RALEIGH — Before it burned, the house on East Jones Street contained all the haunts and intrigue of a Southern Gothic novel: secret passageways, brass intercoms, a buzzer for summoning kitchen help and a bit of Yankee ammunition lodged in its wall.
But the fire that took Oakwoods largest mansion Wednesday stirred stronger memories from the ashes: those of Suzanne Dabney Allen, its grand dame for 60 years.
She played bridge there weekly, and ferociously, almost to 1982, when she died at age 104.
She entertained legislators in the parlor, being the widow of the states food and oil chemist, and her gold-leaf furniture now graces the Governors Mansion just two blocks away.
She kept a pet parrot who was prone to escape. You might see her in the yard, cussing at her bird underneath a big oak tree, ordering passers-by to ignore the squawking until it got hungry and flew home.
She stood out just like her house.
Mrs. Allen was a fascinating, gentle Southern lady, recalled Taylor McMillan, a former neighbor, now 74. You could talk to Mrs. Allen for three minutes, and somehow, she would work into the conversation that she was a Dabney from Mississippi. I played bridge with her. I consider myself a pretty fair bridge player. Mrs. Allen did not.
Built in 1851, the house at 516 E. Jones qualifies as the largest and second-oldest in Oakwood a neighborhood of 19th-century giants.
Much smaller and wooden when built, the house grew to 4,810 square feet, topped with brick chimneys, flanked by a porte cochere with Doric columns.
The ceilings stood 14 feet. The staircase was cherry and mahogany, taken from the 19th-century Eagle Hotel in Raleigh. The windows were beveled glass.
I used to dream of writing a novel in the second-floor bedroom, said Elizabeth Smith, who lived there in the 1980s with her legislator husband, the late Rep. Addison Neal Smith.
When Mrs. Allen moved there in the 1920s, the bride of N.C. State professor and chemist W.M. Allen, she had her bathtubs and brass beds shipped north from Mississippi. Nobody can recall the source of her family fortune, only that it was large.
They owned half of everything in Vicksburg, said William Hutchins, her longtime neighbor on Jones Street, now 88. Stocks, I guess. I never looked into it too deeply.
Every day, she walked to N.C. State, then known as State College, to bring her husband his lunch. But her husband, nicknamed Pud, died in 1938, leaving Mrs. Allen a widow for 44 years a solitary denizen of a bygone century.
She grew prize-winning irises and tended a fig orchard with the help of her beloved handyman and gardener, Jack Smith. So fond was she of Mr. Jack that she bought him land on Moseley Lane next door, building him a sturdy brick house that still stands, installing a gate between their yards so he could pass through each day.
Later, she hired Mr. Jacks wife as housekeeper, and gave their daughter, Sheila, money for college. When Mrs. Allen died in 1982, neighbors say, Mr. Jack never truly recovered. Before she passed, she told Mr. Jack that she refused to be buried on her back. She didnt want anyone walking on her face.
Today, Taylor McMillan has one of Mrs. Allens beds. So does Sheila Parker: a brass model that Mrs. Allen maintained was damaged during the siege of Vicksburg. The story goes that former North Carolina first lady Jessie Rae Scott personally picked up the gilt furniture from 516 E. Jones.
When I heard the news about the fire, I knew it had to be Mrs. Allens house, and I hurt inside, Sheila Parker said Saturday, offering the picture of Mrs. Allen you see published here.
Investigators blamed the blaze on bad wiring. Restoration crews immediately began work on the wreckage. I know. I live next door to Mr. Jacks house, and I can see Mrs. Allens charred home from my back yard. Last Wednesday, at about 1 a.m., I watched it burn, heartsick.
I never guessed the place had any Civil War artillery lodged in it. Smith never saw any when she lived there, and its curious considering Raleigh surrendered more or less peacefully. But the house had a double-brick veneer around the original wood, so the damage wouldnt be apparent. Mrs. Allen always told people that it was lodged in the wall just over her bed.
Perhaps theyll find it, picking through the wreckage. Perhaps theyll find another reminder of the character that must surely haunt the place, searching for a bridge partner and tending her flowers.
Shaffer: (919) 829-4818