of creativity here. You feel the history of the building and it just inspires me.”

Felix Semper

photo by: Kate Medley

Danielle McCallum, a leasing specialist at Revolution Mill, takes a break in one of the community’s many public areas.

One of the most unusual spaces is occupied by Evan Morrison, a local textile historian, who organizes the many artifacts and historic displays that line Revolution Mill’s hallways. His jam-packed suite houses what he says is one of the largest collections of iconic 20th-century American-made clothing in the world. He dives into several racks and drawers and emerges with Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football sweater, one of the earliest leather motorcycle jackets ever made, and the first documented, handwritten order placed by Levi Strauss for White Oak Cotton Mills denim in 1913.

Nearby, in a room at the shuttered White Oak mill, Morrison and a few volunteers weave denim using several of the original looms, selling the material to premium jeans manufacturers. He hopes that White Oak will be preserved, and that he’ll be able to open a museum inside dedicated to Greensboro’s textile history. “It’s got such an importance to Greensboro that if we didn’t do it, the city would no longer have its own history,” he says, comparing the idea to Atlanta’s museum dedicated to The Coca-Cola Company, the brand that historically served as an economic driver for the city.

The front walls of Morrison’s Revolution Mill space, like most offices at the complex, are glass. Belk designed the offices that way so visitors could see through, preserving the enormity of the space.

“You want to experience the buildings,” he says. He also left the rows of heart-pine columns that repeat along most hallways exposed, without incorporating them into the walls—a feature he employs in every mill project. “We never engage walls with columns for two reasons,” he says. “First, the columns are never quite plumb and straight, so you get nasty little connections. Second, you lose that dramatic rhythm of the building if you don’t build the wall as a backdrop to that structural rhythm.”

Briggs calls that design element an “Eddie Belkism.” Another, Briggs points out, is the way the architect exposed a cross-section of flooring by the main staircase in the former weave room building, where looms turned thread into cloth. From bottom to top, the cross-section shows a layer of roughly 3-inch-thick timber decking, a 1-inch subfloor, and a 0.75-inch tongue-and-groove maple finish floor. Visitors can see just how thick the flooring needed to be to accommodate the enormous equipment. “It had to be overbuilt because these giant looms had momentum,” says Briggs. “They would literally shake the building.”

photo by: Kate Medley

Veneé Pawlowski owns Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie, a bakery in the former machine shop.

We stop for a break at Peace of Her by Lou, a juice bar owned by Lindsey Chavis, who says for years she would drive by the mill buildings and wonder what they were. Chavis says she fell in love with the mill’s hardwood floors and brick. “Just the history of this place!” she exclaims. “To know that so many people worked here when it was a whole other thing and then we create this new space for so many people. It’s just amazing.”

After a smoothie, Belk and I duck into the former machine shop, a separate structure built in the 1920s that’s now home to Cugino Forno Pizzeria and its three 7,000-pound wood-burning ovens, constructed from Mount Vesuvius volcanic rock. Black Magnolia Southern Patisserie occupies this same building, and fills its display cases with items like bourbon banoffee (banana-toffee) cinnamon rolls and upside-down apple praline biscuits. Owner and pastry chef Veneé Pawlowski, hands covered in flour, tells me she often thinks of the people who used to work in the mill and what they would think of it now. “I bet the workers probably would have enjoyed having a bakery here back then,” she quips.

photo by: Kate Medley

Lindsey Chavis owns Peace of Her by Lou, a juice bar located in the Revolution Mill complex.

photo by: Kate Medley

Adam Aksoy is a co-owner of Cugino Forno Pizzeria, located in Revolution Mill's former machine shop.

Belk and I end our tour in what was once the mill’s 9,000-square-foot carpentry shop, now home to Kau, a restaurant/bar and market/butcher shop. It’s a gorgeous space, with heavy pine beams, a polished concrete floor, and a restored monitor roof.

Chef-owner Kayne Fisher’s friends were surprised he would even consider a building that had been vacant for decades. But when he toured the former carpentry shop in 2015, despite its broken windows and scattered trash, something clicked.

photo by: Kate Medley

The owner of Kau, chef Kayne Fisher, decided to take a chance on the complex in 2015.

“We walked in and I looked up and saw the beams and decking and monitor roof and I got chills. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do a restaurant here.’ You can’t re-create this. You can try, but you can’t. It’s a one-of-a-kind place.”

Revolution Mill remains a work in progress. Fisher will be moving his butcher shop and market to Mill House in mid-2024, and adding an eatery with quick bites to the new space. (His restaurant will remain in its original location.) Plans call for developing a new boutique hotel on the grounds adjacent to Mill House, and turning a midcentury warehouse into a brewery and coffee roastery.

The mill’s rebirth has spurred other development in the area, including the Cones’ Proximity Print Works mill, which developer The Alexander Company recently adapted into 217 affordable and market-rate apartments, a storage facility, and commercial space.

Belk, meanwhile, is concurrently working on his 15th and 16th historic mills, both North Carolina cotton mills. The architect says his mill rehabilitation work has become a personal calling.

“To know that so many people worked here when it was a whole other thing and then we create this new space ... it's just amazing.”

Lindsey Chavis

He tells me he sometimes wonders what it would have been like to have worked on a spinning-room floor. His maternal grandfather and his father-in-law both spent their lives fixing looms in mills and suffered significant hearing loss doing it.

“I tell people when I’m doing these buildings, ‘I feel like I’m walking in my grandparents’ footsteps.’ And I’m hoping that we’re doing a good enough job in these buildings [so] that someday my grandchildren will walk in my own.”

The National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), a for-profit subsidiary of the National Trust, supported the Revolution Mill complex’s Mill House project with $6.1 million in federal historic tax credit equity and a $5 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation.

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Joe Sugarman lives in Baltimore and is a frequent contributor to Preservation magazine.

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