Your New Cadillac Has Arrived

As another repurposed architectural gem is rescued by providence and sweat
equity, a nearly century-old monument to American ingenuity promises
to reignite a once vibrant neighborhood

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Amy Freeman

In its heyday the south side of downtown, under the shadow of the King Cotton Hotel and bordered by the train tracks, was populated by venerable businesses such as the Gate City Hotel, New Baltimore Cafe, Greensboro Tavern, Harold Sykes’ Amoco, Weinstein Music, Cox Furniture, Bishop’s Record Shop and Groome Tire. Also flourishing were lodge halls, boarding houses, billiard parlors, union headquarters, barber shops, florists, alongside wholesalers in ice, dairy, poultry, produce, candy, feed and seed. Some of the finest homes the city has ever seen completed this tableau.

This epicenter of luxury and style during the first half of the 20th century, astonishingly intact, is the most concentrated pocket of historically significant properties outside South Elm. As the 1920s began to roar, situated on the southeastern corner of East Market and Forbis (now Church), was Carolina Cadillac, later called Adamson before becoming Black Cadillac-Oldsmobile in the mid-’50s. This was automotive row for many decades. Next door to the Cadillac dealership, now under the Graphica logo, was Lowman Studebaker. Trader’s Chevrolet was just up the block on East Market, now a parking lot, while Gate City Motors was a few blocks north on Church, now enjoying life as the Children’s Museum. Another survivor, on Hughes and Church, is the Art Deco inspired Ingram Motor Company’s Ford Truck headquarters, built around 1950 for my grandfather Bill Ingram Sr.

Automotive dealerships erected from the 1920s into the 1940s were often opulent castles, richly appointed with marble or terracotta columns and impressive ornamentations meant to assure customers that this business was a permanent member of the community. This Caddy Showroom is a primo example, with two-story–high ceilings, large picture windows and wide open spaces necessary for displaying those motorized behemoths Detroit was mass producing, like the 1957 Coupe de Ville land yacht, 5,000 pounds of hulking polished chrome and steel that seated six comfortably.

When Jay and Andrea Jung (pronounced “young”) embarked on a wall-to-wall reimagining of this showplace that once housed chariots of the industrial-age gods, the end result wasn’t what they originally had in mind. Jay explains what drove them, so to speak, to where they are now. “We bought the Studebaker building in 1997, then bought this one in 2007, but everything kinda crashed. Then Design Archives let us know a few months after we bought it that they were moving to Tate Street,” he says, adding that the place sat mostly empty until 2013. “People would come by and they would get excited about it, but they just didn’t have enough money to develop it.”

Then the Jungs were steered in an unexpected direction as Jay tells it, “Along came Zack Matheny, who had just joined DGI [Downtown Greensboro Inc.]. He put us together with Kathi Dubel in economic development and they are the reason we went ahead [with the event space]. We wanted to invest right here in Greensboro and Zack saw that.” For the next four years the duo, along with Jay’s brother and business partner Tom, made this their DIY project, “My brother and I, along with one artist here in Greensboro, built pretty much everything in here.” That meant acquiring a concrete mixer, welding equipment, a woodworking shop, then setting about to create a true work of art on a deteriorating canvas.

“We went through a lot of iterations as to what this might be before finally settling on it being an event space,” Andrea tells me. The Jungs considered a market at one point, then a restaurant. Regardless of the showroom’s ultimate intended use, the Herculean effort to revive it would have to begin with the unglamorous task of repairing flooded boiler rooms, modernizing bathrooms, restoring skylights and demolishing the antiquated offices. That alone took two years. In the meantime Jay says, “My brother and I were head of design for Panera Bread. The way the CEO put it was, ‘Figure out where we should throw the football. Don’t figure out where we should be right now, figure out where we should be in the future.’” Traveling all around the country, they had the good fortune to encounter creative artisans and explore some exotic materials Panera was using for a radical redesign of its 1,800 locations.

Back in Greensboro, concrete 9 inches thick was poured over the garage floor, then coated and polished; all the glasswork was replaced and reglazed, including the skylights. Modular lighting, both wall-mounted and hanging, was installed along with baffling to reduce echoing. A rounded concrete loading dock with a bent steel accent doubles as a stage that leads to an outdoor garden patio paved in recycled granite. Taking advantage of the exposed brick walls surrounding the spacious interior, the Jungs were determined to use only steel, concrete, stone, wood, chrome and glass for fixtures and furnishings to give birth to what they’re calling Cadillac Service Garage, as a hat-tip to the past.

