Central Avenue Self-Guided Walking Tour

Thirsty Beaver
Once upon a time, a century ago, electric streetcars ran down the middle of Central Avenue. Stores sprang up along the way to serve commuters to the new bungalow suburbs.

Today those suburbs are known as Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood and the stores have found fresh life as Charlotte’s hippest “stroll district.” The mix of buildings, old and new, makes this an excellent start-up spot for creative risk-takers, artists and entrepreneurs.

What’s to discover?

Mural art, rock music history, a Billy Graham factoid, LGBTQ pride, BBQ & ice cream. And the famously immovable dive bar The Thirsty Beaver.

Where to start?

Corner of Central Av and Pecan Av. If you’re arriving by car, you can often find street parking on Pecan Avenue adjacent to Fuel Pizza. Please help our mom-n-pop stores — don’t park in a business’s lot unless you are buying something there.

How long?

1.5 miles. That’s about 30 – 40 minutes.

DAIRY QUEEN - 1429 Central Avenue

One of Charlotte’s oldest roadside fast-food eateries, this little Art Moderne-style gem hardly changed a lick from its first cone March 2, 1950 to its last on October 27, 2019. Rising real estate values kicked up the rent unsustainably, so now it stands vacant. But similar-looking DQs still sell Blizzards and Dilly Bars on Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte and on Franklin Avenue in downtown Gastonia.
One of Charlotte’s oldest roadside fast-food eateries, this little Art Moderne-style gem hardly changed a lick from its first cone March 2, 1950 to its last on October 27, 2019. Rising real estate values kicked up the rent unsustainably, so now it stands vacant. But similar-looking DQs still sell Blizzards and Dilly Bars on Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte and on Franklin Avenue in downtown Gastonia.

NEPTUNE MURAL – 1425 Central Avenue

NEPTUNE MURAL

Charlotte’s prolific muralists the Matts – Matt Moore and Matt Hooker – painted this at the request of the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association in 2018. Why Neptune, Roman god of the sea? He made waves, just like Plaza Midwood does.

In this interview, the Matts offer a couple of other explanations for Neptune.

Walk one building north on Pecan Avenue, then turn left into the parking lot to find another sea-themed mural.

SANDGARDEN MURAL – 1317 Pecan Avenue

Nick Napoletano’s flight of fancy starts with one of those Zen gardens where sand is raked like waves. What might be underneath? For ideal viewing, find the yin/yang circle in the parking lot.
Nick Napoletano’s flight of fancy starts with one of those Zen gardens where sand is raked like waves. What might be underneath? For ideal viewing, find the yin/yang circle in the parking lot.
YinYang

Loving Plaza Midwood’s wall art? Here’s a Plaza Midwood mural walking tour.

Head back to Central Avenue. Then turn right and walk along the right sidewalk of Central Avenue toward uptown.

MIDWOOD SMOKEHOUSE – 1401 Central Avenue

MIDWOOD SMOKEHOUSE

Frank Scibelli (also founder of Mama Ricotta’s and the Yafo Kitchen chain) opened Midwood Smokehouse here in 2011, perfecting it til he could replicate it across the South. President Obama and Hillary Clinton lunched here with their Secret Service detail on the 2016 campaign trail. Longtime residents remember when this building held Charlotte’s Gay & Lesbian Center in the mid 2000s; really longtime residents recall its earlier incarnation as Carriker Furniture & Interiors.  

Click for more about Midwood Smokehouse.

Continue along Central Avenue, crossing Clement Avenue.

THE WILMINGTON, CHARLOTTE & RUTHERFORDTON RAILROAD

Four railroads converged upon Charlotte in the 1850s, including this one to the port of Wilmington, NC. Rails were key to Charlotte’s rapid growth in the late 1800s — as less-well-connected southern cities such as Charleston, SC, languished. Today this is still an active track operated by CSX.

Many folks consider this the dividing line between neighborhoods; you’re now leaving Plaza Midwood, entering Elizabeth.

Cross the railroad tracks, continue along Central Avenue, staying on the right sidewalk.

THIRSTY BEAVER – 1225 Central Avenue

THIRSTY BEAVER

Those Wilson boys will not sell out! Mark & Brian Wilson play vintage honky-tonk with their Loose Lugnuts band and sell vintage clothing at The Rat’s Nest in NoDa. So why not a vintage dive bar? They opened in 2008, depth of the Great Recession, then hung in as a developer tried to force them out when boom times came. It’s the latest incarnation of the Good Time Sports Bar, opened in 1948, later Muther’s, Charlotte’s first “hippie bar” 1970-73.

