Modernist house sparks debate about Raleigh’s historic districts

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 12, 2014 

— Outcry over a modernist house under construction in the Oakwood neighborhood is prompting city leaders to review rules for historic districts.

Architect Louis Cherry is building a new home on a vacant Euclid Street lot, which was approved by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission despite opposition from some neighbors.

In an email to City Council members, Euclid Street resident Gail Wiesner decried what she called “this garishly inappropriate house” for a historic distict. Wiesner and others will take the fight against Cherry to the Board of Adjustment this month, but on Monday, she asked the Raleigh City Council to look into changing the Historic Development Commission’s composition and approval process.

“There are some inherent problems that have contributed to the situation in which we find ourselves,” she said. Wiesner requested clarification of the historic design guidelines, and that more neighborhood representatives serve on the commission.

Wiesner said the current commission is full of architects who “are strongly biased toward modernist” designs. She asked that the full commission hear applications like Cherry’s, rather than a smaller subcommittee.

“We have three people deciding the futures of hundreds of people,” she said.

But Cherry said the approval process for new construction is fine, and opponents simply don’t like the look of his new home.

“It’s basically about it’s not to their tastes,” he said. “Many of the people in the neighborhood are really misinformed about the intent of the guidelines. The architecture has to evolve for it to be a living neighborhood. It’s not a museum of historic homes.”

Cherry said his design fits the scale of the neighborhood without copying the century-old architecture of Oakwood’s older homes. “What I tried to do is to build a modest home that definitely refers to the past – it refers to the Craftsman-style homes that are in Oakwood – but to build a home that looks like it belongs in 2014,” he said.

Curtis Kasefang, who lives nearby, said Wiesner’s concerns don’t reflect the majority of Oakwood neighbors. He said he welcomes a review of the historic guidelines, though he sounded wary that Wiesner’s proposal could go too far. “There are structures that are loved in our districts that would not be possible under some of the changes,” he said.

Myrick Howard, head of the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina, pointed out that Oakwood already features homes from a variety of time periods. The goal of a historic district, he said, is to protect existing homes from demolition or major changes – not to keep out comtemporary architecture.

“There’s that mosaic aspect that is very important,” he said. “Most folks involved in historic preservation value the evolution of architecture.”

The City Council has asked city planners to develop a “community conversation” process to solicit feedback about potential changes to the historic guidelines and commission. “Our values are somewhere between museum and free for all,” Councilman Russ Stephenson said. “Hopefully (the result) will be that balance we can all live with.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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