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White Lofts, once White Furniture factory, gets historic marker
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White Lofts, once White Furniture factory, gets historic marker

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MEBANE — Two years ago, someone could have fallen through the floors of the old White Furniture factory. Now, those floors are perfectly safe polished hardwood, and the building is restored as the upscale Lofts at White Furniture.

“The only thing missing was White Furniture being recognized for its place in our state’s history,” said Stephen Vargha, the White Lofts resident who wrote the application for the building’s historic marker unveiled Thursday morning.

The historic former furniture factory at 201 E. Center St. has undergone a $26 million renovation, turning it into 156-unit complex with apartments that feature soaring ceilings, concrete floors and exposed brick, and now a bronze marker standing beside U.S. 70 outside.

About 40 people from Mayor Glendel Stephenson to Sam White, the last of the White family to run the factory, came to watch the unveiling.

White Furniture played a great role in the transformation of North Carolina into an industrial state, Vargha said, when David and Will White founded it in 1881. It became one of the most advanced furniture factories in the country after a fire burned the building to the ground in December 1923.

Complete plans were drawn for the new factory by January 1924, said Sam White, thanks to engineers from DuPont, to help White make best use of the company’s innovative product: lacquer.

The history of White Furniture also hearkens back to a different time in the American workplace. After that fire, factory owners hired every worker back immediately to rebuild, and that wasn’t all.

“The factory burned just before Christmas,” White said, “and the workers were paid their Christmas bonus. They got paid while the building was probably still smoking.”

The building also helped salvage the state government’s effort to preserve historic places.

“Its story helped bring back the state historic preservation tax credits, which expired in 2014,” said Susan Kluttz, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The tax credits had encouraged $1.65 billion in private investment since the 1990s, Kluttz said, but were nearly a casualty of tax reform. White was one of the sites Gov. Pat McCrory visited with Kluttz, and it became part of the argument for the state’s support of historic preservation.

“Mebane became part of the big story; Mebane became part of the story I told all over North Carolina,” Kluttz said.

White Furniture was the heart of Mebane in its heyday. Its whistle kept time for the whole town. The White family sold the business in 1986, and the factory closed in 1993 as the industrial economy changed.

The idea of restoring the building kicked around for decades and was revived right before the Great Recession in 2008 threw a jarring speed bump in its path. Durham-based 3-D Development brought the project home in 2015.

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