Mary Schilling shielded her face from the sun as she leaned against a fence and watched horses leap over hurdles in the arena.
When she noticed that one rider wasn’t leaning into the jump, she offered a few words of advice to the trainer.
Yes, better form. Schilling smiled.
She has watched dozens of riders and their horses from that fence since she bought a run-down barn on Wakefield Plantation 16 years ago and turned it into a home for award-winning horses.
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The barn seemed destined for demolition as million-dollar homes and a private golf course were built around it. Schilling didn’t just save it – she preserved it as a rural piece of history so close to the suburban sprawl of North Raleigh and Wake Forest.
Her efforts earned Wakefield Barn a place on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also listed as a Wake County Historic Landmark.
In 2001, Schilling won the Capital Area Preservation Anthemion Award, an honor recognizing local historic preservation efforts.
Now Schilling hopes to sell the property, which originally housed dairy cows in the 1930s, to someone who will save it all over again.
“I’m in no rush, but I’m retiring,” Schilling said. “I need to scale back.”
Schilling and her husband, Steve, a former senior executive for a telecommunications firm, bought the 11-acre property for $1.2 million in 2000. They spent more than $500,000 to renovate the barn and also installed two arenas, one of which is covered, and added specialty features like rubber pavers that are easier on horses’ and riders’ feet.
Horses now occupy nearly three-fourths of the 24 stalls on the first floor of the barn, a towering four-story structure that stretches half the length of a football field.
Over the years, the stable has housed some of North Carolina’s best hunters and jumpers – some of them worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Red, gold and blue ribbons line one wall of the barn.
Schilling hadn’t planned to run a horse stable. She graduated in 1978 from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she studied political science, art history and business.
She and her husband, also a Rutgers graduate, lived in several states for his career, including California, Texas and Connecticut.
Mary bought her first horse when they lived in Nashville, Tenn., where Steve earned a master’s degree in finance from Vanderbilt. She had ridden horses as a child, and she wanted one of her own.
She worked as a hospital administrator and later for an import/export company before she decided to stay home to raise the couple’s three children.
The family moved from Dallas to Raleigh in 1997 because Mary craved more open space and solitude.
“I could look outside and see hundreds of stars,” she said.
Mary Schilling found Wakefield Barn when she began looking for a place to board her horse.
She grew to love the place – a hidden gem tucked off Old Falls of Neuse Road – and she bought it when it went up for sale in 2000.
The property is on the market for $1.8 million. Phil Clawson, a broker with Coldwell Banker who is showing the barn to prospective buyers, said the site could be converted into a factory or brewery.
Because of its historic designations, a new owner could not tear down the barn. Exterior changes would require permission from preservationists, but an owner could make changes to the inside of the barn, said Gary Roth, president and CEO of Capital Area Preservation.
Roth said he expects someone will buy the property and keep it as a horse barn. But there are other options.
“I like that brewery idea,” he said. “That’s interesting.”
Capital Area Preservation’s goal isn’t to keep Wake County in a “time capsule,” Roth said. Instead, the nonprofit wants to keep “elements of our past as usable parts of our future.”
“We’re just hopeful it’s going to be a positive continuing use of the building,” Roth said.
The site is part of Wake County’s rich agricultural history. In the 1930s, businessman and philanthropist John Sprunt Hill bought the property to indulge his hobby of raising prize Guernsey cows, according to an application to the Wake County Historic Preservation Commission.
Hill, who was born in Duplin County in 1869, attended UNC and then law school at Columbia University in New York City. He married Annie Louise Watts, whose father served on the board of directors of the American Tobacco Company in Durham.
Eventually Hill took over the family’s tobacco business and also worked as a banker.
Hill already owned three dairy farms in Durham County when he bought the Wakefield site. As local farmers struggled to turn a profit during the Great Depression, they were eager to sell to Hill, who had the financial means to build state-of-the art features like milking stanchions, waste troughs and a mechanical bale-moving system.
Construction of the Wakefield Dairy Complex, including the main 8,000-square-foot barn, began in 1934.
The property had several owners over the years, and dairy production ended in the 1960s. The barn was converted into a horse stable in the ’70s. Some of the historic buildings on the property were demolished over the years.
In the 1990s, the developers of Wakefield subdivision bought the property as they turned the area into a large residential community with a golf course.
“It’s the only thing that was saved when Wakefield developed,” Roth said.
‘It was idyllic’
Mary and Steve Schilling both spend their days on the property – Mary chatting with equestrians and Steve working out of his office on the first floor of a former maternity barn.
He founded Dogwood Business Brokers and Advisors, a brokerage firm, in 2008.
The Schillings, and the barn, have meant a lot to so many people.
Elizabeth Petrilli, 26, started taking riding lessons at the barn when she was 4. Now she trains other riders there.
“The history is amazing,” Petrilli said of the property. “It was idyllic growing up here and being a part of it all.”
The Schillings hope to stay in the Wakefield area. Mary wants to continue to board her two horses at the barn.
But she wants more time to visit her children and care for her aging father, who lives in an assisted-living facility.
“We’re all trying to preserve the past,” she said of the barn. “I’d love to see it preserved.”
Staff writer Sarah Nagem contributed to this report.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler