Preservation is something of a gamble, a bet that the shapes and tastes of the past will have a place in the future.
Clayton’s track record with preservation includes triumph and woe, buildings that have survived several tests of time and others razed because of neglect, disinterest or for standing in the way of progress. The town’s historical association is lobbying the town council to put some teeth in its historic district, hoping that as town leaders shape the Clayton of the future, they will leave room for the past.
“Right now we have the Clayton Historic District recognized on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Porter Casey, director of the Clayton Historical Association. “But when you have a designation like that, there’s no specific protection. If you’re not careful, over the years the district can slowly kind of diminish.”
Clayton’s historic district runs largely along Front Street and the two or three blocks north, south, east and west of the Clayton Center. Casey envisions a policy aimed at keeping structures within the district upright, rather than quibbling over paint colors and building materials.
“There are other historic districts in the state that are a little more intrusive; we wanted something more acceptable,” Casey said. “Some of these districts go into details like paint color. I don’t think we need to get to that extreme. It should be managed at the town level to make sure it’s done in a more practical fashion; an overlay district, something that just takes the neighborhood character into consideration before doing something.”
There are 294 homes in Clayton’s historic district, and Casey seems to know it by heart, parcel by parcel. If he sounds concerned about the impact of growth on downtown Clayton, it’s perhaps because of what the town has lost in the past. The prominent Red and White grocery building on O’Neil and Front Streets came down last year after deteriorating into an asbestos-filled biohazard. But the Horne Mansion on Main Street is perhaps the greatest hole missing in the physical history of downtown Clayton. Built in the late 1800s and existing unrivaled for decades as the signature building in Clayton’s downtown, the massive Victorian home of Ashley Horne came down in 1970 to make way for a grocery store. Though the home itself came down, the grocery store never arrived, and Horne Square exists today as a monument to both what was and what might have been.
“There’s the potential for losses; the Horne Mansion was a big one, and we don’t want to wait until it’s too late and we don’t have something in place,” Casey said. “The Horne Mansion was a historic building before historic revitalization really took off. ... They tore it down feeling the potential for a big commercial retail grocery store, but it fell through. We’ve kind of lost that building, and they’re hard to replace.”
In recent years, the town has been making up for perceived missteps in the past. The Clayton Center, once a dilapidated school destined for the wrecking ball, is now a concert and events venue with a regional draw and a town hall with room to grow into. Two other revitalization projects came up this year, the conversion of the North Carolina Paper Company building into a sleek contemporary office space and the coming transformation of the old town hall into apartments.
Casey said he loves these projects and finds the trend encouraging.
“It’s really embracing growth and incorporating growth into our historic properties,” he said. “It adds character to our community; I think it’s great.”
Casey spoke to the town council at last week’s meeting, recommending a historic district with more legal authority and suggesting ways of promoting upkeep. He pointed to the town’s facade grant program for downtown businesses and said something similar could benefit homes, as could historic tax credits. Casey himself lives in the historic district, in a house more than a century old and one that’s taken several years of renovations.
“There’s a nostalgia and charm that’s not easily replaced,” Casey said. “Right now, there’s no limitations. Someone could get a permit tomorrow and tear down the next day. I’m not saying everything needs to be saved, but it’s important to have that little bit of reassurance so that something doesn’t sneak up on the town.”
Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson