THE HISTORY OF
Making a mark
Architecting Charlotte's future
A South Carolina native, Daniel A. Tompkins began his career working for the steel mills up North. He further sharpened his skills at a German iron works and a glass manufacturer in Missouri before returning to the Carolinas in 1883, this time settling in Charlotte. By then, this former Native American trading post had become connected by major railroads to key cities in the region and was on the verge of becoming a boom town. Tompkins quickly put his civil engineering degree and experience as a master machinist to work, taking advantage of the opportunities presented to help make Charlotte a hub for textile manufacturing.
In just a few short years, the D.A. Tompkins Company, formed in partnership with grain merchant R.M. Miller, began constructing manufacturing and power plants, starting with the Alpha, Ada, and Victor Mills, several of the city's first mills. Over the next two decades, the engineering firm developed hundreds more mills and plants across the South, along with many of the mill villages that surrounded them. This long list of projects included Atherton Mill and Highland Park Gingham Mill—now known as Optimist Hall.
back in the day.
Previously called Highland Park Gingham Mill and Highland Park Mill #1, Optimist Hall was originally home to Charlotte’s largest textile mill. Built in 1892, the plant's signature smokestack was added three years later to service a boiler room. By the early 1900s, the Highland Park Manufacturing Company—which also owned Highland Park Mills No. 2 and 3—had become the nation’s third-largest producer of gingham. The prominent mill became a focal point of Charlotte's booming textile industry which, at its height, saw 771 mills and 10 million spindles operating within 75 miles of the city.
As these factories continued to push out millions of miles of fabric, yarn, and other textiles, vibrant neighborhoods sprung up around them. Residents came from near and far seeking opportunity and helped to turn a modest Southern town into a significant commercial and cultural force within the region.
Pantyhose. Remember those? In 1977, the mill began to produce raw fabrics used for ladies' hosiery under the name Highland Mills, Inc. Several years later, the company expanded its operation to in oder to produce fully-finished products, growing to a 500-person operation by 1989. A year later, Highland Mills and Admiration Hosiery merged, and the combined company completed a large addition and other updates in order to keep up with demand.
Here's a fun fact: In 2000, a determined Sara Blakely flew down to Charlotte to convince Highland Mills owner Samuel Kaplan to help her build the prototype for her new invention, Spanx. The rest is fashion history.
Optimist Hall was born
Though ownership changed several times, the mill continued to operate on some level until 2015. White Point Paces Partners purchased the property in 2016 with the vision for an adaptive reuse project that would give Charlotte its first food hall and also provide distinct, modern office space to a business community hungry for change. The north side of the development became home to Duke Energy's Innovation Center in early 2019, while the food hall opened its doors later that same year.