Photos | Charlotte's tallest skyscraper

A worker lays block on the upper floors of the Bank of America Corporate Center on October 4, 1991.

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by JEREMY MARKOVICH / NBC Charlotte Staff

WCNC.com

Posted on October 24, 2012 at 1:00 AM

Updated Thursday, Oct 24 at 7:06 AM

Height:
871 feet
Stories:
66 (60 floors of offices)
Spires on top:
384
Weight of spires:
800-4,500 lbs each
Rentable square feet:
1,203,000

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Hugh McColl isn’t bashful about the Bank of America Corporate Center.

“I wanted a building that reeked of power and wealth,” he said, “but was warm and friendly.”

The tower rises 871 feet above the intersection of Trade & Tryon, the center of the center city. At 60 stories, the building is the tallest in Charlotte, as well as the tallest between Philadelphia and Atlanta. You can see it from 35 miles away.

Today, it turned 20.

“I wanted something that would last,” McColl said in an October interview with NBC Charlotte. “[Something] that would reflect well on our company. An asset to our city, not just our company. And I believe it is, 20 years after the fact. I think it still looks great.”

A Growing Bank

McColl, now 77, was Bank of America’s chief executive until his retirement in 2001 and oversaw the tower’s construction. Before that, as CEO of North Carolina National Bank, he took advantage of changes in finance laws that allowed banks to expand beyond state borders. NCNB swallowed up other lenders and became NationsBank, which in turn merged with Bank of America in 1998.

When the mergers piled up, so did the need for more space. There was, however, another reason for McColl to build a skyscraper. “I’ll have to admit that we wanted to do something dramatic on our end of town,” he said.

In uptown, the southern end of Tryon Street was First Union territory (First Union would go on to merge with Wachovia, which was bought out by Wells Fargo). The northern end belonged mostly to NCNB.

“There was nothing north of The Square,” said McColl. “Everything was south, including the 40-story NCNB headquarters.”

Some saw the building of skyscrapers as a personal competition between McColl and First Union CEO Ed Crutchfield. McColl brushed that aside. “I don’t remember that being as important as us deciding we were going to build a skyscraper.”

‘A Huge, Powerful Granite Building’

McColl emphasizes that word.

Skyscraper.

“I wanted to build a skyscraper as opposed to a tall building,” said McColl. “There are lots of tall buildings in the United States. A lot of them were built very tall with a flat top. They had no lasting street appeal or skyline appeal.” A skyscraper, then, is more than just a building. The lobby is full of frescoes by Statesville artist Ben Long. There is granite. There is marble. There is no flat top. There is a crown.

NCNB hired architect Cesar Pelli to design the tower, who provided the spires that make up the crown, the curved granite surfaces that minimize the look of the glass, and the extra corners that provide more views from more offices.  

“He gave us a building that looks like more stone than glass,” said McColl. “So when you’re looking at our building from afar, it looks like a huge powerful granite building. But when you’re in it, you’ve got great perspective and great views.

“My thinking was,” he said, “We’re going to build something that’s going to dominate the skyline forever.”

‘A 24-Hour City’

Uptown Charlotte had a problem in the late 1980’s: it was dead after 5 p.m.

“I did a story one time walking uptown with an urban planner who says, ‘Well, if Charlotte is an up and coming city, I should be able to find a Snickers bar after 5 o’clock,’” said Doug Smith, a Charlotte native who covered development for the Charlotte Observer for decades. “So we walked from one end of Tryon, south all the way to north, and everything was closed. He finally found a Snickers bar at a convenience store in the 400 block of N. Tryon.”

McColl wanted to change that.

“When I was a young man, I traveled into big cities a lot in America. First New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, and then quite a bit into Hong Kong and London. What struck me about all of the big cities in the world was that they all had people living downtown, and they had a lot of nighttime activity," McColl said.

“I wanted a 24-hour city,” he added. “And I felt the way to get there was to have your workers there—have the jobs downtown. A lot of companies at that time were building operations centers and offices outside of the center cities and out by airports and things, and everything that we did we built right downtown.”

Striking Gold

NCNB announced the building of the skyscraper in 1986, and broke ground in 1989. Construction workers found gold flakes while digging out the foundation, a remnant of Charlotte’s gold mining days.

In March 1991, the tower overtook the 588-foot One First Union Center (now One Wells Fargo Center) to become Charlotte’s tallest skyscraper. In May 1992, the crown on top, and its 384 spires were lit for the first time.

And on October 24, 1992, more than 40,000 people showed up to help NationsBank dedicate the building.

The bank famously had to ask for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to build up to 66 stories (the tower has 60 stories full of offices, the final six make up the top).

“I always say that two South Carolinians built this building,” said McColl. “Me, from Bennettsville, South Carolina, and Senator [Ernest] Hollings, because we had to go to the FAA to get permission.”

A Cessna 421 taking off on runway 5 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport couldn’t clear the tower, said McColl.

“Senator Hollings took care of that for us. So today, if you’re flying a [Cessna] 421 wanting to come straight off of runway 5, that won’t work," McColl said.  "You’d best bank.”

The View

Today, McColl still has an office on the 51st floor of the corporate center. He has a pair of binoculars, his “field glasses” nearby. He looks down a lot.

“I can see what is being developed, and what needs to be developed,” he said. “When someone says we’re gonna put in a ballpark for instance, I can look out a window and say, mmm, yeah, that’ll work. Because I’m looking at the canvas of our city as an artist might.”

The new Charlotte Knights ballpark, the Carolina Panthers practice field and the under-construction Romare Bearden Park are all within view from McColl’s office.

Today, there’s another skyscraper that’s getting a lot of attention. “I will admit that if you’re coming from the airport, you see [the] Duke Energy [Center], and it looks larger than this building and it’s, of course, not,” McColl said with a laugh. “It just depends on your perspective.”

The Ripples of Development

Today, the tower is still the tallest in town. It stands as a focal point on Charlotte’s skyline--a constant reminder that banks built the Queen City into what it is today.

It’s also a sign that Charlotte is, finally, a 24-hour city.

“It was a huge rock in the pond,” McColl said. “You put a huge rock in the pond, the ripples go out from it. And those are the ripples of development.

“We brought the jobs to the center city, knowing eventually people would want to live near their job, and that would help us build a center city for a place to live. And all you have to do is look out at all of the condominiums out there and you can see that we were right.”

And you can get a Snickers bar after five o'clock.

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