Norcross property: From ho's to hoes to homes

One of historic downtown's last brick warehouses is about to be overhauled, and the property– once the site of Charlottesville's upscale brothel– has some unusual tales to tell.

Recently known as the Norcross building, as a giant mid-century paint-on-brick sign attests, the 1924 structure hugging the south side of the CSX railroad tracks has long tempted developers with its large windows and easy proximity to the fashionable Downtown Mall.

"I think it's wonderful and good for downtown," says Buddy Thach, who's selling the building to developers. "It's an antique," says Thach, "and I'm an antique also."

The 80-year-old Thach says that when he bought the building in 1977, Norcross Transfer and Storage was his thriving tenant. After the firm folded a few years ago, the four-story structure went dormant, except for a large parking lot which he rented to commuters.

Under that parking lot lies one of Charlottesville's biggest brushes with fame. But first the plans.

Developer Bill Dittmar says he and Hunter Craig have hired architect Michael Stoneking to create 32 apartments in the 32,000 square-foot brick and timber building with occupancy slated for November. Next, Dittmar says, a new building will begin rising on the Fourth Street side with 32 more apartments to come on line in the spring. There are even plans for a third structure facing Garrett Street with another 24 units.

The 1.5-acre complex, says Dittmar, will have a "Georgetown-type feel with an internal courtyard with grass areas with verandas and trees– and parking for 106 cars."

Now for the brothel. For the first half of the 20th century, next to the warehouse stood a whorehouse– well, a mansion that served as a brothel called "Marguerite's." After being raided by city police, it closed in 1949 and subsequently served as a rest home. Its big claim to fame, however, came upon its demolition in the early 1970s.

Newspaper clippings filed at the Charlottesville Albemarle Historical Society show a sturdy, multi-columned brick mansion surrounded by a stone-and-iron fence. When serving as Marguerite's, it was said to have 23 swanky teak-furnished rooms and a beveled-glass front door.

But like all the houses around it, the structure was doomed by the then-popular concept of "urban renewal." When the wrecking ball began pounding on November 21, 1972, Marguerite's– already infamously derided as UVA's off-grounds "student center"– wrote another chapter in local history.

"The girls had been stuffing money in the walls," laughs Thach. "When demolition crews took the building down, money was flying everywhere."

Word quickly spread about cash stashes. Soon, more than 100 wide-eyed locals, toting hoes and shovels, were clambering through the ruins.

Indeed, the crane operator demolishing Marguerite's allegedly found $700, according to a contemporary account in the Daily Progress. Sixteen-year-old Darlene Harris told the Washington Post she and her brother found $8,000 in a rusty metal box.

Officials never tallied the total recovery, but some losses were evident. The Garrett Street redevelopment ended up wiping several streets– including South Fifth Street, where Marguerite's stood– from Charlottesville maps. Thach notes his warehouse still bears an address of 401 South Street– even though South Street ceased to reach south of the CSX tracks after the urban planners of the '70s finished with the neighborhood. Today, a low-income housing complex, best known as Garrett Square but recently redubbed Friendship Court, occupies much of that urban renewal zone.

Dittmar says the conversion presents some "challenges" such as preserving the original casement windows and massive wooden beams and maple floors.

"We didn't want to strip and gut it," says Dittmar, who hopes his preservation efforts earn approval from the Department of the Interior, whose blessing can help earn tax credits.

The new one- and two-bedroom apartments (some with lofts) will range from $900 to $1,500.