Matthew Brown steps on the plywood plank lying across his wraparound porch, currently without a floor, and into his Person Street house. He passes the blue tarp covering a keyhole-shaped stained glass window. Inside, stained and faded wallpaper peels from the walls.
Brown, in a 1960s-era wool suit and hat, beams all the while. He points out the intricate woodwork on the staircase and walls – “It’s never even been painted” – and describes the slate roof that drew him to the historic house that he recently bought from the state.
As for the imperfections of a house built in 1896 and abandoned for going on 20 years?
“It’s nothing a bucket of paint and a million dollars won’t fix,” says Brown, adding with feigned regret: “I used to tell that as a joke, but it’s getting less funny.”
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Brown has restored two other houses in the Oakwood area to their former glory since he moved to the neighborhood in the late 1980s, adhering to the strict standards required in a federally designated historic district.
But his contributions to historic preservation go well beyond his own homes. He has catalogued the history of every building within the Oakwood Historic District and leads tours of the houses there. He’s been a member of local and state organizations devoted to historic preservation, and has played a role in projects to save historic buildings from the wrecking ball.
Recently, Brown was awarded the Anthemion Award for Historic Preservation Advocacy by the nonprofit Capital Area Preservation, which works to protect historic properties, often in partnership with local governments.
Gary Roth, president of Capital Area Preservation, says Brown works tirelessly behind the scenes on preservation efforts, whether it’s researching and writing, working directly with homeowners or speaking out about projects.
“It’s the accumulation of all these activities – the writing, the research, the speaking and service – that has made him a tremendous asset to the preservation effort,” says Roth. “It’s a lifelong passion for him, and our communities and neighborhoods are better off for it.”
Interest in history
Brown was born in Massachusetts but spent much of his youth in Statesville. From a young age, he says, he was fascinated with history, in particular the older buildings in the quaint historic town where he grew up. It’s a fascination that has grown over time.
“You think about where you are now, and you can just imagine what it looked like 100 years ago and what might have happened there,” he says. “It helps us connect with our communities and to realize that our lives are just a chapter in a larger story.”
He studied history at the University of Virginia, where he did coursework in architectural history. Then he returned to North Carolina, where he earned a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Brown says he loved the research part of law school, and he took his first job after graduation as a researcher for the state court of appeals in Raleigh.
He loved the city and settled into the Oakwood neighborhood almost immediately, at first renting and in 1989 buying his first house there.
But the legal profession wasn’t for him. He tried a few other jobs – working as a high school teacher briefly and doing technical theater – before landing at what is now the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
His work there involves researching the histories of Civil War soldiers, and he has written five volumes of North Carolina Troops 1861-1865 over the past 14 years.
The volumes are used by historians and others interested in Civil War history, including genealogical researchers. When his position nearly fell victim to budget cuts a few years ago, his readers protested, and his job was saved.
“It’s a small but committed fan base,” Brown says.
His work in Oakwood is perhaps more widely appreciated. Roth, of Capital Area Preservation, says Brown has become a go-to expert on Oakwood.
“Just about everybody in Oakwood, if they are considering a restoration project or buying a home, they come to Matthew to find out the history of the home, who’s lived there and how it used to look,” says Roth.
Starting in the early 2000s, Brown has compiled summaries of the histories and architecture of each building in Oakwood to be included in a database the State Historic Preservation Office maintains.
A longtime member of the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood, he wrote the brochure used for its walking tours and writes regular articles on the neighborhood’s history for its newsletter.
He has played a key role in projects to save historic houses. One was an effort to move the Wharton-Fields house, built in 1906, from Boylan Avenue to Linden Avenue to avoid demolition. In another case, he helped secure a loan so the owner of an Oakwood house that was severely burned could afford to repair rather than demolish it.
He served on the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, a role that involved reviewing nominations for historic districts.
Brown renovated his current home slowly over decades and says it’s hardly finished. He later bought and renovated another house, restoring it from a duplex to a single-family dwelling. For a time, he owned several rental properties in the neighborhood.
He sold those rental homes to buy the one he is renovating, which caught his eye years ago. It is an example of Queen Anne architecture, yet also has unique flourishes.
He was quick to make an offer when it was one of several properties the state put up for sale and bought it for $536,000 earlier this year. Fixing the house will likely eclipse the cost of buying it and could take up to a year.
For Brown, such sacrifices are clearly worthwhile. Yet his advocacy work is needed, he says, because not everyone values history.
Oakwood is well-known now for its painstakingly preserved historic houses, but Brown notes that the neighborhood was nearly razed in the 1970s to make way for an interstate connection.
The Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood formed to combat that effort and continues to fight for historic properties.
“We’re in an era now when people want everything to be new,” Brown says. “We need to be reminded that we will miss these things when they’re gone.”
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Matthew M. Brown
Born: August 1960, Concord, Mass.
Career: Historian, N.C. Historical Publications, N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
Awards: Anthemion Award for Preservation Advocacy, Capital Area Preservation; Special Achievement Award, Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood, 2002
Education: B.A. history, University of Virginia; J.D. UNC-Chapel Hill
Fun Fact: Brown also enjoys the lighter side of living in a historic district. He regularly dons 19th century attire for Oakwood events and dresses as “The Beast” every Halloween. He marches in the July 4 parade as Uncle Sam and plays trombone in the Oakwood Second Line Band.