An entire wedding celebration can be held under one roof, with the ceremony taking place in the garage, Andrea Jung explains. “Then we send everybody up front to the showroom for cocktails and appetizers, and we flip the back for the seated reception. So you can be divided up in the three spaces without feeling separated.” There’s a magnificent archway off the main foyer that flows out of the comfy bride and groom’s lounges so the couple can lace up before the face-up, then make their dramatic entrance in style. A nearby Mid-Century brick house, originally a paint and body shop, serves as the operation’s offices and staging area for seamless transitions.

The cozy mezzanine, which used to be nondescript sales offices, overlooks both the front showroom with the original black-and-white checkered tile and the former repair shop in the rear. One example of the meticulous attention to detail prevalent throughout this enterprise are the twin staircases leading to the upper landing. “On purpose, we built these at a 7-degree angle,” Jay tells me. “There are no 90-degree angles, which gives it a lot of visual interest.” The side railings came to them by chance, as Jay recounts: “We have a really good friend who called and said, ‘I’m standing in a dumpster and there are huge sheets of curved meshed metal. Can you use it?’ I said, ‘Send me a picture.’ He sent it to me, I said, ‘We’re coming right over.’” When the Jungs arrived at the dumpster, they pulled the metal out “and ran it through a rolling machine backwards,” Jay recalls. Once the sheets were straightened out, he says, “Then we blasted them and coated them.”

Clever touches are found wherever you look. In front of an upstairs wall, adorned with 5-by-10-foot slabs of Italian porcelain resembling copper, are heavy metal swivel stools with polished mahogany tops. Jay explains how they came about: “We drew them out, then had the pieces cut and we welded them together. The whole thing is designed to be a part of the railing, they swivel on the railing posts.”

Andrea points out the front entrance. “This was just a solid storefront,” she says. “When we started renovating the city said, ‘You can’t open up on the sidewalk, that’s a tripping hazard.’ But you can’t open the door to the inside because that’s a fire hazard!” A vestibule of steel with concrete overlays was crafted to support custom-made doors carved from reclaimed wood, sandblasted to deepen the grain. “When we fashioned this vestibule we wanted to make sure it wasn’t all hard and cold,” Jay says. “So this warm, beautiful wood kind of meshes with it. But we also take a lot of time in how we finish our steel. This steel, even though it’s hard and cold, it has a softness to it. So we would pick our metal very carefully. We rub it, distress it, finish it in a certain way.” Indeed, it never occurred to me that this wasn’t the original entrance, and I’d been here several times in the 1990s when this one-time derelict was the scene for rave parties. “Everything we’ve done in the place is of the character of the building,” Andrea notes. “Everything feels like it should feel, but it’s all cleaned up and new.”

The entire 13,000-square foot ceiling was paneled in stained heart pine slats rescued from a warehouse in Eden, giving this Industrial chic arena with Steampunk undertones a distinctly warm feeling. Even the dinner tables are manufactured from thick wooden beams. Jay explains, “We planed them to make sure they were functionally stable, then we painted them, rubbed them, painted them again, rubbed them again” to give the surface a distressed but silky smooth, ice creamy lusciousness.

How does this nearly century-old beauty fit within the surrounding neighborhood? Directly across the street from Cadillac Service Garage on East Market is Mitchell’s Clothing. Ninety-year old John Mitchell tells me he’s been haberdashering in this very spot since 1937. “I was 11 years old. The owner was my uncle, I used to come work here after school,” he recalls. A few years later his father bought the business. Mitchell’s is a living testament to how the area has changed. “You had the Hudson dealership next to Johnson Motors. Then you had the Clegg-King barber shop in the basement of the hotel. And Greensboro Barbecue, that man’s name was Al Kypris, they had good food,” John Mitchell remembers, before ticking off a list of area diners operating out of remodeled railroad cars. “There used to be a chicken place on Sycamore Street where they sold live chickens. Then you had Patterson’s Seafood on Davie; they had trays all the way around the store with different kinds of fresh fish on ice. You’d pick out what you want and they’d go in the back and clean it for you. These people would bring the fish in [from the coast] every Friday,” he says.

Referring to the charming,  ’20s-era, three-story brick apartment house next door to his shop at 313 East Market, Mitchell says, “Upstairs, back in the old days, a lot of Greeks, when they came from the Old Country, would live up there for a while. A Greek woman there used to scrub the steps every day and kept it clean and nice.” Dual ground-floor storefronts below the rental units once housed Dabbs Furniture.

Dating back to the ’20s, on the corner of Market and Lyndon, is another restored relic, the enormous Dick’s Laundry building with a decorative brickwork facade and large swatches of windows, unique for the period. Lost to “progress” was the two-story, block-long Arctic Coal and Ice facility that would have offered a world of possibilities today. On the 400 block of East Market is an old-school brick shopping strip completed in two stages, the first around 1951 for Eat Well Cafe and Guilford Dry Cleaners that now, fittingly, houses an authentic barbershop, itself frozen in time.

The railroad overpass that caps this district was the historical demarcation of what was euphemistically referred to in olden times as “the other side of the tracks,” with dual pedestrian tunnels underneath, one side designated for whites, the other for blacks. According to Mitchell, “From Church Street to the bridge was more or less a buffer zone between the black town and the white town.”

Around the corner on Lyndon Street are two of the neighborhood’s remaining single family homes, one of which has been Frankensteined into eight units, along with four San Francisco–style row houses from 1905. They are a very unusual design for our state, but another block of row houses used to exist nearby, at the rear of the News and Record property. These are followed on Lyndon by the Crane and Tomlinson Plumbing warehouses, the latter now an artists’ collective, and a distribution depot for Brinkley & Holland, all built in the 1920s and ’30s. Mitchell recalls that during Prohibition, “I’d see the lawyers and businessmen walk across the street and I always wondered where they went. I found out they had a bootlegger house over there on Lyndon where they’d sell whiskey. They’d have a couple of drinks and go back to work.” Also in sight, the palatial but underused Anderson Produce Market at Church and Friendly with a stark but sturdy Art Deco façade dating back to the mid-1920s.

Black Cadillac-Olds moved to their current showroom on Bessemer around 1966, leaving behind a cavernous cadaver. The southern edge of downtown went to seed as businesses fled the city center in general; that decline was hastened after our premiere hotel became a fleabag, as Mitchell witnessed firsthand. “The King Cotton got rundown, people got in there and they were rowdy. They used to throw bottles out of the windows on people walking by and stuff like that,” he says. That 13-story high-rise, once the city’s symbol of elegance and permanence, was imploded in 1971. Before that decade ended, even the train depot up and left. It wasn’t until another 40 years, with the restoration of the Studebaker dealership in 2007 to serve as offices for Jay Jung’s marketing firms Graphica and Think/Create, followed by the repurposing of Dick’s Laundry, that there was a glimmer of hope for this side pocket of downtown to experience a comeback.

Lit up at night, under its original metal sidewalk canopy, Cadillac Service Garage sparkles with the elegance and panache of a 1940s cruise ship. Accommodating a maximum of 680 people, this capacious event space can be scaled easily for big or small receptions. When First Bancorp acquired Carolina Bank they had their first big corporate meet-up here. And, if you happen to be in the area, by all means stop by Mitchell’s Clothing and check out his prodigious selection of hats and shoes, then you can say you shopped where your grandfather did. I couldn’t resist asking John Mitchell how he managed to stay in business all these decades. His reply came quickly: “I open the door.”

It seems every parcel of Greensboro has its own made-up moniker, most recently an area north of downtown was christened Midtown despite its being anything but. Jay Jung believes the neighborhood Cadillac Service Garage now anchors deserves its own nickname, “Zack and I were brainstorming about it and we thought it would be great to call it DUMBO, Down Under the Market Bridge Overpass, kinda like it is in Brooklyn.”  OH

Billy Ingram was born and raised in Greensboro but, for a period in the 1980s and ’90s, was part of the Hollywood team the ad world has enshrined as, “The New York Yankees of motion picture advertising.” He is the author of five books, as if anyone reads anymore.

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