Modern home divides historic Southern neighborhood
- Article by: ALLEN G. BREED
- Associated Press
- March 21, 2014 - 12:50 PM
RALEIGH, N.C. — Architect Louis Cherry sees the two-story structure — with its exposed beams, masonry piers, deep overhangs and shallow-pitched roof — as a "contemporary interpretation" of the Craftsman-style homes that dot the city's Historic Oakwood District.
But to some of Cherry's neighbors, the cypress-sided house at 516 Euclid Street is just Frank Lloyd Wrong. And nearly six months into construction, with the home roughly 85 percent finished, Cherry and wife Marsha Gordon face the real possibility that they might have to tear down their dream house.
"It was very much our intention to design and build a house that people would really like and accept," Cherry said on a recent overcast morning as he and Gordon stood in the shell of what they hope will be their master bedroom. "It was very surprising to us that there's been this reaction, as if this is some crazy, modernist intervention."
Decisions by historic zoning districts are appealed all the time. But John Hildreth, a vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says this is one case with a bit of a twist.
"In the way it's gone forward, and with construction being as far along as it is, to have that kind of action taken, it's pretty unusual," says Hildreth, based in Charleston, S.C.
The fight between neighbors began last September, when the Raleigh Historic Development Commission issued a certificate of appropriateness, or COA, for the couple's 2,100-square-foot house. A few days later, Gail Wiesner, who lives in the sherbet-green bungalow across the street, filed a notice of intent to appeal.
But Cherry and Gordon proceeded with construction, saying the city advised them the appeal was merely "procedural."
Wiesner, a real estate agent, argued that the commission's COA panel violated several procedures. She called the design "garishly inappropriate" and said Cherry and Gordon "failed to meet their burden of producing competent, material, and substantial testimony and evidence to show that their proposed project preserves the special character of the Oakwood Historic District."
"The structure as proposed is incongruous to the Oakwood Historic District," wrote Wiesner, whose own home was built in 2008. "It will harm the character of the neighborhood and contribute to erosion of the neighborhood's value as an asset to its residents, to the surrounding communities, to the businesses it supports, to in-town and out-of-town visitors, and to the City as a whole."
Carved out of the dense woods known as Mordecai Grove following the Civil War, Oakwood is an eclectic mix of 19th and early 20th century architectural styles — from ornate Italianate mansions and mansard-roofed Victorians, to quaint bungalows and brightly-painted shotgun houses. The historic district was created in the 1970s, when residents banded together to stop a proposed highway that would have cut through the neighborhood's heart.
Now, instead of a thoroughfare, this modern house divides Oakwood.
Last month, the city's Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to overturn the certificate of appropriateness. The panel sent word to city hall to issue a "stop work" order.
Word soon spread beyond Oakwood's borders. In early March, "Oakwood Modern House" launched its own Twitter account, which has nearly 700 followers.
"Nails hurt. But no love hurts worse," read one tweet.
"Why does that ugly green house keep staring at me? Stop it," went another.
Another phony Twitter account surfaced, bearing Wiesner's photo and mocking her as "a square peg ... opposed to round pegs." It has since been taken down.
In an op-ed piece published in the Raleigh News & Observer, Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, called the Oakwood controversy "one of the most disturbing of my 35-year career in historic preservation. Neighbors have been pitted against neighbors, and false rumors and innuendo have filled social media."
Howard and others say the Cherry house is part of Oakwood's architectural evolution.
Will Hillebrenner, an engineer who has been painstakingly restoring his World War I-era bungalow, is one of many Oakwood residents who believe the historic development commission failed to stick to its own standards.
"The guidelines clearly state that any home, any new construction in the historic district should blend in and not stand out," he says. "And a home whose very intent is a living piece of art is intended to stand out."
Mary Iverson, who owns four historic homes in the neighborhood, says the Cherry house is beautiful, but it doesn't belong in Oakwood.
"That is a leap of 100 years of design architecture," she says. "So that's not an evolution. That's a, 'So let's go to another planet.'"
Gene Conti — whose 1875 Victorian was in the path of the proposed highway — likes the modern house, but hates what this fight is doing to Oakwood.
"I think it's been unfortunate ... to have this kind of acrimony all across the neighborhood and have people arguing one side or the other in a very mean-spirited way," he says. "Oakwood is a historic neighborhood by designation. But it doesn't mean all the houses are frozen in time."
Gordon and Cherry say what's happening to them is a violation of Oakwood's spirit.
"I mean, you can't build an old home," Cherry said as he stood beside piles of planks and bricks waiting for construction. "Forty years of preservation wisdom show that building copycat homes diminishes the value of historic homes. It doesn't really honor them."
"And it creates a Disneyland kind of community," says Gordon, "which is NOT what Oakwood is."
City Attorney Thomas McCormick announced this week that he would appeal the adjustment board's decision in Wake County Superior Court "because of concerns about procedural irregularities."
On Friday, the group North Carolina Modernist Houses held a news conference at the home to denounce "this miscarriage of justice and fairness," and to discuss a fund to help fight it.
Hildreth, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, says the Raleigh historic commission has been a leader "in making sure that decisions are made in a justifiable and defensible way." But he says it's too early to tell whether the Cherry house will survive this process.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.
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