City pledges to preserve historic house in Raleigh's Oberlin community

cowens@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2013 

— Passing generations, segregation, integration and the comings and goings of countless neighbors have all changed the Oberlin community over the decades.

But the Plummer T. Hall house has stood as a constant, with its Queen Anne design and ornate woodwork a reminder of the area’s prominent place in Raleigh’s African-American history.

After being deeded from one family member to another for more than a century, control of the Oberlin Road house will pass to the city of Raleigh. The family agreed to transfer the deed to the city as an alternative to foreclosure.

The Raleigh Historic Development Commission will oversee the sale of the house, with the goal of preserving it as a landmark in a neighborhood that dates to the years after the Civil War. If all goes according to plan, the revenue generated by the sale will pay all debts, including loans, liens and back taxes.

Susan Jackson, who will turn 90 in August, was born in the house and lived in it for most of her life. She co-owns it with her niece, Catherine Wall.

“It’s important to me because I was born there, I was raised there and I lived there my whole life,” Jackson said.

Martha Lauer, a planner who works with the commission, said it will find a buyer who will respect the house’s historic status. The commission has not put any stipulations on how the house is to be used, although it must review proposed changes to the exterior of Raleigh historic landmarks. Demolishing the house is forbidden without commission approval.

“The goal here is to preserve the landmark,” Lauer said. “It’s an important African-American resource. (It) shows there was a successful community.”

Capital Area Preservation, a Wake County nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation, also oversees the condition of the house and must approve any exterior or interior changes.

The house originally belonged to Jackson’s grandparents, Plummer T. and Della Hall, a prominent couple in a district where many of Raleigh’s black leaders lived and raised families.

Once home to a number of black-owned businesses and a school for first- through 12th-graders, the Oberlin community has gradually changed with the demolition of homes and the construction of businesses and apartments. Jackson said goodbye to her family home there five years ago, when she moved to a nursing home.

A lifetime of memories

The Rev. Plummer T. Hall, Jackson’s grandfather, built the house in the late 19th century as a wedding present for his bride, according to family tradition. Hall was the first pastor of Oberlin Baptist Church, next door. His wife gave birth to all 10 of their children in the house.

The house has seen the beginnings of many lives, but it knows death as well. Hall died in 1912 after developing gangrene from an injury. He had fallen from the roof of the house while repairing it, resulting in the partial amputation of his leg.

The house’s significance lies not only in its association with Hall, but also in its architecture. It is the only recorded Queen Anne cottage of the 80 buildings in the Oberlin community and one of 15 throughout Raleigh’s black communities, as described in a Raleigh historic landmark report.

Jackson grew up in the house, attending Oberlin School and later Shaw University. She moved to Durham when she married and worked as a Duke Hospital technician. When her husband died, she moved back to the house and lived with her mother, who died in 1987.

The house has stood empty since Jackson moved to the nursing home, seeing activity only when someone comes to clean or cut the grass. When Jackson went back to see the house last week, she said it looked lonesome.

“It needs me back in there,” she said.

Although Jackson will miss the house, she said she is glad to let go of it. It has recently become a source of financial stress, she said at the Rex Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center.

“It’s a burden off of me,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about going back, because the doctor has told me this is my home the rest of my life.”

Crystal Bish owns the Community Deli across the street, where customers frequently ask her about the house. They want to know whether anyone lives in it, whether it is a historic property or whether it is going to be sold.

“I think people want to see something else there – the house fixed up and someone living there,” Bish said. “Most people say, ‘It’s so cute. If someone could buy it and fix it up – restore it – it would be nice.’ ”

Owens: 919-829-4567

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