Two pictures, two simple questions. One short answer, one way too complicated answer. Picture #1, which I posted on Facebook after taking it a couple of days ago with the tag “Millennium Center is ready”:

2017

Question: Is that the old Post Office?

Answer: Yes.

Picture #2, which is my Facebook “cover picture”, which in its day showed the center of the local universe:

thompsonohanlon

Question: I see the old courthouse??? in the background. Is this 4th St.? How did 4th st. kind of become the “Main Street” of WS Fam?

Answer: The picture was taken around 1910. Fourth Street runs left to right across the foreground…we are looking north on Liberty…at the right is V.O. Thompson’s drugstore, where One West Fourth (Womble, Carlyle/Downtown Deli) is now…at left is the original O’Hanlon’s drugstore, built in the 1880s, demolished to make way for the 1915 O’Hanlon Building (Mooney’s on 1st floor), which is now undergoing interior restoration…in those days, we had several daily and weekly newspapers, but if you wanted to know what was really going on locally, you had to visit the soda fountains at both drugstores every day, where you would find everybody from R.J. Reynolds to society matrons to shop girls to the mayor to police officers to streetcar conductors…the folks who actually had the goods on everything that was going down…

The first local federal building, 1906...the steeples in the background on Liberty are the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church (l) and the Methodist Protestant Church.

The first local federal building, 1906…the steeples in the background on Liberty are the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church (l) and the Methodist Protestant Church.

 

The building in the background with the bell tower is not the courthouse…it is the first free-standing federal building/post office in the Twin City, a 2 1/2 story with basement brick structure, completed in 1906. Most of that building is still standing, but as RJR Tobacco emerged from the American tobacco trust after 1910 and introduced their first cigarette, Camel, things heated up so fast that Winston-Salem was named a US port of entry (think imported French cigarette papers and Egyptian and Turkish tobacco), so the feds needed a lot more room.

The 1906/1915 post office and federal building

The 1906/1915 post office and federal building

The original post office was chopped off a little west of the Fifth Street door and the gewgaws on top were removed, and it was refaced in stone…an identical building, reversed, was built at the other end of the block and the colonnaded central section connected the two, more than tripling the size of the complex. When it was completed in 1915, the total cost was $250,000, by far the most expensive building ever in the Twin City to that point. We would not get our first million dollar building until 1928, the Carolina Theater and Apartments (later hotel) on Fourth Street. But as reported by the local newspapers, the new building took in enough in import taxes in its first eight days to pay for building it.

Over the years, it housed the US Postal Service, the Prohibition enforcement unit, the customs service, the military recruiting stations and the draft board, deputy US marshals and FBI agents, a federal courtroom, still pretty much intact, the IRS, a federal jail in the basement where one of the stages for the annual Heavy Rebel Weekender is located, and a lot more.

The 1937 addition more than doubled the size of the federal building

The 1937 addition more than doubled the size of the federal building

In 1937, a huge addition was built at the back, more than doubling the size of the building. When the post office part closed in the late 1970s, many people worried for many years that some fool would come along and demolish it. And when all federal activity ceased in 1992, its death warrant was signed.

Greg Carlyle

Greg Carlyle

But in 1994, Greg Carlyle, who had become familiar with the building while enduring bankruptcy proceedings, realized that he had fallen in love with the place and bought it for his hairdressing business. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the Millennium Center is the Twin City’s largest privately owned event venue, hosting everything from weddings and cocktail parties to corporate events and meetings to my favorite local party, the annual Heavy Rebel Weekender, which typically presents around 70 bands, rockabilly, real punk, honky tonk and some other stuff, on multiple stages over a three day period every July 4 weekend.

The Saturday car show during Heavy Rebel Weekender draws the most diverse crowd in the Twin City

The Saturday car show during Heavy Rebel Weekender draws the most diverse crowd in the Twin City to Trade Street

Major annual charity events include the Twin City Santa Miracle on Fifth Street and the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the Second Harvest Food Bank. Oprah Winfree used the space for Maya Angelou’s 85th birthday party, at which Maya may have had a sip or two of Johnny Walker Blue. The Maya Bar is now a permanent part of the facility.

Take me to the jailhouse

Take me to the jailhouse

The Millennium has been the backdrop for a number of movies, including the Academy Award winning “Two Soldiers”, “House of Cards” starring Kathleen Turner and Tommy Lee Jones, and “Leatherheads”…George Clooney was here for month for that one, and Greg did his hair. And there is still more to come. All of us are lucky to be a part of downtown Winston-Salem.

And, of course, the second answer is also a part of the first answer. And we haven’t even begun to answer the other part of the second (or is it the third?) question about how Fourth Street became the center of the local universe. Maybe we will get around to that soon. Meanwhile, Happy New Year everyone.

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