Mill Power: Where Workers Once Made Bolts of Flannel, a Busy Mixed-Use Complex Hums Away
Preservation Magazine, Winter 2024
The National Trust for Historic Preservation
Architect Eddie Belk, 74 years old and dressed in a well-worn green T-shirt, khaki pants, and a red-and-white North Carolina State University ball cap, looks over what was once an enormous cotton-spinning room at Revolution Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s an impressive scene: two rows of 14-foot-tall heart-pine columns run down the middle of the expanse, longer than two football fields. Sunlight from the clerestory windows above creates patterns on the polished maple floors. White doors with transom windows on each side of this building and an adjacent one lead to 150 apartments with tall ceilings, recycled-glass countertops, and exposed brick walls. “No matter who I bring in here, they get that smile on their face trying to gather it all in,” he says, noticing my grin. “It’s a wonderful space. I’ll come in here just to spend a minute. Just to enjoy it.”
Decades ago, this space was impressive for different reasons. This was the heart of Revolution Cotton Mills, at one time the largest cotton flannel mill in the world. The spinning room was where hundreds of looms the size of golf carts clattered away, 24 hours a day. Cotton lint filled the air as fans moving along a track, still present on the ceiling, blew debris off the machines. Giant “air washer” units did their best to suck the particles out of the room. Workers, dubbed “lintheads” by those outside the mill communities, would leave their shifts covered in dust. Some came down with brown lung disease caused by inhaling fibers or lost fingers to the rapidly moving looms. Millwork was a dangerous job.
This spinning room is one of nine renovated buildings—six contiguous—on the sprawling 42-acre campus of Revolution Mill, a mixed-use development that includes apartments, offices, restaurants, shops, and event spaces. Belk, principal at Belk Architecture in Durham, North Carolina, is eager to show me them all. This is the 14th mill complex that Belk’s firm has worked on, and at 750,000 square feet it isn’t even the largest. That title goes to the 1-million-square-foot American Tobacco factory: nine buildings in Durham that Belk and his team turned into a mixed-use campus, the first tenants arriving in 2005. All told, Belk says he’s redesigned more than 7 million square feet of historic properties since launching his firm on his birthday in 1982. “This is one of my architectural children that I’m proud of,” he says of Revolution Mill in a lilting Carolina drawl. “By the time we got to this one, [old mills] were just something that we understood.”
We began our tour several hours earlier in what was the distribution warehouse, a five-story, brick-clad building that dates to 1915 (with a 1930 addition). Here, workers would store reams of finished flannel awaiting pickup via trains on adjacent tracks. Belk’s firm ended up removing a 40- by 40-foot section of the building’s interior to create a soaring atrium topped by skylights. At night, LED lights mounted on metal rings around concrete support columns shine upward. “It’s just a beautiful sight,” he says.
Traces of the building’s prior use can be found throughout: nicks on the columns from careless forklift operators, scorch marks from some past fire, an old bale press repurposed into a bench. On one concrete support someone has scrawled, “T.W. Nelson, Aug. 27, 1969.”
When Belk and his team surveyed the property in 2013, they found the majority of the mill buildings structurally sound. The sturdy columns and floors had done their jobs, but most structures required new roofs. As in many Southern mills, at some point the windows throughout the complex had been bricked over, as the advent of air washing systems and fluorescent lighting replaced natural ventilation and sunlight. During the rehabilitation, crews removed these bricks and repaired and replicated hundreds of windows and frames throughout, including in the warehouse, dubbed Mill House.
These days, the warehouse holds a coworking space, a nail salon, a cosmetic medical office, a future eatery and market, and three apartments on its ground floor. Upper floors contain another 30 apartments as well as office space, including the homes of two national textile design firms. More than four decades after Revolution Mill’s looms went silent, the textile industry has returned. “These companies have all decided, ‘Well, let’s go back to the mill,’” says Belk. “It seems very appropriate, doesn’t it?”
Revolution Mill’s roots date to 1891, when brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone, the two eldest sons of a prominent German-Jewish immigrant family in Baltimore, formed the Cone Export & Commission Company to broker Southern textile products. Soon they decided to operate their own mills and built their first Greensboro plant, Proximity Cotton Mills, which began weaving denim in 1896. Revolution was the brothers’ second mill; they opened it in 1899 with business partners Emanuel and Herman Sternberger specifically to produce cotton flannel. Six years later the Cones finished building White Oak Cotton Mills, which became the world’s largest denim factory, eventually supplying material for Levi Strauss, Lee, Wrangler, and others. Proximity Print Works, opened in 1912, was the South’s first plant to specialize in printed cotton fabrics.
Like other mill owners in the region, the Cones built self-sufficient villages for their employees. The company provided land for churches, stores, schools, playing fields, and recreation centers, and constructed hundreds of simple clapboard company-owned houses that workers leased. Black employees lived in a separate village and often worked lower-paying jobs at the mills or toiled in the houses of company higher-ups who occupied an area dubbed “Snob Hill.” By the 1940s, more than 2,600 workers lived in 1,500 houses around the four plants.
But by the 1970s, the American textile industry was in decline, as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Revolution Mill produced its last flannel in 1982, and the complex was left to deteriorate. The local economy also declined as workers sought opportunities elsewhere. The other Cone mills closed, with White Oak hanging on until early 2018—one of the last remaining denim mills in the country.
Proximity Cotton Mills was razed, and many thought Revolution Mill would suffer the same fate. “Mills were not celebrated as part of North Carolina history at all,” says Benjamin Briggs, head of Preservation North Carolina, who previously consulted on the rehabilitation of Revolution as executive director of Preservation Greensboro. He says lawsuits from brown lung and the rapid decline of United States–made textiles precipitated the demolition of historic mills across the state. “How did you deal with our deep textile mill history?” asks Briggs. “You got rid of it.”