When the Davis McCollum Department Store first opened its doors in late October 1928, more than three thousand people crowded the streets at Fourth and Liberty.

"Everybody had heard about this fabulous new place and they just wanted to see it," said Fam Brownlee, a local historian. "Everything upstairs was really upscale, it was aimed at the high end, but they put a lot of emphasis on the basement, the bargain basement. And it had terrific prospects. Who wouldn't have wanted to invest in it, with everything booming? But it didn't last very long."

Just a year after that grand opening, the stock market crashed, and the writing was on the wall. The store changed hands in 1929, but by 1932 the new company couldn't make its lease payments, and landowner Thomas Pepper took possession of the building.

Since then, the Pepper Building has been home to lots of businesses -- for a while in the 1940s a furniture store occupied four of its six floors. But by 1953, that was gone, and it was mostly offices. The last tenant – the Winston-Salem Transit Authority – moved out in 2000, and the grand old building in the sweet spot for downtown revitalization sat empty again.

For years the Pepper Building has been at the center of downtown Winston-Salem revitalization plans, some of which called for its demolition. Now a $5 million renovation is in the works to turn the city's first department store into apartments and commercial space. The new owners said they have signed a lease with  a Brazilian steakhouse company for the first floor and basement. And on the five floors above, there will be a total of 54 apartments.

To walk into the Pepper Building today is to take a step into the past. Architect David Gall knows the building better than anyone.

"When it was built it was the tallest art deco building in the state – 6 stories," said David Gall, a historic preservation architect.

Ten years ago, Gall cataloged the building's architectural features for a possible restoration of the building, and over the years he's passionately argued to save it. The new owners have hired him to oversee the Pepper Building's restoration.

"I see a lot of the original historic fabric that's very beautiful. We have the original plaster ceiling in this room, the original light fixtures, we have the original Zenitherm  finish on the walls, which is a unique  product from the 1920s and before.  We have a beautiful terrazzo floor. We have a cast iron stair with marble treads, and original cast iron radiators. I see some broken glass from vandalism, but I can see beyond that. "

Over the years there have been a lot of ideas for developing the area around Fourth and Liberty, and some of them involved tearing the Pepper Building down. But time – and timing – turned out to be on the old building's side. Earlier this year, Winston-Salem developers Mike and Patricia Coe bought it from the Downtown Winston-Salem Foundation and announced that they would turn it into apartments and commercial space. U.S. Development, based in Columbia, S.C., is working with the Coes on the project.

It was never slated for demolition, said Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. "There was discussion about whether or not the building would be preserved, but as things progressed, that's where we always ended up. I think the turn in the economy and the desirability of downtown apartments and the tax credits for historic preservation really took those pressures off the table," he said.

Thiel sees the Pepper Building renovation as an important contribution to the city's plan for developing Civic Plaza, a downtown park. Developers said they expect to begin renovations in the first quarter of next year.


History of the Pepper Building: 

1887 - Thomas Pepper and business partner J.B. Vaughan acquire the land at Fourth and Liberty streets. Pepper and Vaughan also owned tobacco warehouses around town.

1893 - The Phoenix Hotel is built on the site.

1928 - Phoenix Hotel is demolished to make way for the department store, owned by the Gilmer Company. O.H. Davis was president of the Gilmer Co.

Oct. 28, 1928 - Davis-McCollum Department Store opens with much fanfare.

July 1929 - The owners sell to store manager C.W. Van Dyke, who renames the store Van Dyke's Inc. 

October 1929 – Stock market crashes, precipitating the Great Depression.

1932 – Van Dyke's Inc. goes out of business.

Nov. 2, 1939 - Furniture store Huntley-Hill-Stockton opens, occupying the first four floors of the building. Professional offices occupy the rest.

1953 - The furniture store moves out, and the building becomes predominantly office space.

1976 - Pepper heirs sell the building to Piedmont Federal Savings and Loan. 

1999 - Downtown Winston-Salem Foundation acquires the building.

March 2000 - City names developer John Elkington as the preferred developer for the Pepper building. Elkington had been hired to create a plan for the area around Fourth and Liberty. Elkington, who developed the Beale Street project in Memphis, proposed a large-scale entertainment district that would include restaurants, clubs and retail.

2000 - Last tenant, the Winston-Salem Transit Authority, moves out, leaving the building vacant. 

2002 – City of Winston-Salem and Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership seek development proposal from Trilogy Group.

June 2003 - Architect David Gall completes a Historic Survey Report of the Pepper Building's original elements for the Trilogy Group.

Dec. 2005 - The city says the Pepper Building would need to be razed to make way for the Civic Plaza plan. Historic preservations and architects begin rallying to save it.

2007 - Architect David Gall and others meet for a design charette to show how the building could be saved. Durham development group Niemann Capital LLC, proposes a new plan that would save the building.

2008 - City drops Niemann as the developer. City names Kerry Avant as the preferred developer, but he later drops out.

2010 - Downtown Partnership says it's looking for a new developer of the Pepper Building. U.S. Development, based in Columbia, S.C., is named as the preferred developer.

February 2013 - Mike and Patricia Coe buy the building for $801,000 and announce plans to renovate it into apartments and retail. U.S. Development is working with the Coes on the project. 

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