The area we now know as Downtown Raleigh had commerce as early as the 1760s. Enterprising landholders Isaac Hunter and Joel Lane created taverns and ordinaries near their homes to accommodate travelers along the main north-south route cutting through central North Carolina . Called Wake Crossroads, this primitive outpost provided the spark for future commerce. On March 30, 1792, state commissioners purchased 1,000 acres from Joel Lane and a city plan was quickly developed by William Christmas. On December 31, 1792 the North Carolina General Assembly officially approved the purchase and the site plan, and christened the city “Raleigh” in honor of the 16th century English explorer and nobleman Sir Walter Raleigh.
The city grew slowly. Over time inns, taverns, dry-goods stores, coffin houses and brickyards were established to support the burgeoning capital city. Until the Civil War these businesses catered mostly to retail customers, providing both services and basic needs. Fayetteville Street quickly became Raleigh’s commercial core as storefronts began to replace residences along the blocks south of the State Capitol. In addition to downtown commerce, a handful of mills and new ventures, such as the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad of 1840, comprised the composition of antebellum Raleigh .
On May 20, 1861 North Carolina legislators voted to secede from the Union – the tenth of eleven states to do so. Very quickly, North Carolina - and Raleigh - began to prepare for war. Within a few weeks, more than five thousand North Carolinians had arrived in Raleigh for training. The partially finished Peace Institute (now Peace College) was transformed into a military hospital, one of many in the area.
Emerging from the Civil War relatively unscathed, Raleigh experienced a slow but steady growth in prosperity beginning in the 1870s. Retail flourished and a profusion of family-owned businesses dominated the downtown district. Raleigh also experienced a wave of publishing enterprises as newspapers, printers, and bookbinders became an important means of communication and advertising.
By the early 20th century, people flocked to Fayetteville Street not just for shopping but also for entertainment and civic celebrations. From grand opera to vaudeville and motion pictures, Raleigh’s downtown theaters and public performance venues offered something for everyone, young and old alike. At the same time, East Hargett Street thrived as the African American retail and social hub of Raleigh .
After a long reign as the social and commercial center for Raleigh, Fayetteville Street began to experience a slow decline following the Second World War. The opening of Cameron Village in 1949 as Raleigh’s first shopping center, and the later development of new housing complexes to the north and west of the city in the 1960s and ‘70s, drew people away from the heart of Raleigh and into the sprawling suburbs.
To encourage revitalization in the 1970s, city officials adopted a plan to convert Fayetteville Street into a pedestrian mall that would run between the Statehouse and a new civic center erected just north of Memorial Auditorium. On January 1, 1976 Fayetteville Street was permanently closed to vehicular traffic and construction on the new mall began. In November 1977 the first three blocks of the pedestrian walkway were dedicated as Fayetteville Street’s asphalt surface gave way to paving stones, flowerbeds and fountains.
By the late 1990s the pedestrian mall concept came under scrutiny as businesses like Hudson-Belk and Briggs Hardware departed Fayetteville Street Mall. In 2003 the Raleigh City Council approved a new design proposal that would reconvert the mall back into a vehicular roadway. Called the Fayetteville Street Renaissance Project, construction began in earnest on March 14, 2005 with a groundbreaking ceremony on the mall’s 200-block. Scheduled for completion in Summer 2006, the project will create a redesigned Fayetteville Street complete with two lanes of traffic, parallel parking and space for public artwork and outdoor dining. The project was part of the Livable Streets Strategic Plan for Downtown Raleigh, and included five major goals to be completed by 2008. More information about the Livable Streets plans and other downtown initiatives and developments can be found throughout this website.