Real Deals

Raleigh builder revives early 1900s style in neighborhoods

dbracken@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2013 

— Homebuilder Richard Johnson describes the style of the houses he’s been renovating and constructing just southwest of downtown Raleigh as “post-railroad folk vernacular.”

“The folk aspect of it is that they’re simple; they have simple proportions,” he says. “The trim is simple, but then they have elaborate porches, and they have a certain kind of harmony about them that comes from basically a down-home carpenter building them.”

This type of shotgun construction became standardized in the early 1900s, and most of the remaining historical houses in Raleigh are from this period. In recent years Johnson has revived the style, first with a 20-home community called Rosengarten Park, and now in a new 25-home project called Dorothea Gardens, near Boylan Heights.

Johnson’s success – he’s sold all the Rosengarten Park homes and sold or lined up buyers for nine of the Dorothea Gardens homes – is testament to both downtown Raleigh’s resurgence and the appeal of offering buyers the historic without the headaches.

“If you get a historic house, it’s very expensive and it’s a whole different world of being able to do all the repairs and all that,” Johnson says. “This is kind of in between getting a regular historic house and getting a condominium.”

Johnson says the houses have been particularly popular with “young, technologically savvy” buyers, a demographic that is growing rapidly with Red Hat’s move downtown and the pending arrival of Citrix Systems. Johnson doesn’t advertise beyond a website, relying instead on word-of-mouth among the relatively small network of singles and young couples interested in such properties.

Johnson hopes to begin the second phase of Dorothea Gardens later this year. It involves demolishing a group of dilapidated apartments that back up to Western Boulevard and replacing them with 19 houses. Most of the houses will be priced between $275,000 and $335,000, with owners paying about $150 a year in neighborhood association dues.

No wasted space

By now Johnson has assembled a team skilled at constructing houses much the same way they would have been a century ago. The designs push the limits of the city’s building code to create the level of density found in those neighborhoods.

In Dorothea Gardens’ second phase, the houses will be built 11 feet apart, which is the exact amount of room needed for a driveway. While the actual property lines will be in the center between two houses, there are easements that give the entire space between two houses to one house.

“One side it’s essentially a zero lot line, on the other side it’s all yours,” Johnson says. “So there’s not a bunch of wasted half-spaces in the neighborhood.”

Many of the old historic neighborhoods featured a corner store that, over time, was converted into a residence. Johnson decided to include such a structure in Dorothea Gardens.

“Sure enough, I got this young couple, they are so psyched about it,” he says.

Rustic touches

All the houses will have 10-foot high ceilings, oak flooring on the first floor, oak staircases, wood windows and doors, 1920s-style trim and covered porches.

Such touches don’t make the houses prohibitively expensive largely because of their smaller size. The 2-story homes range from just 1,100 square feet to 1,800 square feet.

Johnson hopes to build about six homes a year going forward. He’s offering a half-dozen home designs and is encouraging buyers to customize the plans so Dorothea Gardens “doesn’t look like one guy came up with it.”

Johnson, 46, moved into a shotgun house on W. Hargett Street when he and his wife, Amy Goodale, moved to Raleigh in 1994.

“That’s how I started appreciating that kind of an environment,” he says.

The couple ended up buying and renovating that house and a handful of others on the same street. They later renovated a number of historic houses in Boylan Heights before Johnson turned his attention to Rosengarten Park and now Dorothea Gardens.

“This is my thing,” he says. “I eat, sleep and dream about it.”

Bracken: 919-829-4548

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