Wake County

Historic Raleigh houses wander through downtown to new home

Nicole Alvarez sat on one curb and watched as work crews tried to lift her new house over the curb on the other side of the street.

Movers had mounted the house on wheels and steered it half a mile through downtown Raleigh, from East Lenoir to South Bloodworth streets. Now, all they had to do was hop the curb and nestle the house into place against a shimmering skyline backdrop.

Dozens of onlookers stood behind Alvarez, holding their phones aloft as the tires rotated ever so slowly from the street, over the sidewalk lip and onto the orange earth. A smile appeared under Alvarez’s hardhat.

“I feel like I’m in awe just as much as the little kids out here,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez, her husband, Matt Tomasulo, and other investors on Saturday preserved remnants of North Carolina’s history by moving them out of the way of new development coming behind the McDonald’s near Shaw University. Narsi Properties plans to build a 12-story hotel at 114 E. Lenoir, which is in the only historic district that specifically represents Raleigh’s African-American heritage.

Alvarez and Tomasulo – aged 30 and 34, respectively – last year bought the Gorham House, which was built in the 1880s by Raleigh’s first black postman. Alvarez, a designer with Clearscapes, and Tomasulo, founder of Walk Your City, plan to renovate it for use as a boutique inn they’re calling “Guest House.”

Craig Bethel, 33, bought a smaller historic house on the Lenoir property and also moved it to Bloodworth on Saturday. Bethel, whose employer Tightlines Designs worked on the Lenoir property, jumped at the opportunity to save the Shaffer House.

“Not only do I get to design my house, but I get to be a part of the community I’m trying to serve,” Bethel said.

Thousands of dollars and months of planning preceded Saturday’s move, which occurred in dramatic fashion. Crowds followed and took photos. A man took photos from a drone that he flew overhead. And preservationists, seizing a rare opportunity, cheered for mobile homes in downtown Raleigh.

Myrick Howard, president of Preservation NC, said the houses represent quintessential African-American homes of the late 19th century. “There’s so few of those left,” Howard said.

His nonprofit helped broker a deal between Narsi and the homebuyers. Preservation NC bought the Bloodworth site from the city government, then sold it to Tomasulo and Alvarez for $80,000.

Wolfe House and Building Movers lifted each house onto a motorized platform and then, around 7:45 a.m., rolled them onto Lenoir.

Police officers shut down streets and utility workers dismantled traffic lights, enabling workers to navigate the houses through downtown using remote controls. The houses traveled up Wilmington Street, east on Davie Street and then south on Bloodworth to their destination – stopping for about an hour next to City Market so crews could trim branches off trees on Davie to make way for the move.

“To see them moving juxtaposed against all these buildings is just surreal,” said Jenny Harper, a volunteer with the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.

Despite the fact that she’d never attempted to move a house before, Alvarez said she was confident that things would go smoothly. In fact, Saturday offered a break from the stress caused by planning the move.

“This is the first time we can sit and just take it all in,” Alvarez said.

The harder part comes next: starting a business.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht