Jan. 28, 2021
I walked into the Charlotte Observer building for the first time in the spring of 1993. An editor had asked me to apply for an investigative reporting job and the paper had set up a two-day interview. I wasn’t sure I was interested because I had a satisfying job at the Houston Chronicle.
Still, the Observer was a premier Southern newspaper in a state I loved. I was a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and wanted to locate closer to my family in Virginia. My father had just been diagnosed with cancer and I wanted to spend more time with him.
During my Observer interview, I met with close to a dozen editors, talked about journalism for hours and toured parts of the city I’d never seen.
There was plenty to see, including the lovely uptown with its growing number of skyscrapers, tree-lined streets and flower-filled planters. But what intrigued me the most about the commercial area was the iconic Observer building.
I’ve always been interested in architecture and could tell that the white, rectangular building was built in the Brutalism style. Located at one end of uptown, it was constructed in 1971, when that type of heavy, faux-modern style was popular. The five-story edifice seemed to squat on its plot of land, its high slitted windows giving it a hooded look.
Inside, a central atrium flooded the middle of the building with light. On each side of the atrium were the escalators, where staffers going up and down waved to each other and talked – or nearly shouted – in truncated conversations. I’d never worked in a newspaper building with escalators and the effect was collegial and charming.
Or so I thought. Two months later, I was working at the Observer and discovered that the escalators were the bane of the staffers’ existence. The moving stairs broke down chronically and often required days to repair. Two small elevators took up most of the slack – and too much time.
The newsroom was on the fourth floor and its signature narrow vertical windows cast a mostly gloomy light on the L-shaped newsroom.
The news staff grumbled about the building’s general inefficiency, but everyone knew important things went on there. The stories ranged from Pulitzer prize winners to three-inch weather updates. In between were civic-minded reports on the school board, city council and county commission.
In my 15 years in the newsroom, I saw and generally experienced varieties of every emotion – exhilaration, boredom, happiness, sadness, pity and disgust. As an editor, I comforted people as they cried, hugged excited staffers and helped to pacify angry reporters.
When I left the paper in 2009 and moved to London, it was with a sense of foreboding. The Observer and its relatively new owner, the McClatchy Corp., were being pummeled by a terrible economy, crippling debt and plummeting circulation. Bankruptcy came a few years later. It was just a matter of time before something bad would happen to the building on Tryon Street.
Sure enough, the building and its ten acres were sold for a multi-use development in 2016 and the wrecking ball appeared not long after. Before the old building was demolished, a big party was held to celebrate its storied history. I didn’t have the heart to go, but my name was inscribed on the lobby’s wall, along with the names of a few thousand other people who’d worked there over the years.
The remnants of the depleted Observer staff moved to the NASCAR building a few blocks away, but that didn’t last either. A few months ago, the editor announced that the paper’s newsroom would be shut down and the few dozen staffers left would work at home, partly because of Covid 19 but mostly because the modern quarters had gotten too expensive. A hedge fund now owns the paper and decided it really doesn’t need a newsroom.
The reviled but beloved Observer building is gone, replaced by a sleek, tall bank. But the new building can’t take away the memories.