Wake County

After 30 years, NC still undecided on historic Blount Street mansion

The ornate exterior of the mansion that industrialist Jonathan McGee Heck built on North Blount Street in Raleigh starting in 1869 was recently restored to its 19th-century glory, down to the salmon-colored paint trimmed in olive green.

But inside the three-story home with a four-story tower, the walls and floors haven’t been touched in decades. The paint is peeling, big chunks of plaster have crumbled into piles and the kitchen floor is near collapse, all a result of the fact that the home’s owner, the state of North Carolina, doesn’t know what to do with it.

“There hasn’t been an identified use for this property,” said Chris Mears, spokesman for the state Department of Administration, which oversees the house. “Without that, we won’t know how to renovate the inside.”

The Heck-Andrews House, as the home is now known, has survived the state’s shifting plans for the surrounding Blount Street Historic District. Looming behind the house is the Bath Building, a largely windowless 5-story laboratory put up in the early 1970s when the state still looked to this neighborhood to expand the State Government Complex.

More recently, the state has moved to turn over several square blocks around Blount Street to a private developer who would restore what grand old houses are left and build new apartments and townhomes on the empty lots facing Wilmington, Peace and Person streets.

But the recession stopped those plans short of a full redevelopment, and in any event it’s not clear the state ever intended to let the Heck-Andrews House go. Since before the state acquired the house 30 years ago, various state officials, particularly in the Department of Cultural Resources, have floated ideas for using the building for offices, gallery space or other public purposes.

None of those ideas ever took root. A spokeswoman for the Cultural Resources Department says it no longer has any plans for the house, but Gov. Pat McCrory’s office says the state wants to hang on to it, possibly as an annex to the nearby Executive Mansion.

But preservationists say they think the home will be fully restored and used only if it is turned back to private hands.

“I would like for a private-sector person with a lot of money and lot of love for it come in and take care of it,” said Linda Harris Edmisten, who was the historic preservation planner for the city when the state acquired the house in the 1980s. “They need to find the proper owner for it.”

Riches to rags

The Heck-Andrews House was among the first mansions that would make North Blount Street the city’s most fashionable address in the years between the Civil War and World War I. The great houses that went up along the street included the Executive Mansion, completed in 1891 a block south of the Heck home.

The Heck family owned the house until 1921, when prominent attorney A.B. Andrews Jr. bought it. By the time Andrews died in 1946, the street’s fortunes were waning. After Julia Russell bought the mansion in 1948, she turned it into a rooming house, installing sinks in the upstairs bedrooms that remain there today.

In the late 1960s, the state saw Blount Street as a place for parking lots, said Myrick Howard, president of the statewide advocacy group Preservation North Carolina. State workers would get off a planned freeway that would cut through Oakwood and park near the growing State Government Complex north of the Legislative Building.

As other homes began to disappear along the street, preservationists fought back. Among other things, they persuaded the federal government to list the Heck-Andrews House on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and persuaded the city to establish the Blount Street Historic District in 1976.

That same year, Larry Tise, director of the state Division of Archives and History, wrote Nat Robb, the State Property Office director, to urge the state to preserve Heck-Andrews and reminded him that the State Historical Commission would need to agree to any plans for it. Tise acknowledged that the commission had signed off on demolition of other homes along Blount, but this one would be different.

“In the case of the Heck-Andrews House, however, it should be clear from the outset that its historical and architectural value to the city and the state are such that its renovation, preservation, and maintenance are essential,” he wrote.

The following year, 1977, the state offered $93,000 to Julia Russell’s children, James C . Perry of Inglewood, Calif., and Gladys Perry, who lived in the home. It was turned down.

James Perry eventually agreed to sell his share of the house to the state in 1984, but his sister held out. The house had long been showing signs of neglect by then, and while the state had demolished so many other houses on Blount Street, preservationists now saw state ownership as a means of preserving Heck-Andrews.

After two more offers were declined, the state in 1986 offered $83,700 to buy Gladys Perry’s interest in the house and threatened to use eminent domain if she did not accept. Later that year, the city condemned the house as a hazardous and unsafe public nuisance, leading the Council of State to decide to take control in January 1987.

