Plaza Midwood’s “Downtown” – Self Guided Tour

PlazaMidwood businessUrbanists call this a “stroll district” – a walkable area of small shops. It grew up over time where the streetcar turned from Central Avenue onto The Plaza (some of the rails are still there, exposed briefly when street crews scrape and repave). Nobody planned it, but lots of people have had a hand in shaping and re-shaping it over the years.

The mix of old buildings makes this a welcoming place for entrepreneurs who want to launch a new small business — including some now-famous names you’ll recognize below. Wander and explore!

What’s to see and do? It’s a compact area, just two square blocks, with much going on. Look for layers of history – way-back stuff from the district’s 1920s-1950s beginnings, more recent layers from the resurgence that began in the late ‘90s.

And snacks. Over two dozen spots to grab a fresh-roasted coffee, a burger, a baguette, a cannoli, a local-brewed beer, a Vietnamese salad roll …

How long? You can rush it in half an hour, maybe. But if you get into exploring shops and eateries…

Where to start? Arriving by car, you can usually find parking at Plaza Midwood’s Charlotte Mecklenburg Library branch (1623 Central Avenue at The Plaza). Please help our mom-n-pop stores — don’t park in a business’s lot unless you are buying something there.

PUBLIC LIBRARY – 1623 Central Avenue

Architecturally, this is one of Mecklenburg County's most delightful branch libraries. The main brick section honors the corner, while the rear portion has wood siding and gable roofs to blend with the houses of The Plaza. Charlotte architect Pat Campbell of LS3P Associates designed it in 1996.
Architecturally, this is one of Mecklenburg County’s most delightful branch libraries. The main brick section honors the corner, while the rear portion has wood siding and gable roofs to blend with the houses of The Plaza. Charlotte architect Pat Campbell of LS3P Associates designed it in 1996.

Walk in-bound on Central Avenue (away from The Plaza, toward center-city Charlotte)

ZADA JANE’S – 1601 Central Avenue

With its laid-back hippie vibe, maybe it’s only fitting that this building itself is twice-recycled. Look around the alley side and you’ll see Art Deco “fins” that date from its 1939 origin as a Shell gas station. Wrapped around that is the brick and plate glass of the One Hour Martinizing laundry that took over the spot in the early 1960s. Zada Jane’s opened in 2007, deftly re-using the oval Martinizing sign out front.
With its laid-back hippie vibe, maybe it’s only fitting that this building itself is twice-recycled. Look around the alley side and you’ll see Art Deco “fins” that date from its 1939 origin as a Shell gas station. Wrapped around that is the brick and plate glass of the One Hour Martinizing laundry that took over the spot in the early 1960s. Zada Jane’s opened in 2007, deftly re-using the oval Martinizing sign out front.

GULF STATION / PIZZA PEEL - 1600 Central Avenue

Charlotte Observer, April 5, 1956

You got 6 Green Swirl Glasses if you stopped in at Woodward’s Gulf on opening day in 1956. The Pizza Peel’s respectful expansion of the original Modernistic architecture debuted in 2014 — their first venture beyond the initial Pizza Peel in Charlotte’s Cotswold neighborhood.
Charlotte Observer, April 5, 1956
You got 6 Green Swirl Glasses if you stopped in at Woodward’s Gulf on opening day in 1956. The Pizza Peel’s respectful expansion of the original Modernistic architecture debuted in 2014 — their first venture beyond the initial Pizza Peel in Charlotte’s Cotswold neighborhood.

Continue walking in-bound on Central Avenue, crossing Thomas Avenue

BIRTHPLACE OF PIC ’n’ PAY / WORKMAN’S FRIEND – 1533 Central Avenue

Good things can come in plain packages. Sherwin Williams built this simple brick box of a building in 1951, peddling paint out of one side and renting the other. In 1957 tenant Alvin Levine launched a discount shoe shop called Pic’n’Pay – which grew into a major chain with 400+ stores nationwide. (Retail smarts ran in the family: see Alvin’s brother Leon Levine at 1510 Central, below). Today the Bottlecap Group operates a super-successful pub here. Don’t miss the elaborate olden-days British interior.
Good things can come in plain packages. Sherwin Williams built this simple brick box of a building in 1951, peddling paint out of one side and renting the other. In 1957 tenant Alvin Levine launched a discount shoe shop called Pic’n’Pay – which grew into a major chain with 400+ stores nationwide. (Retail smarts ran in the family: see Alvin’s brother Leon Levine at 1510 Central, below). Today the Bottlecap Group operates a super-successful pub here. Don’t miss the elaborate olden-days British interior.

