The state left the inside of this historic Raleigh mansion in ruins. Now it’s coming back to life.

The grand entrance hall of the historic Heck-Andrews House is crowded with dusty old bathtubs, toilets and sinks, some dating back to before there was hot water in the house.

The imposing three-story Second Empire-style home with a distinctive center tower on North Blount Street is finally being renovated inside after decades of neglect by its former owner, the state of North Carolina. Its new owner, the N.C. Association of Realtors, will put its Raleigh office upstairs and restore the main floor to its turn-of-the-20th-century glory for wedding receptions and other events.

The association won’t need any of the old plumbing, and there is a lot of it, including a dozen sinks. For decades, until the state acquired the house in the 1980s, Heck-Andrews had been used as a rooming house, with sinks in each room.

Andrea Bushnell, the association’s CEO, says it’s not clear yet what will happen to them all. They’ll soon be moved to storage, and some may be reused in the house somehow.

“We want to ensure there are mementos of the old house that are preserved in an artistic way,” Bushnell said.

The restoration of the Heck-Andrews House is a long, expensive undertaking for the association, which agreed to buy the house from the state in January 2016 for $1.5 million. Renovations and the addition of a commercial kitchen and bathrooms will cost several million dollars more, though the final cost isn’t known yet, said association spokesman Seth Palmer.

It took two years to get the permits to start the work, including a Certificate of Appropriateness for use of a historic building and a site plan review from the city. Bushnell said she thinks the city “really, really cared about this project being done right,” which slowed the process somewhat.

But it’s also complex to restore an old house and also make it usable for public gatherings. To cite one example: Historic accuracy required that the ceilings on the main floor be made of plaster, but fire regulations required that they be able to contain a fire for two hours. Contractors will satisfy both requirements by coating the plaster with a special fire-retardant paint, which required special approved by the city.

The Heck-Andrews House will join several other old mansions along Blount Street that have found new lives as offices and event venues. But looming behind the house is the Bath Building, a mostly windowless 5-story laboratory put up in the early 1970s when the state still looked to this neighborhood to expand the State Government Complex.

The state acquired many of the houses along Blount Street in the 1960s and began knocking them down to create parking. Preservationists helped persuade the state to change its plans for Blount, and it began to reuse the old houses for state offices. More than a decade after making its first offer for the Heck-Andrews House, the state took full control of it in 1987.

But then the state never figured out what to do with the house. It has restored the outside twice since the 1990s and had it repainted salmon with green trim, the colors first applied during a major renovation in 1902. But inside the house remained a ruin, with big chunks of plaster falling off the walls and ceilings and the kitchen floor partially collapsed into the basement.

“It’s been sitting here for a long time waiting for this,” says Jim Grady, the architect on the renovation project and a Raleigh native who calls Heck-Andrews one of his favorite houses in the city.

Mrs. Heck’s house

Industrialist Jonathan McGee Heck and his wife Mattie completed the house in 1870 on what would become the city’s most fashionable residential street (construction of the Executive Mansion a block south began 13 years later). The couple also had a house in rural Warren County, 55 miles north, and the Blount Street mansion was referred to as “Mrs. Heck’s house,” according to the nomination that got it added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Mattie Heck was responsible for the renovation of the house in 1902 that opened up the ground floor for ease in entertaining and for other details, such as the windows she had brought in from Paris, Grady said.

The Heck family sold the house in 1921 to A.B. Andrews Jr., a prominent Raleigh lawyer who grew up across the street. His built-in shelves still line the walls of the third floor and have yielded some surprises tucked in behind them, including an old calling card for “Mr. and Mrs. Heck” and a letter mailed from a clipping service in New York to Andrews in 1915 describing a big ceremony to mark the death of his father, railroad executive A.B. Andrews Sr., that year.

‘Coolest place in town’

The house’s interior wood trim has been carefully removed, wrapped and labeled so it can be reinstalled later. The half dozen or so doors on the first floor each have 70 separate pieces of wood trim around them, so there are nearly 500 pieces for the doors alone, said John Whidden of Progressive Contracting Co., which is doing the restoration work.

More than a century’s worth of home utilities can be found in the house. There are fireplaces built for coal in the bedrooms upstairs, next to fixtures for gas lights. The sockets for single bulbs that hang from the ceiling have wiring wrapped in cloth and date back to early 20th century, Grady said. The old coal boiler that sent hot water through radiators has been removed, along with thousands of pounds of coal that was still bunkered in the basement when the association bought it.

The building will have all new utilities, including a geo-thermal heating and cooling system. For several days, a big drilling rig was parked in the front yard to sink the system’s pipes as deep as 400 feet.

The house will have a new stairwell and an elevator in the back, as well a catering kitchen and handicapped accessible bathrooms in a new annex that will appear from the outside like the old carriage house that was torn down decades ago.

The first floor event space will have a capacity for 120 people, in rooms with 12-foot ceilings framed by plaster Corinthian columns. Some of the other architectural touches that have been lost over the years will be restored, including an 8-foot-tall stained-glass window and a statue atop the newel post at the bottom of the main stairway. It’s not known precisely what statue was there, but the association plans one that would have been typical of the time, of the Roman goddess Diana holding a torch that doubles as a light fixture.

“You cannot tell me that every bride in town won’t want their picture taken with that,” Bushnell said.

But brides and other members of the public probably won’t have access to the house’s signature feature, the tower that rises above the front door and invites references to the Addams Family. The spiral staircase that leads up to a platform in the tower with views out large round windows in all directions is only accessible from what will be Realtors association’s offices.

As she climbed the stairs, Bushnell joked that she was going to put a couple of chairs up there for special meetings. Grady, the architect who has long admired the Heck-Andrews House, is a little jealous.

“This is the coolest place in town,” he said.

Project Phoenix

Nearly 30 years after the state acquired the Heck-Andrews House, the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory thought it had found a use for the 19th-century mansion as a place where state government could hold special functions.

But when the General Assembly refused to provide the money for renovations, McCrory agreed to sell the house as part of a larger effort to revitalize state property that he called Project Phoenix.

Altogether, the state put 12 houses along Blount, Person and Lane streets on the market. Andrea Bushnell, the CEO of the N.C. Association of Realtors, said it looked at several of them for its Raleigh office before visiting Heck-Andrews.

“When we walked into this house, we knew that this was the one we were most interested in preserving,” Bushnell said. “Our association stands for preservation. We fight all the time for the rights of these old buildings to be renovated and restored and put to new and different uses.”

Most of the houses the state sold through Phoenix Project are in various stages of being turned into offices or homes. One, a Tudor-revival house on North Blount Street, was torn down when the new owners considered it beyond repair.

The 12th house was under contract three years ago, but the deal fell through. That house, known as the Andrews-Duncan House, was built by A.B. Duncan Jr.’s father in 1874, across East North Street from the Heck-Andrews House.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.