That same month Gladys Perry was found incapacitated in an upstairs room of the house, which was piled high with newspapers, toys, clothing and other debris that she had apparently been collecting for years from trash bins. She continued fighting the state’s effort to seize the home but ultimately lost.

The trash and Perry’s belongings are gone, but little else has changed inside the house. The state spent $1 million on exterior renovations in the late 1990s, making the work completed this spring the second time that the house has been polished on the outside.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who works in another old Blount Street mansion that the state turned into offices across the street from Heck-Andrews, says the state will never come up with the millions needed to make the house usable again and should sell it.

“If we don’t do something with it soon, … it’s going to fall down from the inside,” Forest said. “There’s only so much propping up, only so many coats of paint you can put on the outside and hope that it survives.”

Poor steward

To see what’s possible for Heck-Andrews, Forest points to what’s happened to other houses along Blount Street since the state sold two blocks to developer LNR Property starting in 2007.

He’s particularly impressed with The Merrimon-Wynne House, built in 1875 on Wilmington Street and moved to Blount as part of the redevelopment project. The white Italianate mansion now hosts weddings and corporate events under polished chandeliers.

The recession forced LNR to back out of plans to buy two other blocks on Blount Street, and now the state will deal with properties there individually. This summer, it put six vacant houses on the market on a block facing North and Person streets.

Howard, of Preservation North Carolina, says the shabbiness of those houses, especially contrasted with privately owned ones across Person Street, shows how poorly the state has cared for the historic properties in the Blount Street area.

“The proof is in the pudding here,” he said. “The state has not been a good steward in recent decades.”

It’s not clear who will decide the house’s future. The General Assembly could direct the administration to sell the house or use it for a specific purpose, as it did with the Blount Street redevelopment. Or the administration could decide to use the house or declare it surplus property and put it up for sale.

In June, the Heck-Andrews House was among 17 state properties that the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division identified as underused and good candidates to sell. Twelve of the 17 properties were houses on Blount Street. The report was referred to a subcommittee.

Meanwhile, McCrory spokesman Graham Wilson said Friday that for years there have been discussions about making the Heck-Andrews House an extension of the Executive Mansion, to be used for special events, receptions and meetings.

“Obviously, that cannot happen until the funds are available,” Wilson said in an email.

Forest says he has heard from two potential buyers interested in the house, one that wanted to turn it into a hotel and spa. He says he shared that information with the governor’s office and the Secretary of Cultural Resources and says he was told “not right now. We want to hold it. We want to do something with that.”

“Everybody always has a finger on it,” Forest said. “There’s always somebody who looks at that and says that would be great. The reality is we’ve had it for 30 years and done nothing. That should be proof enough that we’re not going to do anything with it.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Heck-Andrews House timeline

1869-1870: Industrialist Jonathan McGee Heck builds the house for him and his wife, Mattie.

1894: Jonathan Heck dies.

1916: Mattie Heck deeds house to daughter Mattie Heck Boushall.

1921: Prominent Raleigh attorney A.B. Andrews Jr. buys the house.

1946: Andrews dies.

1948: Julia Russell buys the house.

1969: State legislature approves a plan for the State Government Center that includes acquisition of property along Blount Street, including Heck-Andrews House.

1972: The house is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

1977: The state offers to buy the house for $93,000 from Julia Russell’s heirs, her children: James C. Perry of Englewood, Calif., and Gladys Perry, who lives in the home. The offer is turned down.

1984: James Perry sells his interest in the house to the state for $70,750.

1986: After two more offers declined, state makes final offer of $83,700 to buy Gladys Perry’s interest in the house and threatens to use eminent domain.

1987: A month after the city condemns the house a hazardous and unsafe public nuisance, the Council of State votes 6-3 to take control of the house and repair it. That same month, Gladys Perry is found incapacitated in an upstairs room.

1999: State spends $1,004,345 on exterior renovations.

2015: State spends $255,962 on exterior renovations. The inside is not renovated.