BIRTHPLACE OF FAMILY DOLLAR – 1510 Central Avenue

On November 19, 1959, 22-year-old Leon Levine swung open the doors of his first Family Dollar store, 1510 Central Avenue. The area’s affordable rent and busy foot traffic helped him grow -- moving to 1519 across the street (now Social Status), then to the Central Square shopping plaza where Roco Rotisserie is today. Family Dollar became one of America’s top discount chains and Leon Levine became a major philanthropist: Levine Children’s Hospital, Levine Museum of the New South, and much more.
On November 19, 1959, 22-year-old Leon Levine swung open the doors of his first Family Dollar store, 1510 Central Avenue. The area’s affordable rent and busy foot traffic helped him grow — moving to 1519 across the street (now Social Status), then to the Central Square shopping plaza where Roco Rotisserie is today. Family Dollar became one of America’s top discount chains and Leon Levine became a major philanthropist: Levine Children’s Hospital, Levine Museum of the New South, and much more.
Charlotte Observer, November 19, 1959.
Charlotte Observer, November 19, 1959.

THE PARSONAGE – 1525 Central Avenue

This red brick Four Square style house, tucked back from the street among commercial buildings, is a smoke shop now, but it started life as a parsonage about 1926. Before Holy Trinity Lutheran moved to its present building at 1900 The Plaza, the church occupied the lot where Workman’s Friend now stands and its minister lived here.
This red brick Four Square style house, tucked back from the street among commercial buildings, is a smoke shop now, but it started life as a parsonage about 1926. Before Holy Trinity Lutheran moved to its present building at 1900 The Plaza, the church occupied the lot where Workman’s Friend now stands and its minister lived here.

HARRIS FOOD STORE / MAMA’S CARIBBEAN – 1504 Central Avenue

WT Harris (Yep, WT Harris Boulevard is now named for him) was still in his 20s when he started his first grocery here in 1936. He eventually merged with a Mooreville storekeeper to create South-wide supermarket powerhouse Harris Teeter. Today the space holds another entrepreneurial success story. Vinroy Reid from Jamaica, with his mama in the kitchen and daughters as waitresses, has been dishing out traditional Caribbean food for close to 20 years.
WT Harris (Yep, WT Harris Boulevard is now named for him) was still in his 20s when he started his first grocery here in 1936. He eventually merged with a Mooreville storekeeper to create South-wide supermarket powerhouse Harris Teeter. Today the space holds another entrepreneurial success story. Vinroy Reid from Jamaica, with his mama in the kitchen and daughters as waitresses, has been dishing out traditional Caribbean food for close to 20 years.
Charlotte Observer, September 26, 1936.
Charlotte Observer, September 26, 1936.

NOVA’S BAKERY – 1511 Central Avenue

Vlado and Sladjana Novakovic arrived in Charlotte from Yugoslavia in the 1990s seeking top-notch medical care for an ailing son. In 1997 the couple opened this delightful bakery, beloved for crusty and flavorful European breads.
Vlado and Sladjana Novakovic arrived in Charlotte from Yugoslavia in the 1990s seeking top-notch medical care for an ailing son. In 1997 the couple opened this delightful bakery, beloved for crusty and flavorful European breads.

PURE OIL STATION / FUEL PIZZA – 1501 Central Avenue

Fuel Pizza

Dating from 1936, this steep-roofed “cottage” was one of hundreds of gas stations built in the Tudor Revival style by the Pure Oil Company. After a stint as Nick’s Garage (Nick is still a Plaza Midwood favorite, now further out Central Avenue), this location opened as the very first Fuel Pizza in March 1998. Today they’re all over Charlotte and as far away as Washington DC. 

LONG’S GROCERY / SOUL GASTROLOUNGE – 1500 Central Avenue

This two-story brick store was likely the first structure to spring up in this commercial strip. City Directories show it as Lewis Long's Grocery in 1916. In 2009 hip DJ/entrepreneur Andy Kastanas added the balcony and opened Soul upstairs. Lesa Kastanas led the most recent renovation in 2019: Kiki eatery and Tattoo lounge downstairs.
This two-story brick store was likely the first structure to spring up in this commercial strip. City Directories show it as Lewis Long’s Grocery in 1916. In 2009 hip DJ/entrepreneur Andy Kastanas added the balcony and opened Soul upstairs. Lesa Kastanas led the most recent renovation in 2019: Kiki eatery and Tattoo lounge downstairs.

Turn left on Pecan Avenue

WALL POEM: LOVE COMES QUIETLY – Pecan Avenue at Gordon Street

WALL POEM

On the rear wall of Soul Gastrolounge, almost out-of-sight next to Snug Harbor, a poem quietly waits for you. Central Piedmont Community College literature prof Amy Bagwell began her Wall Poems project in 2013, sprinkling verse in unlikely public places around Charlotte. 

Snug Harbor, by the way, is one of Charlotte’s hottest indy-rock music venues.

Bear left off Pecan Avenue onto to the short one-block Gordon Street

PECULIAR RABBIT – 1212 Pecan Avenue

You can’t miss the eye-popping murals by Southern Tiger Collective, co-led by Queens U art prof Mike Wirth. This wacky architectural assemblage began life as Central Wesleyan Methodist Church, opened in 1948 when Pecan Avenue was a gravel road. In the '70s Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker used it as a call center for their PTL TV ministry. It became a nightclub called The Steeple in the 2000s, then was massively re-done and expanded as Peculiar Rabbit. Right now, everyone’s waiting for the next re-incarnation …
You can’t miss the eye-popping murals by Southern Tiger Collective, co-led by Queens U art prof Mike Wirth. This wacky architectural assemblage began life as Central Wesleyan Methodist Church, opened in 1948 when Pecan Avenue was a gravel road. In the ’70s Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker used it as a call center for their PTL TV ministry. It became a nightclub called The Steeple in the 2000s, then was massively re-done and expanded as Peculiar Rabbit. Right now, everyone’s waiting for the next re-incarnation …

WORLD WAR II BARRACKS / WILLMANN PLUMBING – 1212 Gordon Street

Willmann Plumbing (love those Art Deco letters on the roof) has been around Plaza Midwood since 1947. Their building is said to be a couple of re-used military barracks. Likely they came from Morris Field, the WWII air base that morphed into today’s Charlotte Douglas Airport.
Willmann Plumbing (love those Art Deco letters on the roof) has been around Plaza Midwood since 1947. Their building is said to be a couple of re-used military barracks. Likely they came from Morris Field, the WWII air base that morphed into today’s Charlotte Douglas Airport.

At the end of Gordon Street, turn left onto Commonwealth Avenue

THE DIAMOND – 1901 Commonwealth Avenue

Diamond

The Diamond’s big neon sign aimed to lure drivers off Independence Boulevard, which was not limited-access when it opened in the 1940s. William and Flonnie James built the diner about 1945, their twin sons Robert and Ralph ran it for decades, then Greek restaurateur Jimmy Pistiolis took over in the ‘90s. A new generation of Greek owners led by Andy Kastanas lovingly rehabbed it in 2010, with a retro menu that recalls Charlotte’s many Greek/Southern eateries of yore.

BRODT’S MUSIC / LEGION BREWING – 1906 Commonwealth Avenue

Starting back in 1934 Brodt’s built a reputation as one of THE places to buy sheet music in the South. But the internet wrecked that market niche. Today the building is Legion brewery – which hangs onto the old Brodt’s sign for good luck.
Starting back in 1934 Brodt’s built a reputation as one of THE places to buy sheet music in the South. But the internet wrecked that market niche. Today the building is Legion brewery – which hangs onto the old Brodt’s sign for good luck.

At the Penguin, turn left onto Thomas Avenue

THE PENGUIN – 1205 Thomas Avenue

The Penguin started life in the late '40’s as an ice cream stand near the new Independence Boulevard. It had lost out to newer fast-food chains when young Greg Auten and a couple of well-tattooed pals brought it roaring back to life in 2001. An eclectic jukebox, hot-rod themed burgers and fried dill pickles attracted TV’s Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives). But the lease ran out in 2010 (Auten’s westside Pinky’s Grill still makes those fried pickles) and today the Penguin building holds upscale NC RED, offering seafood plus Southern favorites.
The Penguin started life in the late ’40’s as an ice cream stand near the new Independence Boulevard. It had lost out to newer fast-food chains when young Greg Auten and a couple of well-tattooed pals brought it roaring back to life in 2001. An eclectic jukebox, hot-rod themed burgers and fried dill pickles attracted TV’s Guy Fieri (Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives). But the lease ran out in 2010 (Auten’s westside Pinky’s Grill still makes those fried pickles) and today the Penguin building holds upscale NC RED, offering seafood plus Southern favorites.
Charlotte News, April 7, 1950
Charlotte News, April 7, 1950

