Wake County

Surrounded by Raleigh’s growing metropolis, an artist’s refuge survives

Matthew Brown takes shelter from the rain beneath his umbrella during a historic house and gardens tour at Russ Stephenson's Oberlin Road home on Sunday.
Matthew Brown takes shelter from the rain beneath his umbrella during a historic house and gardens tour at Russ Stephenson's Oberlin Road home on Sunday. jhknight@newsobserver.com

A winding brick pathway curving past purple Spanish hyacinths leads to a house bathed in history and surrounded by a growing city.

The property, within easy walking distance of Hillsborough Street, Cameron Village, and new apartment buildings, is a 1.2-acre island that 20th century portraitist and gardener Isabelle Bowen Henderson molded into a showpiece featured in local and national publications.

The main house at the end of the path incorporates a two-room dwelling built during Reconstruction. On display in what was once her studio are some of Henderson’s portraits and her collection of Jugtown pottery.

Russ Stephenson, a Raleigh city councilor, and his wife, Ellen Longino, own the house and opened it to the public Sunday for tours. Henderson was Stephenson’s great aunt.

Stephenson and Longino restored the house and reconstructed or renovated the outbuildings in the 1990s. The main house, a guest house, a carriage house and an herb house surround a brick terrace.

“Every city that wants to be great is great, in part, because of its history,” Stephenson said. “We’ve got great history here in Raleigh. Some of it is the work of many hands, like N.C. State. Some things are the work of one hand.”

Stephenson called Henderson a “Renaissance woman” who believed in simplicity in design and worked hard to develop the gardens.

Will Hooker, a landscape architect and former instructor at N.C. State, visited the home and gardens where he once brought his students. Classes could spend an hour or more walking the property and studying its design, he said.

Some students worked there as part-time gardeners.

“They loved it,” he said. “It’s just rife with excellent design examples.”

Behind the house is a garden where Henderson experimented, raising iris and day lily hybrids. She won the National Horticulture Award in 1951.

The property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

The house was once in danger. The city condemned the home and gardens twice in the space of five years, starting in 1977, for a road that would have cut through the land.

Henderson died in 1969 and left the property to Stephenson’ s grandmother, Phyllis Bowen Riley. She was living there when the city condemned the home and gardens. She hired lawyer Brian Howell to fight the condemnations.

Howell, who is still practicing law, was at the open house Sunday. He was one of dozens who came for a view of the gardens.

“They were very difficult cases,” Howell recalled. He loved coming to the property, even then.

“I was enthralled by it every time I came over here,” he said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821;

Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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