SPONSORED BY NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Sometimes, Liz Melendez sits at the foundation of the Alice Freeman Palmer Building in Sedalia and contemplates the century-old bricks that rest beneath her feet. “I love that spot because those bricks were all handmade by students in the 1920s,” says Melendez, assistant site manager of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum.
To Melendez, those bricks represent the dedication of Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who founded Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute in 1902 as a safe place for Black students to learn.
Throughout the state, buildings like this one tell stories that span a thousand years, and you can hear them — if you know where to go. Whether you’re an architecture or history buff, join us for a time-traveling tour through a few of our state’s most fascinating buildings.
A message from our sponsor:
NC History Fall Hikes
As you plan your fall outings, add some culture by visiting a state historic site that also has a trail. With lengths ranging from a quarter mile to eight miles, we’ve created a round-up of historic site trails across NC.
Built by Native Americans of the Pee Dee culture, Town Creek Indian Mound served as the setting for religious ceremonies, important discussions, and feasts. Many high-ranking members of the Pee Dee were buried at the mound. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
1,000: A Rich Tradition
A thousand years ago, a Native American village of the Mississippian tradition developed along the Little River in Montgomery County. The bustling settlement functioned like a capital for smaller villages in the region, with people coming and going to practice their religion, for politics, and to trade. Today, you can visit a partially reconstructed replica of this village at Town Creek Indian Mound near Mount Gilead in central North Carolina.
“The Mississippian tradition was a very different way of life than what was seen in most of the rest of North Carolina,” explains Rich Thompson, site manager at Town Creek. Stockaded villages and large-level mounds that support temples and other important structures are two prominent features of Mississippian settlements, both present at Town Creek.
Although a large mound of dirt may not sound impressive, Thompson points out that both the geometric shape and the even and aligned sides that form the mound’s structure are a testament to the ingenuity of the villagers who built it. “A lot of folks imagine that in the Americas a thousand years ago, people were living hand to mouth, and it was a very simple existence, but this society shows that they were sophisticated,” Thompson says. “They didn’t have iPhones, but they were still capable of influencing their environment.”
At The East Lodge, check out the techniques that villagers used to build sturdy homes and buildings. “Wattle,” created by weaving saplings between upright posts, formed the interior of walls, which were sealed by pressing daub, a mixture of clay and organic matter, like grasses, into both sides of the wattle. Roofs were tightly thatched on the outside with native grasses, like broom straw or bluestem, and rivercane on the inside.
Mid-1700s: Fit for Royalty
Tryon Palace’s grandeur, from its symmetrical Georgian-style architecture to its Flemish-bond brickwork to the crest of King George III adorning the roofline’s pediment, befits its place in history. As the first permanent Capitol for a royal governor in the colony, the home was designed to emulate the expansive country homes outside of London — signs of status and wealth.
The palace in New Bern served as the center of the government’s functions over a tumultuous 24-year period. The timing of the opulent palace’s completion in 1770 came as colonists’ patience with taxation and British regulations had already begun to wear thin. Further taxes to pay for the £15,000 compound didn’t ease colonists’ frustration with their rulers.
William Tryon was one of two royal governors who lived at the palace before 1775. During the Revolutionary War, patriots made the palace their Capitol and held the first sessions of the state’s General Assembly.
Take a guided tour of the mansion that was used by the first four governors of the new state before the capitol moved to Raleigh in 1794. Although fire destroyed most of the original palace in 1798, it was meticulously rebuilt and restored in 1959 using original architectural plans and other archeological evidence.
Somerset Place originally consisted of more than 100,000 acres, making it one of the largest plantations in the upper South. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Late 1700s—Mid-1800s: Prosperity & Exploitation
In Washington County, the historic Somerset Place allows visitors to see both the generous home of its wealthy landowners and the meager dwellings of enslaved people who worked one of the most profitable plantations in North Carolina.
In the 1780s, about 100,000 acres of densely wooded swampland along the shoreline of Lake Phelps were converted into high-yielding fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax. Around 200 free and enslaved laborers — men, women, and children — worked in standing water, digging through the swampy muck to create a six-mile canal to drain the land, a project that took three years.
Fifty years later, Josiah Collins III inherited the plantation and built a nearly 7,000-square-foot Greek Revival mansion for his family, where they lived and held extravagant parties. Although the exterior is simply designed, slim Doric columns that support full-length double porches and a semicircular gable-end window hint at the home’s elegant interior.
This grand abode contrasts sharply with the 18-by-18-foot homes that provided roughly 296 square feet of living space for the families of enslaved workers on the plantation. While you’re here, you can walk through a reproduction of a larger slave home — three once stood on the plantation — that housed four families within its 20-by-40-feet of living space.
Author Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s Victorian boardinghouse — with original stained-glass bay windows — is the centerpiece of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Late 1800s—Early 1900s: Literary Inspiration
Just minutes from the buzzing sidewalks of Asheville’s Broadway Street stands “Old Kentucky Home,” the yellow clapboard, Queen Anne-influenced boardinghouse where author Thomas Wolfe spent the greater part of his childhood. The many-gabled home, complete with its two-story canted bay window, multiple porches, and ornamental woodwork, seems out of place here, tucked among condominiums, hotels, and parking lots. But at one time, this part of town was a vibrant residential street lined with Victorian homes.
The boardinghouse — renamed “Dixieland” — and its guests played a prominent role in Wolfe’s most famous book Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s descriptions of the “dirty yellow” house that was “cheaply constructed” with “drafty high-ceilinged rooms” paint a grim picture of life in the rambling home that grew to 29 rooms with additions made by his mother, Julia.
When she, a shrewd businessperson, bought Old Kentucky Home, the Wolfe’s already stormy family life was further strained. Wolfe’s father, a tombstone carver and alcoholic, had no interest in the business of boarding. He remained at the family’s home with five of their children, while Julia moved with Thomas, age 6, to the boardinghouse.
Plan to tour the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, where the boardinghouse is furnished much like it was when the writer resided there.
In 1902, African American educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown founded a groundbreaking school in Sedalia, the Palmer Memorial Institute. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Early to Mid-1900s: A Foundation of Education
In 1901, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a North Carolina native and granddaughter of former slaves who had been educated in Massachusetts, returned to the state to teach. However, the school in the small, rural, and agricultural piedmont town of Sedalia, closed just one school term after her arrival.
Despite this setback, Dr. Brown chose to stay to do what she could to ensure the community’s Black children had educational opportunities. The next school year, the tenacious 19-year-old started the Palmer Memorial Institute, named for her mentor Alice Freeman Palmer, in a blacksmith shed.
During the first half of the 20th century, the school began with a focus on teaching industrial and agricultural skills and evolved into an accredited prep school attended by the children of affluent Black families from around the country.
Palmer Memorial Institute’s Charles W. Eliot Hall features a slate roof and pedimented entrance porticoes. Photography courtesy of NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
The Palmer Memorial Institute remains a place for inspiration modeled after the places that inspired its founder. “The landscape at Palmer is intentionally set up to look and feel like a college campus, and more specifically a New England college campus because that was Dr. Brown’s background,” says Melendez.
Find maps of the campus in the visitor center at the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum and take a self-guided tour to see the brick Galen Stone Hall, Charles W. Eliot Hall, and Kimball Hall. These buildings all feature slate roofs and pedimented entrance porticoes, characteristic of the colonial revival style. Your visit won’t be complete without seeing those original bricks, formed with care by students, to lay the foundation of the Alice Palmer Freeman Building, a place that also allowed them to build a foundation of success in their lives.
Get our most popular weekly newsletter: This is NC