Here’s one version of that real estate fight.

Continue along Central, crossing Hawthorne Lane and staying on the right sidewalk.

PET DAIRY BUILDING – 1111 Central Avenue

This stalwart structure of yellow brick started life in 1937 as a Pet Dairy ice cream plant. In the 1990s it became Charlotte’s first microbrewery, making Johnson Beer. The beer venture went flat, unfortunately, and extensive renovations in the early 2000s created space for a variety of businesses including Green With Envy, a gallery and housewares store.
This stalwart structure of yellow brick started life in 1937 as a Pet Dairy ice cream plant. In the 1990s it became Charlotte’s first microbrewery, making Johnson Beer. The beer venture went flat, unfortunately, and extensive renovations in the early 2000s created space for a variety of businesses including Green With Envy, a gallery and housewares store.

At the Salvation Army Store, cross Louise Avenue to continue along Central Avenue, staying on the right sidewalk.

TWO SCOOPS ICE CREAM – 913 Central Avenue

TWO SCOOPS ICE CREAM

Launched in 2016 by three pals who hope this will be the start of a chain. There are already Two Scoops branches in South End and near Lake Norman.  Try the Thin Mint flavor: cookies, Andes mints, chocolate ice cream — a little like a certain Girl Scout cookie. Grab a cone now … or wait ‘til we go around the block and begin our trek homeward.

WHITE RABBIT – 920 Central Avenue

WHITE RABBIT

Look across Central Avenue to see the Community/Love/Equality mural at White Rabbit – Charlotte’s LGBTQ bookstore and also home to the editorial offices of Q-Notes, longest-running gay and lesbian newspaper in the Southeast.

PARKER HOUSE – 901 Central Avenue

ParkerHouseHistoric
PARKER HOUSE

Back around 1900, developers envisioned Central Avenue as Charlotte’s elite corridor. But then in the 1910s Myers Park won that game. This posh mansion survived, built for the co-owner of an uptown store, Parker-Gardner Music. Today it’s a vintage clothing shop.

The Charles W. Parker House is a designated Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmark.

LUNCH BOX RECORDS – 825 Central Avenue

LUNCH BOX RECORDS

Yes they have CDs, but Scott Wishart’s true passion is vinyl, vintage and new. Drop in and say hey to Scott, usually behind the counter, and ask him about upcoming in-store appearances by indie bands. The building? It started life as a lab that made false teeth.

CARSON MCCULLERS

CARSON MCCULLERS

Where the medical equipment store now stands across the street, there used to be a big old boarding house. For a few months beginning in late 1937, Carson McCullers lived there and worked on a novel that became The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Her portrayal of Southern working-class life, LGBTQ themes, and the loneliness we all feel in a strange new place made the novel an enduring American classic.

Heart hit best-seller lists again when Oprah Winfrey made it an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2004.

INTERACTIVE KNOWLEDGE – 801 Central Avenue

INTERACTIVE KNOWLEDGE – 801 Central Avenue

Central Av attracts creative folks. Interactive Knowledge, in this sweet Modernist architectural gem, pioneered Web-based educational content back in the 1980s and is still creating today. Big name projects include on-line editions of major exhibitions by the Smithsonian.

Turn right on Piedmont Street, then right again on Jackson Avenue. At 10th Street, look to your left to see what is now Piedmont Middle School.

PIEDMONT JUNIOR HIGH – 1241 E. 10th Street

Built back in 1925, when junior high schools were a new thing. Charlotte spared no expense -- handsome brick and stone work, even an underground tunnel (can you see its entrance, art-ified with painted dogwood flowers?) to get students across 10th Street safely. Today junior highs are “middle schools” and Piedmont remains a much-sought-after magnet.
Built back in 1925, when junior high schools were a new thing. Charlotte spared no expense — handsome brick and stone work, even an underground tunnel (can you see its entrance, art-ified with painted dogwood flowers?) to get students across 10th Street safely. Today junior highs are “middle schools” and Piedmont remains a much-sought-after magnet.

Head uphill on 10th Street back to Central Avenue. Cross Central at the walklight.

Consider stopping at Central Coffee for some refreshment.

Then head outbound on Central Avenue; stay on the right-hand sidewalk and the first thing you pass will be the new Gibson Apartments.