HOUSE OF AFRICA – 1215 Thomas Avenue

Tall, friendly Pape "Pap" Ndiaye from Senegal presides over this welcoming art-filled store, an informal gathering spot for African émigrés as well as non-Africans interested in the Mother Continent. GO INSIDE – the art will blow you away.
Tall, friendly Pape “Pap” Ndiaye from Senegal presides over this welcoming art-filled store, an informal gathering spot for African émigrés as well as non-Africans interested in the Mother Continent. GO INSIDE – the art will blow you away.

Continue up Thomas Avenue. Look through the public parking lot on your left to spy Queen Charlotte.

DRAG QUEEN CHARLOTTE – 1251 Thomas Avenue

DRAG QUEEN CHARLOTTE

Back in 2016 when NC passed anti-transgender legislation, community leader Tim Smyre turned a blank back wall of his 1510 Antiques into an affirming statement. Look closely – artists Nick Napoletano, Matt Moore and Matt Hooker painted drag queen pioneer Brandy Alexander with earrings that feature a certain NC governor.

THE PLAZA MIDWOOD MURAL – Thomas Av side of Coaltranes, 1518 Central Avenue

THE PLAZA MIDWOOD MURAL

Matt Moore and Matt Hooker (“The Matts” – look for their double-M logo) painted more than two dozen references to Plaza Midwood recent history here. I see House of Africa (that’s proprietor Pap in the glasses), the Penguin, the Diamond, Thomas Street Tavern …

Want to really dig into Plaza Midwood’s public art? There’s a walking tour for that – two tours actually.

POCKET PARK – Central Avenue at Thomas Avenue

Sculptures by Paul Sires (the carved terra cotta piece that looks like the capital of a Corinthian column) and Ruth Ava Lyons (the mosaic walls and 'house') made this spot a point of pride in 1994 – a key step in the rebirth of this then-neglected business district. 

Sires and Lyons ran Center of the Earth gallery on North Davidson Street in those years, which sparked the revitalization of Charlotte's NoDa neighborhood.
Sculptures by Paul Sires (the carved terra cotta piece that looks like the capital of a Corinthian column) and Ruth Ava Lyons (the mosaic walls and ‘house’) made this spot a point of pride in 1994 – a key step in the rebirth of this then-neglected business district. Sires and Lyons ran Center of the Earth gallery on North Davidson Street in those years, which sparked the revitalization of Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood.

Turn around and walk back down Thomas Avenue toward Commonwealth Avenue

DISH and THOMAS STREET TAVERN – 1220 Thomas Avenue, 1218 Thomas Avenue

These two popular neighborhood hang-outs had previous lives. DISH was the Ho Toy, a culinary hot spot in the days when Charlotte's ethnic eateries consisted entirely of two Chinese restaurants. TOM TAVERN was Plaza Midwood's Post Office until the current one opened in the 1990s.
These two popular neighborhood hang-outs had previous lives. DISH was the Ho Toy, a culinary hot spot in the days when Charlotte’s ethnic eateries consisted entirely of two Chinese restaurants. TOM TAVERN was Plaza Midwood’s Post Office until the current one opened in the 1990s.

BORIS & NATASHA – 1214 Thomas Avenue

BORIS & NATASHA

Charlotte’s hippest clothing store. Curated by Hope Nicholls, whose punk-rock band Fetchin’ Bones won national fame in the late 1980s, cutting three LPs on Capitol Records. When that burned out she came home to Charlotte, where she and husband Aaron Pitkin gleefully stir the city’s cultural pot. Catch their current band It’s Snakes, whose rare gigs mix performance art with party music.

You recall who Boris & Natasha were, right? You so hip!

Turn left on Commonwealth Avenue. You may want to stop in at Common Market, a favorite neighborhood gathering spot.

COMMON MARKET — 2007/2009 Commonwealth Avenue

Blake Barnes had a vision for this work-a-day 1950 building, originally a barbershop and drycleaner. In 2002 he opened Common Market and kept it open in the midst of one of Charlotte’s rare snowstorms. Instant neighborhood hang-out! Now there are three Common Markets around town, each beloved. The front patio here, by the way, happened when the City narrowed the street to add the back-in-only parking in 2012.
Blake Barnes had a vision for this work-a-day 1950 building, originally a barbershop and drycleaner. In 2002 he opened Common Market and kept it open in the midst of one of Charlotte’s rare snowstorms. Instant neighborhood hang-out! Now there are three Common Markets around town, each beloved. The front patio here, by the way, happened when the City narrowed the street to add the back-in-only parking in 2012.

MOXIE MERCANTILE – 2008 Commonwealth Avenue

MOXIE MERCHANTILE

This might be Charlotte’s best Craftsman Bungalow. Get an up-close look at the 1920s stone and wood detailing outside and inside. After its early years as a house, it held Charlotte’s busiest wedding planner for several decades. Now it’s a gift shop run by Michelle and Clifton Castelloe. Cliff often co-plans neighborhood events as the head of the Plaza Midwood Merchants Association.

Turn left onto The Plaza.

FIRE STATION No. 8 – 1201 The Plaza

FIRE STATION No. 8

It looks like a house, but it never was a house. Charlotte architect M.R. Marsh created the design to fit into what was then a purely residential block. “One of the first residential-type structures to be built in this part of the country for use as a fire station,” said the Observer when it opened on April 25, 1949.  It’s now an official Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmark. The firefighters love its vibe: they’ve nicknamed their unit “The White House.”

POST OFFICE — 1233 The Plaza

Such a symbol of this changing neighborhood! Originally a furniture store serving 1950s suburbanites, it sat empty in the 1990s before being rehabbed as a Post Office. Today, with land values shooting upward, it’s doing the same. A new steel structure in 2020 enlarges it from two to four stories — while the Post Office stays open.
Such a symbol of this changing neighborhood! Originally a furniture store serving 1950s suburbanites, it sat empty in the 1990s before being rehabbed as a Post Office. Today, with land values shooting upward, it’s doing the same. A new steel structure in 2020 enlarges it from two to four stories — while the Post Office stays open.

Continue up The Plaza to Central Avenue and you are back at the Public Library where you started.

Want to dig deeper?

Find the 2004 book by Jeff Byers, Plaza Midwood Neighborhood of Charlotte (it’s at the Library, also sold at Common Market) or read this on-line study of Plaza Midwood’s early development.

Want to walk a little further?

  1. Plaza Midwood Historic District Self-Guided Walk – Cross Central Avenue and continue strolling up The Plaza into the residential streets of one of Charlotte’s six official Historic Districts. 
  2. Central Avenue Self-Guided Walk — Turn left (inbound) on Central Avenue and continue with a self-guided walk that explores more of that commercial thoroughfare.
  3. Book store / photo gallery side-trip – Turn right on Central Avenue and take a half-block out-and-back amble to Book Buyers and the Light Factory.

BOOK BUYERS -- 1308-F The Plaza

This petite shopping plaza, built 1952, has held interesting tenants over the years -- including Charlotte’s best used bookstore. Quiet, friendly owner Richard Rathers mined coal, worked on the railroad, and taught in England before returning to his native NC. Right now he’s rebuilding a 1941 Piper Cub airplane … right in the bookstore! Daughter Lee Rathers’s Greener Apple shop shares the space, selling vegan provisions.
This petite shopping plaza, built 1952, has held interesting tenants over the years — including Charlotte’s best used bookstore. Quiet, friendly owner Richard Rathers mined coal, worked on the railroad, and taught in England before returning to his native NC. Right now he’s rebuilding a 1941 Piper Cub airplane … right in the bookstore! Daughter Lee Rathers’s Greener Apple shop shares the space, selling vegan provisions.

Return to Central Avenue and walk outbound on Central past the shopping plaza. First thing you see on your left is Midwood School. Take the driveway BEFORE the school; in the school’s back parking lot you’ll find the entrance to Light Factory.

LIGHT FACTORY – 1817 Central Avenue (rear)

Midwood Elementary School went up during the Great Depression, funded by New Deal dollars. Today it’s considered too small by a modern school standards, so CMS rents it out to non-profits. The old cafeteria is stylishly upfitted as Light Factory, a photography education center and one of the top photo galleries in the South, featuring local and national artists.
Midwood Elementary School went up during the Great Depression, funded by New Deal dollars. Today it’s considered too small by a modern school standards, so CMS rents it out to non-profits. The old cafeteria is stylishly upfitted as Light Factory, a photography education center and one of the top photo galleries in the South, featuring local and national artists.

Now walk back inbound on Central Avenue the way you came, returning to the Public Library.