Wake County

Downtown Raleigh neighborhood gets modernist homes

Robby Johnston, co-owner of The Raleigh Architecture Co., lives in a modernist house with his wife and daughters on Edenton Street, near the Oakwood neighborhood.
Robby Johnston, co-owner of The Raleigh Architecture Co., lives in a modernist house with his wife and daughters on Edenton Street, near the Oakwood neighborhood. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Less than a mile from a well-known modernist house that led to a lawsuit and neighbor disputes in Oakwood, two modern homes have quietly been completed, and three more are under construction.

Robby Johnston and Craig Kerins, co-owners of The Raleigh Architecture Co., designed two modernist homes that sit in the 500 block of East Edenton Street. Three more of their homes are under construction around the corner at the intersection of New Bern Avenue and Swain Street.

The neighborhood east of downtown is known as Hungry Neck, a pocket of mostly older homes just south of Oakwood Cemetery.

The sharp angles and large windows of the Edenton Street houses are a stark contrast to their neighbors – one- and two-story homes, some with polished exteriors and others with peeling paint.

Johnston and Kerins believe the old and new can co-exist. They say modernist homes downtown will appeal to the growing number of downtown workers employed at places such as Red Hat and Citrix.

“They want something as cool as their iPhone to live in,” said Johnston, 34, who lives in one of the new Edenton Street houses with his wife and two daughters.

But it would be tough to build such homes in many downtown neighborhoods, including Boylan Heights, much of Blount Street, Moore Square and Oakwood. Those areas are considered historic districts, where construction projects must go through a “certificate of appropriateness” approval process with the city.

Hungry Neck is not designated as a historic district, so the modernist homes are subject only to the regular permits required for any construction, said Tania Tully, preservation planner for the city.

Johnston and Kerins said neighbors have embraced the homes on Edenton Street, with their skylights, open floor plans and a courtyard that connects the houses to maximize space on the small lots.

That wasn’t the case in Oakwood, where a neighbor filed a lawsuit against the owner of an unfinished modernist house on Euclid Street. The case is now headed to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The Oakwood house drew national attention and highlighted the debate about balancing history and progress.

Kerins and Johnston, who specialize in modernist residential and commercial designs, said the Oakwood issue was worrisome because it means a neighbor’s differing opinion could prevent architects from doing their work.

“Modern or not, the thing about this that was so scary was what does this mean for people like us out here,” Johnston said.

Raleigh officials are looking at design guidelines for neighborhoods, Tully said. The question, she said, is whether new construction should look like existing homes in the area or “a lot more dramatic.”

“It’s looking like it falls somewhere in between,” she said.

Kerins and Johnston are going for the dramatic. They are working with real estate agents to find more properties in the Hungry Neck neighborhood suitable for modernist homes like Johnston’s, which is 1,700 square feet.

“Most of the people in the neighborhood are happy to see families moving in,” Kerins said.

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