GIBSON APARTMENTS – 1000 Central Avenue

GIBSON APARTMENTS – 1000 Central Avenue

Musicians all over the United States knew Reflection Sound Studios. The mega-band R.E.M. recorded part of its first album “Murmur” in 1983 at Reflection, then came back to do their second, “Reckoning.” Founder Wayne Jernigan retired in 2014, the studio came down and the apartments went up. Peek into the parking garage for a mural that recalls the old studio’s big-name clients.

Click to read an elegy for Reflection Studios by Charlotte Magazine’s Greg Lacour.

Continue along Central Avenue, crossing Hawthorne Lane.

THE HIPPIE HOUSE – 1200 Central Avenue

In its earliest incarnation, Central Avenue was a highly regarded residential address. This delightful wood-shingled Arts
In its earliest incarnation, Central Avenue was a highly regarded residential address. This delightful wood-shingled Arts &Crafts style dwelling went up in the 1910s; its owner in the 1920s and 1930s was J.B. Prigden, Charlotte’s City Manager. Sometime in the late ‘60s it became “the hippie house,” an experiment in communal living. In 2003 Nichols Real Estate lovingly rehabbed the battered structure as offices.

QUEEN CITY PIES – 1212 Central Avenue

QUEEN CITY PIES – 1212 Central Avenue

The Queen City Pie Company built this as their wholesale bakery about 1946. The 2-story red brick building features the “streamlined” rounded corners characteristic of the Art Moderne architectural style. It became the Pour Taproom in 2018.

Hey, Forbes magazine says Charlotte is “a craft-beer Mecca!”

Cross the railroad track – welcome back to Plaza Midwood! – and continue along Central Avenue.

COLE MANUFACTURING – 1318 Central Avenue

Look off to your right behind the shopping center and you’ll see Cole Manufacturing, whose handsome red-brick arches by noted local architect C.C. Hook date to 1911. Cole was the “John Deere” of the South, you might say — a hugely popular maker of mule-drawn cotton planters and other farm implements. John Cole Hatcher, descendent of the founder, renovated the complex in the 1990s as office space.

Cole Manufacturing is a designated Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmark.

CENTRAL SQUARE (Family Dollar Shopping Center)

For nearly six decades, Family Dollar anchored this shopping center — and that’s still how folks refer to it.

Leon Levine, barely into his 20s, started the discount chain in 1959 with a single store a block further up Central Avenue. Ten years later the store moved to this suburban-style plaza, developed by the Cole family in 1958. Recently Family Dollar departed and a bevy of restaurants have taken its place. Leon Levine’s philanthropy is honored in the naming of dozens of Charlotte institutions from the Levine Museum of the New South to the Levine Campus of Central Piedmont Community College.
For nearly six decades, Family Dollar anchored this shopping center — and that’s still how folks refer to it. Leon Levine, barely into his 20s, started the discount chain in 1959 with a single store a block further up Central Avenue. Ten years later the store moved to this suburban-style plaza, developed by the Cole family in 1958. Recently Family Dollar departed and a bevy of restaurants have taken its place. Leon Levine’s philanthropy is honored in the naming of dozens of Charlotte institutions from the Levine Museum of the New South to the Levine Campus of Central Piedmont Community College.

BILLY GRAHAM TENT SITE (CVS DRUGSTORE) – 1235 Pecan Avenue

Back in 1935 evangelist Mordecai Ham set up his tent revival on part of the Cole Manufacturing land, roughly where CVS now stands. A teenager whose family owned a dairy farm over on Park Road (near today's Park Road Shopping Center) came to hear the preaching and discovered his life's work. Billy Graham became a friend of presidents and minister to millions -- evangelist to the world.
Back in 1935 evangelist Mordecai Ham set up his tent revival on part of the Cole Manufacturing land, roughly where CVS now stands. A teenager whose family owned a dairy farm over on Park Road (near today’s Park Road Shopping Center) came to hear the preaching and discovered his life’s work. Billy Graham became a friend of presidents and minister to millions — evangelist to the world.

FUEL PIZZA - 1501 Central Avenue

We're back where we started – if Fuel Pizza is open, treat yourself to a cold drink and a hot slice.
We’re back where we started – if Fuel Pizza is open, treat yourself to a cold drink and a hot slice.

Want to learn more?

Check out the activities of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association.  

Find the 2004 book by Jeff Byers, Plaza Midwood Neighborhood of Charlotte (it’s at the Plaza Midwood Library, 1623 Central Avenue, also sold at the Common Market, 2007 Commonwealth Avenue).

Read on-line studies of the early development of Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth.