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Observer Employees, Alums Reminisce as Relocation Approaches

The Charlotte Observer is moving to a new office this spring - and that means saying goodbye to the current four-story newsroom and office building on South Tryon Street, which is expected to be redeveloped. On Thursday, a few hundred employees past and present reunited for a couple of hours to reminisce.  WFAE’s David Boraks once worked there as an editor and reporter, and joined the crowd.  

The Observer staff is a lot smaller than when I was there in the 1990s. Times have been tough for the newspaper industry. The newsroom once filled the fourth floor - now it takes up about half the space, and there are empty desks. But there’s still life here …  and memories.

Reporter Nancy Brachey has worked here since 1969 and is excited about making the move into her fourth building. She started in the 1927 building that housed both the morning Charlotte Observer and afternoon Charlotte News, which closed in 1985.  

“We worked in a very old building up by the sidewalk on Tryon Street. We were stuffed in like sardines. Our typewriter carriages would bang into each other, we were so close to each other …  We went across the street to the Elks Club, the grand ballroom on the second floor," she says. 

The two newsrooms stayed in the Elks building about a year and half, while the new building went up.

“On Labor Day weekend 1971 we moved over here to occupy this new space. And we thought we had arrived in the promised land,” she says. 

Political reporter Jim Morrill remembers how The Observer and The News co-existed. When you took the escalator up to the fourth floor, you had a choice of two doors - the News on the left, the Observer on the right.

"Those of us at the Observer hardly ever went into the News newsroom and I don’t think people on the News side ever came over here," Morrill says. 

That’s the way it was until 1983, when the newsrooms merged for the final two years until the News closed.

"So when we merged in 1983, it was kind of a culture shock," he says. "All of a sudden you were working with people that you competed with." 

Longtime publisher Rolfe Neill, who retired in 1997, told staff gathered at the reunion that the paper is more than building.  

"It is a building, but it’s the people that made this place. And what a time that we had …"

A newsroom is always changing. I remember a heated debate in the late 90s over what kind of cubicles should replace our steel desks. Big bank mergers also brought thrills for us news junkies. And then there was New Year’s Eve 1999, when the so-called Y2K bug threatened chaos. When the midnight came, and the world didn’t end, a few of us shared whiskey from the business editor’s bottom drawer.

Theoden Janes, the paper’s pop culture critic, remembers the excitement of actor Will Smith’s visit to the newsroom a decade ago. And many remember the adrenaline rush of the newsroom after the September 11th terrorist attacks, when The Observer published a rare extra edition.

For health reporter Karen Garloch, the building holds sad memories of the decline of the newspaper business, beginning in 2008.  

"The one that really comes  to mind was one of those first mass layoffs we had and there were like 30 people we said goodbye to in one day … And we repeated that several times," Garloch says. 

In recent years, the staff has shrunk, offices have cleared out, and the building has fallen into disrepair. Escalators sit broken and idle. Reporter Ann Helms is ready for the move.  

"I don’t know how you depict visually on the radio how dumpy this place is," she laughs.

Brachey still has to pack, but she’s ready.  “We’re going to even swankier digs down the street … fresh and new, clean as a whistle,” Brachey says. 

Those swankier digs are the 10th through 12th floors of the NASCAR Plaza a few blocks away.

Publisher Ann Caulkins says she has until the end of April to move the operation to its new home.  

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.