Old houses have great stories.
Many of those stories are lost to time, but some are revived when a former resident stops by or a renovation uncovers an artifact behind a wall or under the floorboards.
You can almost hear the whispers of such stories when you walk amid the homes in the Boylan Heights neighborhood, just west of downtown Raleigh. And if that’s not enough, you can walk right in and hear the stories straight from current residents during the Tours and Tunes event April 12.
Lea and Dawson Roark might tell you about the 1920 penny they found behind a loose tile above one of the fireplaces in their Cutler Street Colonial. Or they’ll tell you how a visitor solved the mystery of why their kitchen counters are higher than standard and why the cabinets go all the way to the ceiling. (Spoiler alert: A former resident stood nearly 7 feet tall.)
In a nod to the neighborhood’s creative vibe, such stories will be told with accompaniment from musicians stationed on front porches or in the living rooms at each of the 10 houses on the tour.
“Because we have musicians and creative people that live in the neighborhood, we thought it would be a fun way of putting a twist on it, making it different,” said Lyman Collins, a 10-year Boylan Heights resident and publicity chairman for the tour. “What better thing to do than to walk around the neighborhood and hear music and then get to look at the houses, too?”
‘Raleigh’s first suburb’
The event, hosted by the Boylan Heights Neighborhood Association, is a reprise of a tour Boylan Heights hosted for its centennial in 2007. The neighborhood is “really Raleigh’s first suburb,” Collins said, stemming from an extension of Lenoir and Cabarrus streets out of the heart of downtown – and out of downtown’s rigid grid pattern. Bordered by Central Prison to the west, the Dorothea Dix property to the south, and rail lines to the north, “Boylan Heights never spilled out to other neighborhoods because there was no place to spill out to,” said Don Davis, who researched and wrote histories of each home on the tour.
Maybe that’s why the neighborhood is so tight-knit, with many residents moving from one house to another within its borders as their needs change. People in the neighborhood know one another’s names and get better acquainted at progressive dinners, the annual ArtWalk and taking part in traditions such as the kazoo orchestra that plays “Pomp and Circumstance” each spring for graduates in the neighborhood.
Talk at such events often turns to home improvements and histories, and residents often know as much about their neighbors’ homes as they do their own. It may be that the neighborhood was designed with such closeness in mind.
“When you stand on the front porch,” Lea Roark said, “you can see all the other porches. They lined up on purpose.”
The Roarks took part in the 2007 home tour, when they owned a different house in the neighborhood, and were happy to open their doors again.
“It’s part of history,” Lea Roark said. “It ought to be shared.”
Original sink and cabinets
Also sharing their home on the tour will be former Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and his wife, former Wake County School Board member Anne McLaurin, whose Colonial Revival home with two-story columns and multiple porches anchors a busy corner. Meeker bought the house in 1976 and has been a longtime proponent of the neighborhood ever since.
The house, built around 1907, features a butler’s pantry and an original sink and cabinets in the kitchen – a rarity since kitchens are so often remodeled. The home’s ornately detailed radiators are still in place, though McLaurin admits they were long ago put out of service, mostly because they were loud.
Meeker and McLaurin were married in the side yard, and they raised a family in that house, which they’ve never considered leaving, she said.
McLaurin put it simply: “We would not move anywhere else in the world.”
The homes in Boylan Heights have lived many lives. Many of them were divided into apartments in the wake of the Depression, with more recent renovations converting them back into single-family dwellings. Some new homes are sprinkled in among the Colonial Revival and Craftsman designs, including the home of Lucinda Cook, which was built in 2006.
Cook, whose home is on the tour, was cognizant of its being “a new home in an old neighborhood.”
“It fits in well on the outside,” she said, “but I like a contemporary interior.”
Generous south-facing windows flood the living room with light, and an airy staircase lends a modern feel. In a sharp contrast to older homes, storage is abundant, with extra space carved into the stairs’ landing for a bookshelf and even small nooks under pillars that set off the dining room from the entryway.
Cook said she loves going on home tours and gathering ideas from what she sees, “so I figured it was my turn.”
Despite all the changes in the neighborhood’s history, some things have stayed the same.
“I think the neighborhood has just continued its character,” Collins said, “continued to be a place of creativity, continued to be a place where creative people enjoy living and are sort of drawn to. And we just continue to work together in the neighborhood, which I think is the most important thing.”