Owner of Latta property won't sell

Old wiring might have caused fire

Staff WriterJanuary 10, 2007 

— All that's left of a school started for freed slaves more than 100 years ago are the two acres it sat on and the bricks and columns Bill "Shep" Shepherd pulled from the piles of burned, wet debris Tuesday afternoon.

And the site of the old Latta House may remain that way for a while -- a grassy lot framed by majestic oaks -- despite being in a fast-growing West Raleigh corridor humming with residential and commercial development.

Raleigh investor Adryon Clay bought the house in 1994. Clay was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but her property manager, Edward Barnard, said she has no interest in selling the land.

"She won't sell the property for anything," Barnard said.

An early morning fire Monday destroyed the lone remaining building of a historic school and orphanage founded in 1892 by the Rev. Morgan L. Latta, a former slave who graduated from Shaw University after enrolling with only 10 cents in his pocket.

The fire appears to have been caused by an electrical problem, according to the city's fire marshal.

Larry Stanford said the house off Oberlin Road had old wiring covered in cloth-type insulation that had become fragile with age. There are no signs the fire was deliberately set, Stanford said.

Latta House was part of a shrinking historically black community sandwiched between Cameron Village, University Park and Hayes Barton. One block south, a developer recently completed new condominiums, while nearby the next phase of Oberlin Court, a large apartment complex, rises between Oberlin Road and Wade Avenue.

Ann Haywood Grady grew up in the old Latta House with her six siblings after her parents bought the home in 1933. Grady, a retired social worker, now lives in North Raleigh but attends Wilson Temple United Methodist Church, a city landmark on Oberlin Road.

Grady's family resided at the Latta House for more than 50 years. Her parents, Chesley and Bertha Haywood, were well-aware of Latta's former school when they moved into the two-story house on Parker Street.

"My mother sort of continued the legacy of Mr. Latta by letting students from Shaw and St. Aug's [College] live there for free if they didn't have a place to stay," Grady said.

Now Grady fears that her old community might lose that legacy and its history under the fervor of development.

Except for an old well covered by a brick fireplace, the site was empty Tuesday. Police tape affixed to the trees encircled a trash heap of charred wood, bricks, twisted metal and oddities like an overturned toilet.

"It's like coming to a funeral and paying your last respects," said Kevin Goodwin, 35, who looked at the damage Tuesday morning with his toddler, Kyle, and his brother, Randy.

At its peak, the school included 26 buildings and a library. The fire-ravaged house served as Latta's private residence.

"It was similar to the chancellor's house on a college campus," said Shepherd, who was the Latta House's caretaker for more than a decade.

Three years ago, Shepherd started the Latta House Foundation and dreamed of restoring the two-story home with its leaky roof and sagging porch that threatened to cave in.

"The materials were cheap. The columns were cheap, but what was done there was priceless," Shepherd, 55, said Tuesday. "My dream beyond dreams would be for the community to rally and rebuild on that site."

(News researcher Paulette Stiles contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Thomasi McDonald can be reached at 829-4533 or tmcdonal@newsobserver.com.

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