Howard Street – A Street to Build a Dream On – Part 2

I want you to look at an example of an ordinary commercial building, not unlike some we have on Howard Steet. I encourage you to see the buildings I photographed with this example of a renovated commercial building in mind.

According to Moss: Architecture: Design: Green, whose architectural firm did the work, this former repair shop has been transformed into a photographic studio. New windows and cleaning of the Chicago Common Brick found inside helped upgrade the space’s look and feel, without scrapping its valuable assets of brick and foundation. The concrete floors and wooden rafters were attended to.

Here is the building Charles Killebrew used as his office.  At his death, the building was left to his daughter and is now for sale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to further preserve and repurpose this building as one of the pieces of the puzzle along Howard Street?

The fabulous Almond’s ghost sign is a historic nod to the past. How wonderful to have it as part of the Howard Street dream. Think of  Adaptive Reuse when reimagining Howard Street. Zoning B4 allows mixed usage. The dream is about giving an existing building, home or venue a new purpose, or maintaining the same purpose while preserving, rebuilding, enhancing or maintaining elements of the building. When viewed one at a time the dream seems more manageable.  We could form a Howard Street Concerned Citizens group, and put some wind under the sails of this dream. Teams of two could select a  building, research the facts, and present them, and, and, and…..


Historic preservation clearly does much more than preserve bricks and mortar. It recognizes that our built history connects us in tangible ways with our past and provides context for the places we occupy and the world we live in. It fuses art with craftsmanship, capacity for modern utility with embodied energy, and progressive ideas for economic revitalization with traditional authenticity. Historic preservation is at the same time wonderfully egalitarian; all socioeconomic classes in every corner of the nation have successfully utilized its principles to protect their heritage and revitalize their communities.

-Craig Potts, Executive Director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and State Historic Preservation Officer

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Howard Street – A Street to Build a Dream On

“The current passion for reuse might be explained by sustainability or fashion but, most importantly, it affords a sense of history and texture, taking advantage of buildings already embedded in cities. They are buildings with atmosphere, history, and stories inscribed in their fabric. And sometimes sustainability isn’t just about the energy and materials saved but about the stories, craft and intelligence embodied in its walls.”                                        -Paul Miles – The Financial Times

You know me well enough by now to recognize how this quotation is the crux of how I think about saving Main Street; a metaphor I use to include the larger area of the residential and commercial property that is part of Rocky Mount’s signature. The song from My Fair Lady came to mind as I walked Howard Street (again) and took photographs of the buildings – I have often walked on this street before but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before but here am I – – seeing the dream Howard street could be. It is essential to the reimagining of Main Street that people not only work but live downtown. I count imagination as a gift and I hope you have been given your fair share. At first, all you will see is buildings without purpose, but with imagination, ah, welcome to the dream of Howard Street.


Try to think of these upper floors as apartments, lofts, filled with ‘living above the shop’ residents who become a neighborhood: a cafe, an antique dealer, artists and writers, singles, older couples who are tired of owning a big house and want to be downtown to walk to a restaurant and shops and nightlife.  Picture this wonderful space where people live and work, are definitely willing to feed your cat while you are away and are now looking out for one another. Where there is music drifting from a window, people meeting in the street, where there is love again, purpose and creativity, the honoring of the past by saving this architecture and the stories embedded in the walls. (More about the Howard Street Dream soon.)

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Samuel Sanders Toler – Contractor and Builder – The Setting of the Toler Years – Part 1

Men’s Fashion’s early 1900

Samuel Sanders Toler became one of Rocky Mount’s most substantial and highly esteemed citizens, a contractor and builder with a wide and well-established reputation. He moved to Rocky Mount in 1902 when he was 35 years old and began his construction career. He was employed by D. J Rose, the city’s most established contractor (and still so today, the oldest active construction firm in NC.) But before I get ahead of myself, let’s set the scene for life in those days – a time and place for Mr. Toler.


I love reading a well-written book where the descriptions of the characters easily form a picture in my mind’s eye. Pat Conroy is that kind of author where you can smell the fragrance in the air and picture the shining wet brick pavement as he writes the scene of the paperboy in South of Broad. I won’t be able to do that for you when it comes to Mr. Toler but I can add a few facts to help reveal the times. In 1902 when he came to Rocky Mount, Theodore Roosevelt was the  President. The Michigan Wolverines won 49-0 over the Stanford Indians to win the college national championship in the inaugural Rose Bowl game played in Pasadena CA. Bill Bailey (won’t you come home) was #2 on the music chart. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter was #1 on the best list of books. Most important to note is that during this period, Rocky Mount was experiencing a boom due to the growing tobacco market, and shortly the arrival of the ACL Emerson Shops would have a further economic impact.

