Point of View

Oakwood controversy over 'contemporary' house disturbing on many levels

March 11, 2014 

A few weeks ago, Preservation North Carolina moved the Crabtree Jones House in Raleigh to a new site to keep it from being demolished. The house, thought to have been built about 1795, is interesting for many reasons: its early age, the prominence of its family and its construction and design.

In light of the current controversy about contemporary design in Oakwood, the Crabtree Jones House illustrates why most historic preservationists encourage contemporary design for new buildings and additions in historic districts.

In its 200-plus years, the Crabtree Jones House has gone through at least five periods of construction. The first phase was constructed in a tripartite form in the Georgian style – the up-to-date look for its day.

A few decades later, around 1830, a handful of modifications were made in the newly popular Greek Revival style. Once again, the changes would have been “modern,” reflecting the newest style from the latest pattern books.

The house was trashed during the Civil War. After the war, a new porch was built in the brand-new Italianate style, using new construction technologies made possible by the Industrial Revolution. Once again, the Joneses built in the latest style.

The layers and richness that these changes added through the decades are part of what makes the house so fascinating. The original house is there for all to admire, and so are most of the alterations. These layers help tell the stories of when the Jones family members made their wealth and started new families, when national events crashed down around them, and how labor and construction techniques changed over the decades.

Preservation North Carolina has the house for sale, and we expect that a new buyer will want to build an addition to accommodate modern bathrooms and kitchen. We’re working with interior design students at Meredith and UNC-Greesboro to come up with potential floor plans.

As we have for decades, we will encourage any buyer to execute a new addition in a “contemporary” manner, just like the Jones family did for two centuries. It will probably have lots of glass and a very up-to-date kitchen, reflecting our generation’s needs, desires and expectations. Such an addition can be built without diminishing the historic value of the house.

That same layering of styles and construction techniques adds richness to our state’s historic districts as well. The buildings, individually and as a collection, tell the stories of both generations gone by and our own.

The controversy over the last few months in Raleigh’s Historic Oakwood about the design of the “contemporary” home of Louis Cherry and Marsha Gordon has been one of the most disturbing of my 35-year career in historic preservation. Neighbors have been pitted against neighbors, and false rumors and innuendo have filled social media.

After Cherry and Gordon received unanimous approval for their new home from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, an unhappy neighbor hired an attorney and appealed the decision. The Board of Adjustment overturned the RHDC decision by a 3-2 vote, though the Board of Adjustment has no training about historic preservation or about the city’s historic design guidelines.

Cherry and Gordon are being told that they must tear down their house – five months after they started construction, following all of the city’s rules and obtaining a valid building permit. What a nightmare – and terrible precedent for other homeowners.

Further, much of what opponents are saying is completely contrary to more than a half-century of best practice in the field of historic preservation. Since at least the 1960s, most practitioners have strongly favored contemporary design for new construction in historic districts – in Raleigh and throughout the nation.

Raleigh’s historic districts were built over a period of decades – house-by-house, owner-by-owner. Unlike modern subdivisions, they contain numerous styles and sizes, and it is this richness that gives them their character. They are mosaics, made up of many distinctive parts. No one style predominates, so it makes no sense whatsoever to prescribe stylistic limitations.

Historic Oakwood contains styles representing almost every decade since the Civil War. Each of these styles was “contemporary” in its own day.

A 1920s brick Georgian Revival house (formal, symmetrical, simply detailed) couldn’t be more different from an 1870s frame Second Empire cottage (exuberant, asymmetrical and richly detailed). A 1910s Four Square (boxy, low hip roof, central chimneys, symmetrical, practical) is completely unlike a 1920s English Cottage (irregular form, multiple high-pitched gables, front chimney, asymmetrical, historically derived), even though they are only a decade apart.

And yet these radically different styles co-exist peacefully in our historic districts. In fact, it is the differences between adjacent structures that bring the details into focus.

Thankfully, the evolution of architecture hasn’t ended, and that’s why preservation professionals strongly support integrating “modern” design into historic districts. As with the Crabtree Jones House, the richness of the layers will continue to appreciate as our own generation adds to the mix while respecting what went before.

Myrick Howard is president of Preservation North Carolina.

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