HISTORY
Courtesy of Preservation Greensboro Incorporated & Benjamin Briggs, Executive Director

Few buildings are as central to the development of modern Greensboro as the Cone Mills Complex in northeastern Greensboro. The nearly two million square foot complex; including Revolution Mill, Revolution Warehouse, Olympic Mill, Printworks Mill, and White Oak Mill; straddles Buffalo Creek and is key to Greensboro’s historic development as a national center of the textile industry. These structures combine to demonstrate the city’s role as a major industrial center of the American South.

Born in Tennessee and raised in Baltimore, brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone organized their textile empire after noticing rapid expansion of the industry while traveling the south on behalf of their father’s wholesale grocery company. The two men entered into cloth manufacturing in 1887 when they partnered with C. E. Graham, owner of the C. E. Graham Manufacturing Company in Asheville. Moses quickly realized that southern manufacturers needed a local selling agent if they were to compete with northern mills. In 1889, he convinced 90% of southern textile interests to allow him to market their goods through the Cone Export and Commission Company. The firm, established in 1890 in New York City by Moses Cone, later relocated to Greensboro to take advantage of Greensboro’s proximity to cotton fields, gins, warehouses, and railroads.

Moses and Ceasar Cone were involved with numerous other enterprises in Greensboro. Responding to the lack of a finishing plant in the south, the Cones established the Southern Finishing and Warehouse Company in 1892 northeast of the city. Finishing is a process of washing, scouring, bleaching, and drying textiles after they are assembled. In 1893, the Cones took over the C. E. Graham Manufacturing Company, a step that led to establishment of their denim mill. Great anticipation surrounded the prospect of denim production in the city, with James A. Odell (owner of Odell Hardware Company) exclaiming enthusiastically “Grab hold of their coat tails, boys, and don’t let them get away!”

The Cones first mill was erected northeast of the city on the North Buffalo Creek in 1895-1896. Named Proximity Cotton Mill in recognition of the mill’s placement adjacent to the Piedmont’s cotton fields, the factory became a national leader in the production of denim. In 1898, the brothers convinced long-time friends, Emanuel and Herman Sternberger, to come to Greensboro to establish a flannel factory. Flannel had not been manufactured in the south and it was thought this innovation would be a “Revelation” to textile circles. According to local history, the mill organizers felt that the name “Revelation Mill” might have Biblical associations and instead chose “Revolution” as the name for the new flannel mill.

Other mills soon followed, including White Oak Cotton Mills in 1902-1905, the largest of the Cone holdings. White Oak held title as the world’s largest denim mill throughout most of the twentieth century. In 1948, all Cone holdings were consolidated under Cone Mills Corporation, an entity that manufactured corduroys, drills, twills, suedes, towels, wash clothes, jeans, print cloths, plisses, diapers, sateens, coverts, and blended fabrics.

Of the myriad of mill complexes in northeastern Greensboro, Revolution Mill has the distinction of being the first modern flannel mill in the American South. The increase in popularity of flannel fabric accounts for the growth of Revolution during the first quarter of the twentieth century. By the 1930s, the mill had become the largest exclusive flannel producer in the world, incorporating many of the innovations of the Southern textile industry that occurred after 1900.

Most of the buildings related to the Revolution Mill complex were erected in three major periods of expansion. The first period began in 1900, when the earliest buildings were constructed and the mill began operations. The second period of building was in 1904, doubling the size of the original mill. The final stage dates from 1915, when large wings on the east and west sides of the plant again doubled its size. In addition to these major building campaigns, other years brought smaller-scale expansion projects. The final major change to the buildings occurred in the 1960s, when most of the windows in the buildings were closed and the building exteriors were veneered with brick as part of the introduction of conditioned air to the manufacturing process.

The construction methods and floor plans of the mill are typical of textile mills built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The buildings are utilitarian and built with a focus on safety and efficiency instead of aesthetics. Large floor plates allowed for massive machinery and flexible, ergonomic work stations. Numerous windows allowed natural light into the workplace in the days before artificial light was strong enough for task work.

Other design and construction practices were related to the requirements of the insurance industry. Common among mills built during this time, these practices are often referred to as “slow-burning construction.” Slow-burn specifications were developed by the New England Mutual Insurance companies and were required for insurance coverage by New England Mutual and the Factory Insurance Association (insurers of the Revolution Mills complex). Specifications included watertight floors, segregation of spaces by use through inserting massive brick firewalls, and use of heavy “over engineered” timbers for construction that would support their weight for some time in a major fire. Today, these features common to mill and industrial construction across the country, are the key features that make these spaces flexible and highly sought after.

Cone Mills operated the Revolution Mill until February of 1982. After closing, the mill was sold to Revolution Associates to be adapted as apartments and offices. The entire complex was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 based on its associations with early industrial development in Greensboro, associations with the Cone and Sternberger families, and its distinctive construction techniques, including the “slow-burning construction” standards.

When it was determined that the layout of the mill was not well suited to apartments, Revolution was sold again to an investor who would lease the mill to three primary tenants for the next almost twenty years. In 1987 during this ownership, the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, a private, nonprofit group, dedicated to enhancing economic development in Greensboro, was organized and began operation in Revolution Mill, where it remained until the summer of 2012.

In February of 2003, Revolution Studios, LLC, purchased the mill and began a $5 million renovation plan to convert the facility to office space. In August of 2006, the owners of Revolution Studios, LLC, began a much more expansive redevelopment of the complex, with a goal of renovating the entire complex for commercial real estate uses.

 

Copyright 2013 Revolution Mill Studios