Smoke and flames burst from the boarded-up windows of a century-old home, obscuring the view of its tapered columns and flaking green roof, as one of the last remaining residential structures on the block was burned to the ground Monday.
Lori Stokes, a former Holly Springs resident, looked on as her home of six years was reduced to nothing but its foundation. Her aunt, Mary Lee Johnson, had left her the house when she died at the age of 96. Stokes lived in it until 2012.
“It was just the most charming, beautiful, little house,” Stokes said. “It was just very sad to leave, and it’s sad to see the house go up in flames.”
But Stokes knows that the property’s new occupant is needed in Holly Springs. UNC REX Healthcare will build on the lot at 617 Avent Ferry Road to expand its Holly Springs campus. The expansion includes a three-story, 45,000-square-foot medical office building and a 50-bed community hospital.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The house had to be removed to make way for the development, but not before more than 50 firefighters from the Holly Springs Fire Department, Morrisville Fire Department and Wake County Fire Academy set the house ablaze to practice handling a structure fire.
“This is accomplishing two good goals,” Holly Springs Fire Chief LeRoy Smith said. “The recruit academy from Wake County, with firefighters with zero experience, are getting to actually experience simulated structure fire conditions.”
Mixing old with new
The home, Stokes said, was built in 1913. Her aunt bought it for about $1,500 in 1939.
Mary Lee Johnson loved to entertain in her home but also was involved in the community, particularly in the 1960s through 1980s. She even helped implement the first stop light in town, Stokes said.
“She was very big about Holly Springs,” Stokes said. “She felt this town was hers.”
Following her aunt’s death, Stokes moved in and began creating some of her own memories in the house. One of her favorite nights of the year was Halloween. She would make dinner for all her friends, entertaining as many as 30 people, and would take a meal to the Holly Springs Police Department.
“It was some of the happiest times of my life when I lived here,” she said. “I just loved it so much.”
Initially, Stokes didn’t want to sell the house when UNC REX Healthcare opened its first medical office building nearby and other developers became interested in the area. Neighbors began to sell their homes one by one.
When Stokes realized she was the only one left, she knew it was time to move on.
But before the home served as training for local firefighters, Stokes said her final goodbyes and took pieces of her beloved house with her, including the hardwood pine flooring that her uncle installed after returning from World War II.
She plans to incorporate the flooring, along with the home’s mantel and doors, into her new home in Wendell, where she moved after leaving the Holly Springs home.
“The first year I lived there (in Holly Springs), I must have cried every morning when I woke up and saw the beautiful, old green bedroom with white trim place I was waking up in,” she said. “It was so beautiful with a corner fireplace in the bedroom and so charming.”
On Sunday, Stokes visited that room one last time.
“I visited by myself yesterday and noticed one loose brick in that bedroom fireplace, and I felt like it was meant for me,” she said. “I wedged it out and took it.”
A need in Holly Springs
UNC REX Healthcare’s plans to expand its Holly Springs campus will extend to this site, which is expected to be cleared after the firefighter training is complete.
A 30,000-square-foot medical office building already sits nearby on the corner of Avent Ferry Road and N.C. 55 bypass. But Tommy Williams, vice president of ambulatory services, said Rex expects to break ground on the new office building by the end of the year.
Construction on the 50-bed hospital is expected to begin in 2017, he said. The future phases of the project will help add services to the site, including expanded heart and vascular services and potentially dermatology, OBGYN and cancer care services.
Williams said the additional services mean fewer people will need to drive to Raleigh for medical care. The campus also will serve residents from outside of Holly Springs, including Fuquay-Varina and Lillington.
But as part of the planning phase for the hospital, UNC REX Healthcare representatives are looking farther into the future, trying to predict the needs of the community in 10 to 15 years.
“(People ask), Why does it take so long for the planning? and that’s the primary reason,” Williams said. “We have to plan for the future and anticipate the needs of the community.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608, @KTrogdon