Teddy Roosevelt Family

FDR at Groton early 1900’s – Men’s Fashion

While working for D.J.Rose, Mr. Toler was in charge of construction for a number of important local buildings, including:

The ACL Emerson Railway Shops

The Masonic Temple CLICK HERE for an earlier post

The Masonic Temple on Church Street

The Ricks Hotel (Earlier post) and The Bank of Rocky Mount (1921)

Toler was made a partner with DJR before he formed his own company, S. S. Toler & Son. SST for a time was Vice President of Dozier Supply, still a prominent local business.

DON’T MISS PART 2 – S.S. Toler & Sons




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Peter Varney – One of Rocky Mount’s Crystal Prisms

When I first met Peter Varney, the retired assistant city manager, I recall a pleasant man, dressed as neat as a pin, self-contained, with vivid blue eyes. Looking back, I’ve come to appreciate the saying, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” We meet people all the time but in this instance, I made a friend, which has been a blessing.

Knowing everyone’s respect and admiration for Peter, I hope there is still room in the Peter Varney Fan Club. How lucky am I that it was Peter who first showed me the restored Train and Bus Station undertaken on his watch. The preservation and restoration of these two architectural gems now serve as anchor projects in the Rocky Mount revitalization puzzle.

Click here to read more about my visit to the bus station.

It was in the train station that an older woman said hello to ‘Mr. Peter.’ It was obvious that everyone knew him as he greeted them by name. Nodding my head in ‘Mr. Peters’ direction, I said to this lady, “Tell me about him.” Her eyes lite up and she smiled, “Oh, he’s the best!” A wonderful tribute I can not improve upon.

Peter spearheaded a number of key projects in his 41 years with the city. Not in order, there was the completion of the Helen P. Gay Rocky Mount Historic Train Station, Denton Street Pool, and the Douglas Block, the Senior Center, Sunset Park, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, the Warehouse and Field Operations Complex and the acquisition and development of Battle Park. Peter’s first project after arriving in the city in 1971 was the Rocky Mount Judicial Center. One of his most difficult but advantageous projects for the city was the completion of the Rocky Mount Sports Complex. After its use as a municipal airport, the area was a crop dusting operation for years which caused environmental issues. Varney, city staff and the previous property owners undertook a major cleanup of the contamination. The result was a state-of-the-art Sports Complex which currently brings in over $10 million to the area. Peter also led the completion of the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences, a flood recovery project and one of the largest public investment projects the city has ever undertaken. This doesn’t include the countless things he gave his heart and time to that have no name in capital letters left behind.

Peter Varney, a role model whose leadership style and moral compass in dealing with people throughout his life and career are exactly what is needed today. We respect and honor the Peter Varney years knowing the stories of countless people he helped, the neighborhoods where he made things better. This quiet, unassuming man, with great intelligence, proves it is not the political power bullied from others that is the prize. What prevails is the good you have done in this world that will cause people to say, “Oh, he (or she) is the best!” 

Peter Varney has long been one of the crystal prisms that cast rainbows on Rocky Mount’s wall. He will continue to do so.  CLICK HERE: I don’t want you to miss the Pollyanna movie clip of hanging glass prisms I included in the last post. You will better understand why this imagery works for Peter and Rocky Mount.

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“The Most Beautiful ‘Main Street’ in the Entire World”

A Pollyanna image for ‘MAIN STREET’ in the New Year

This blog post and others I am writing will make more sense if you


One of my favorite movies is Pollyanna (1960), starring Haley Mills with an outstanding supporting cast. Pollyanna offers us a new image in 2019 when thinking about the theme of this blog: honoring the past and building a future. A scene in the movie illustrates why glass prisms are applicable to Rocky Mount. The children are hanging in a window the crystals prisms they removed from chandeliers and lamps. The refracted light appears as rainbows on the walls. We have many people who have been like crystal prisms in the story of Rocky Mount.

In case you have forgotten – Pollyanna, is a 12-year-old, who arrives in the small town of Harrington. Google research reminds us she is a cheerful, talkative and radically optimistic youngster who focuses on the goodness of life. She finds something to be glad about, no matter the situation. In doing so, Pollyanna’s positive outlook on everything helps her make a wide variety of friends in the community, including the hypochondriac and grouchy Mrs. Snow and the acidic recluse Mr. Pendergast. Pollyanna is not easily discouraged in trying to win them over, a trait we must all cultivate while helping with the revitalization of Rocky Mount. I especially like the part in this video clip where Mr. Pendergast explains how the prism works. However, he does so with a long and tedious explanation (much like the excuses given when it comes to saving Main Street.) Saving Main Street isn’t complicated. I believe we will stand along Main Street one day soon and marvel at the restoration and repurposing of the architecture there. We’ll be saying, “This is the most beautiful ‘room’ in the entire world.”

