Remembering the man who remembered Raleigh

Karl Larson leading a mock funeral for the Boylan Street truss bridge before its demolition in 1981.
Karl Larson leading a mock funeral for the Boylan Street truss bridge before its demolition in 1981. News & Observer file photo

Karl Edward Larson’s funeral Mass at Sacred Heart Church in downtown Raleigh opened with the mournful strains of “Amazing Grace.” The hymn and the old church combined to provide a kind of eulogy to the 66-year-old amateur historian and son of Raleigh who spent his life looking back at a city disappeared.

“Amazing Grace,” a song that ran through both sides of the Civil War, evoked his fascination with that period in the history of North Carolina’s capital. And the small downtown church spoke to Larson’s belief in what the priest, Rev. John Kane, called “our future history” in a timeless heaven.

Larson, who died June 30, was a former Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism and was active in the church. He likely was drawn to its history as well as its theology. A stone church that opened in 1924 when Catholics were a rarity in Raleigh, Sacred Heart was once the second-smallest cathedral in the continental United States. Now it has surrendered its title to a massive new cathedral on Western Boulevard and is receding into the Raleigh history of which Larson is now a part.

A bachelor, Larson took the city as his lifelong companion. Even as a boy he would ride his bike though downtown taking photographs of grand homes and famous buildings. As a young man in 1981, he conducted a whimsical funeral for the doomed Boylan Street truss bridge over the railroad tracks that was about to be swept away by progress.

For all his attraction to Raleigh gone or fading, he remained youthful. He had many friends and entertained often at his home in the Oakdale neighborhood near downtown. In recent years, first at the Landmark Tavern on Hargett Street and later the Person Street Bar, he gathered every Thursday with friends who jokingly called themselves the Junior Historians Club. Sometimes they talked about history. He contributed to and later oversaw the local history blog Goodnight Raleigh, where he wrote of bygone scenes under the name “Raleigh Boy.”

Larson studied history at Western Carolina University and went on to earn a master’s degree at UNC-Greensboro. His master’s thesis was titled: “A Separate Reality: The Development of Racial Segregation in Raleigh, 1885-1915.” But he did not actually work in history until he retired after 32 years as a graphic designer at N.C. State University. He took a job where his father had once worked, the State Archives of North Carolina. There he specialized in identifying buildings and scenes in historic photos of Raleigh.

Kim Anderson, a visual material archivist there, described Larson as “an open encyclopedia of Raleigh’s history.”

Ian Dunn, a co-worker and one of the Junior Historians, said, “Whenever we were walking downtown, we would pretty much constantly be talking about what was there before.”

Larson brought people and places from the past into the present consciousness. He planned but never completed a book called “Lost Raleigh” about buildings and homes since demolished. (The material may be the basis of a future exhibit at the City of Raleigh Museum.) And he was fascinated by an obscure figure of Raleigh’s Civil War era, Lt. Robert Walsh, a Confederate and Raleigh’s only casualty when Union troops took the capital.

Walsh, a Texan, fired a shot at the Union troops and attempted to flee on horseback, but was caught and hanged on April 13, 1865. Every April 13, Larson would commemorate that defiant act by placing a black sash on Walsh’s grave in Oakwood Cemetery. Now the faithful mourner is buried there, too.

Larson’s reverence for the the past comes through in his blog posts. A notable one is his 2009 recollection of a small Boylan Heights food store that operated through the mid-20th century— “Time Traveling to The Thrifty Food Market.” He wrote:

”The worn, creaky oiled-wood floors of the Thrifty Food Market were shiny from the thousands of feet that had trod upon them over the decades. An old oil heater used for winter warmth sat in the middle of the room. There was no air conditioning in the summer, but somehow the store seemed always to be cool inside, even on the hottest days. It was not unusual to find Mrs. Thomas engaged in casual conversation with a neighborhood resident or two. There was never any hurry at the Thrifty Food Market, and it seems to me now as if time were standing still.

“But, as we all know, time does not stand still. Time moves relentlessly forward as it rushes into unforgiving memory. After 35 years of service to the community, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas retired from shop keeping in 1972. Another neighborhood grocery subsequently occupied the space for a few years, but that too, is now long gone.”

Karl Larson is gone, too, down that same rushing river of time. But what he rescued from our forgetting remains.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com