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Coming Up Roses

by Christa Wagner

June 4,2005

My recent move to the NoDa neighborhood presented a special challenge for my occasional bike commute to uptown Charlotte: crossing railroad tracks and competing with cars in single-lane traffic. I consulted a member of the Uptown Bike Commuters group who gave me a keen idea – go the greenway.

Three blocks out my back door is Cordelia Park, the northern most piece of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway system. Mecklenburg County demonstrated a serious commitment to completing the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, to stretch from Matthews to Cordelia Park when completed, by pushing a bond referendum last year to fund a substantial piece of the project. A short 1.1 mile branch in the north is already complete, running from Cordelia Park to just behind Interstate 277.

Now on my ride to work, I pedal about two-thirds of the way along the well-maintained Sugar Creek and about one-third through the Center City with a pleasant stop-off in between. As luck would have it, the greenway trail ends in front of the new gateway to NoDa, the Java Rose Espresso Bar and Lounge and the McGill Rose Garden.

The McGill Rose Garden is a jewel among Charlotte’s oldest treasures. The coffee shop now occupies the storefront Henry McGill and his wife, Helen, bought in the early fifties to sell coal, oil and ice. The scale used to weigh the coal trucks before and after they left the yard still operates, although now it props up a stereo that regularly belts out indie rock and NPR.

Intending to counter the dreary industrial surroundings, Helen McGill brought two rose bushes from home to beautify the coal yard. Eventually, she planted over 500 bushes and the garden soon opened to flocks of rose enthusiasts. The McGills closed shop in 1975, but continued to maintain their garden physically and financially. Approaching his 102nd birthday, Henry McGill still makes a weekly trip to see his beloved plants.

The Java Rose owners expect that the coffee shop will draw new people to the garden, and they hope the can take advantage of the civic clubs and tour groups that stream in thoughout the summer to see the roses in bloom.

Like the story of the first rose bushes Helen McGill planted, the purveyors of Java Rose coffee can lay claim to the exact origins of their brew. Alfred Collins, one of the store's three business partners, owns a coffee plantation in Boquete, Panama that supplies this shop and the partners’ other java joint in Stallings, North Carolina, with premium beans.

Mark Murphy, the store’s other partner, promises to close the loop on the coffee process from bean to brew as soon as the company can acquire additional space to roast the beans on the premises. There’s hope that a building across the tracks will become available soon.

The new owners are particular about where they lay down roots – each building must have unique architecture and an interesting history. The McGill Garden was an obvious and fortuitous choice. Their first store in Stallings was formerly a gas station built out of cobblestones that now seats about 15 customers.

The stars have so far aligned with Mark and his partners’ dream of selling the freshest coffee in the most inimitable backdrops. “Things we needed just showed up,” Mark explained. “We found a guy who had beautiful fifty year old lumber that we used to trim out the Rock Store windows.” And five layers under the ugly vinyl flooring at the Java Rose they found the original hard wood in excellent condition.

Mark says the partners are interested in “singularity.” Their buildings have to be as unique as their coffee. “We’re not interested in malls or inline stores,” Mark explains. Instead they prefer old buildings. “People are nostalgic,” he says.

The McGill Rose Garden and its new companion do a fine job of capturing a kind of old-Charlotte nostalgia. The pair also promise an exciting new development in the chronicles of the city’s growth. If preserving old buildings, linking greenways to rose gardens and revitalizing neighborhoods are in its future, Charlotte may just be coming up roses.

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