By John M. Nolan
There are many factors that may contribute to a city being considered “modern.” Often when styles of fashion, art and advanced technology embrace present trends, the title gains traction. However, architecture has historically held a leading position in achieving that designation.
America was at the forefront of the “modern” city as we now think of it, when Chicago became the epicenter of steel-frame construction, allowing buildings to break the typical 10-story maximum height for masonry buildings. Skylines forever changed beginning in the 1880s when Chicago’s 12-story Home Insurance Office Building was considered the world’s first “skyscraper.”
Until the first decade of the 20th century, 10- to 20-story buildings were still within the definition, but soon the ambitious construction of large buildings in Chicago, New York and other metropolitan cities brought the official designation of a skyscraper to a minimum of 40 stories. Many American cities have since aspired to modernize with tall commercial buildings.
Like most Carolina cities, Greenville’s skyline remained under 10 stories into the second decade of the century. Though by then, the phrase “Textile Center of the South,” was already in use, its tallest structures in 1920 were the six-story Masonic Building, the seven-story Imperial Hotel, and the eight-story Greenville County Courthouse.
If Chicago and New York City pioneered the modern age with their first skyscrapers in the late 1800s, Greenville’s breakthrough came in 1923 with the opening of The Woodside Building towering 17-stories and 185 feet above Main Street between East Washington Street and East McBee Avenue. Its owners were the four Woodside brothers — the same ambitious family members who built America’s largest textile mill on the outskirts of town.
Their bank and office building on Main Street earned the distinction of being the largest building in North or South Carolina (eclipsing Columbia’s 15-story Palmetto Building). The Woodside’s elegant mahogany and marble-laden décor and neoclassical style were “traditional,” but its impressive height ushered Greenville into the modern age.
By 1965, Daniel Construction’s Brutalist-style skyscraper on North Main Street became the new tallest building in town and state at 22 stories and 305 feet, replaced by a newer SCN bank building in 1973 (now Wells Fargo bank).
In 2020, South Carolina still does not have a building reaching anywhere near the current 40-story skyscraper minimum. The state’s tallest is Columbia’s Capitol Center at 26 stories and 349 feet high. Like 1920s Greenville, the city is in the midst of great economic and architectural growth. Cranes are going up and down monthly. Time will tell if we will be the first in the state to break the 40-story “skyscraper” threshold.