Midtown Raleigh News

Wake Forest black landmark tagged for preservation

The public has a chance to make suggestions for the preservation of a historic black landmark in Wake Forest on Wednesday.

In the wake of last month’s vote by the Wake Forest Board of Commissioners to start proceedings to make the Ailey Young House a historic landmark, the town’s Historic Preservation Committee will give information on the site and seek feedback from residents to guide its preservation efforts. The public forum is from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Wake Forest Town Hall.

Local history buffs are celebrating – and encouraging residents to turn out for the forum.

“The town of Wake Forest is preserving all they have left of the post-Civil War history of African-Americans in Wake Forest, and it is a thrilling, thrilling event,” area historian Ruth Little said.

Built in 1875, the Ailey Young House was a boarding house that acted as a stepping stone for freed slaves just after the Civil War. The house is the oldest post-Civil War landmark associated with the town’s black residents, Little said.

A fire about 15 years ago blackened the interior and collapsed the floor on one side. The house was boarded up in the 1990s to prevent further damage. Until recently, the house was nearly invisible from the road, hidden in thick forest.

In January, town staff spent days clearing trees and underbrush to make the house visible from North White Street and less attractive for the vandalism and illicit drinking that has plagued it in the past.

Sending a report on the site to the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office is the first step in getting the house declared a historic landmark. While staff begins work on that report, the town wants to educate residents and hear their opinions on preservation, particularly from those living in the East End neighborhood around the site.

The town hopes to replace the floor, roof and burned-out interior portions of the building, as well as add a front porch to restore the house to its original architecture. Town senior planner Agnes Wanman hopes to stabilize the house enough to allow visitors to walk inside, with signs to educate them on the story of the building and its former residents, modeled after the historic buildings in Wake Forest’s Joyner Park.

A preliminary estimate from local contractors puts the total cost of the work around $70,000. The Preservation Commission of Wake Forest has pledged $5,000 from its Christmas Historic Home Tour to help. Once the landmark designation goes through, much fundraising will be necessary, Wanman said.

After the report is sent, the historic landmark declaration process is a protracted one. The State Historic Preservation Office has 30 days to make comments on the report, then must hold a public hearing. If the office makes a positive recommendation to the Wake Forest Board of Commissioners, the board then must hold a public hearing of its own before making a decision. The process takes about 10 weeks after the initial report is sent, Wanman said.

That would land the official designation right around the time of the town’s annual cemetery tour in May – the original goal for getting the house presentable.

Though it is currently in disrepair, the house was likely one of a row of duplexes built by Wake Forest College professor William Simmons for black families. It shows the living conditions of free blacks in that period, Little said – post-slavery, but not yet owning property.

After Simmons’ death, his wife subdivided the property and sold it to local black families, serving as the foundation for the black East End neighborhood, Little said. The house’s namesake established the first black school in Wake Forest. All of the original buildings have been torn down – except for this house.

“It’s not just some old house that’s in the woods,” Wanman said.