We already have prisms of light strung in the window of Rocky Mount. I love writing about them and there are others to add. These lights will be forever linked and honored for their contribution to Rocky Mount. We must have leadership, however, that will help hang prisms of light in this New Year. If not, there should be a casting call for new actors to take their place. I hope you agree?

Read about another prism of light tomorrow. Can you guess who it is?


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Main Street Christmas Reflection with Love from Stepheny

The year is winding down and within all of us remain the children we once were who still anticipate Christmas. Based on comments you have left on this blog, Christmas memories are some of your favorite when remembering Main Street Rocky Mount;  a downtown where everyone enjoyed the decorations, the shopping, and greeted each other with a heartfelt Merry Christmas.

Christmas is surely one of the most nostalgic times of the year.  I can close my eyes and return to my room in the house on the corner of  Asbury Avenue and Lyons street in Evanston, IL.  There I sit on the radiator cover my father built looking out the large double-hung windows at the snow that flutters down, the streetlamps casting a magical glow.  One side of the elm trees that cascade over Asbury Ave is dark and wet, the other white with snow sticking to the bark. The snow that is slowly piling on a branch finally tumbles to the ground with one flake too many, leaving holes in the crusted snow. Whether it really snowed every Christmas Eve, I can’t be sure, but in remembering, why not?

When it comes time to think of the year ahead, having counted our blessings, and recognized anew our loved ones, let’s do something significant that influences the preservation and restoration of Main Street.  Breaking the task further down, if you live in one of our historic neighborhoods, here is what I suggest. Concentrate on your neighborhood organization.  You may have given up on the group, feel irritated because it became nothing more than a gripe session; please talk to your neighbors and take it on. Help reorganize it so it becomes a proactive voice for your neighborhood’s needs. Walk the neighborhood and take some notes. What’s sitting empty, what may be unsavable, what complaints need to be lodged with landlords that aren’t caring for their properties. Just taking this on for one another, is a huge step. We can no longer sit on our hands waiting for promises to come true that don’t. We all want the same thing – safe and sound places to live. These associations are in place and can be renewed and revitalized: a large voice for preservation, restoration, and pride.

As Advent continues, we recognize that we are the innkeepers who must make room in our hearts and minds for this Christ child who is born anew within us. The blessings of the Season to you and yours. I thank you for keeping me company on Main Street. Consider yourselves hugged and appreciated. Think of Stepheny as I sit on a bench downtown clapping my hands because I do believe in possibilities. I believe that we can have a beautiful Main Street anew and safe neighborhoods shining with Christmas lights.

Wishing you a heartfelt Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Partnering With Stepheny – Beginning February 2019


Preservation of our architectural assets needs a critical mass of people who are interested in having a voice in the matter. As a board member, I’m heading up a new Advocacy committee for Preservation Rocky Mount. I know many of you who read this blog have a great interest in the continuing revitalization efforts of Rocky Mount. You carry pictures in your mind’s eye of Main Street, which you think of as once upon a time.

Let’s do something important together. I have recently changed the gallery photographs on the sidebar of this blog. The gallery has featured our Shot Gun houses, our Sears Catalogue Houses, Villa Place Homes when the tour was taking place a year ago.  The photos this time are not pretty. Unfortunately, there are many more just like them. We all remember the children’s book, The Little Engine That CouldI think I can, I think I can. 

I definitely THINK WE CAN! when it comes to finding a new will to carry on the great efforts of the Peter Varney years of preservation efforts at the Train Station, Bus Station, Imperial Center, Douglas Block, StreetScape and more. We need to unite behind the enforcement of ordinances already on the books that would go a long way to jump-starting a new determination to Save Mainstreet and all that encompasses.

You don’t have to join Preservation Rocky Mount, though I wish you would. For now, make a mental note that in February, (date/time/location to be announced.) there will be a meeting I want you to come to. Instead of sitting on one of the benches along Main Street to talk as we often do, we will gather and do some thinking together. Preservation groups in other cities have worked hard and become an influential voice. I would love to be remembered as someone who helped ensure our architectural inventory, our sense of place, recognized and embraced preservation as an economic engine. Wouldn’t you like that too?

Click on each image in the photo gallery and you will get a full view rather than the little thumbnails pictures. Get your brain in gear and repeat after me — Yes, we can, yes we can.

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