With its new headquarters on Oberlin Road, made from the Graves-Fields and Rev. Plummer T. Hall homes, Preservation N.C. puts mission into practice
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Catherine Nguyen
Andria Fields can still smell Sunday mornings at 802 Oberlin Road, the table brimming with plates of steak, fatback, country ham, grits and her grandmother’s famous pearl biscuits. “It was a beehive,” she says, of the Victorian-era house where she grew up, a social and political center of the thriving African-American community in Oberlin Village. “People would come to sit on the porch in the chair—and on the coveted swing—to talk about the current events of the day. They would pass by the house just to look at my grandfather’s flowers.”
But as Raleigh expanded through the 20th century, commercialization threatened the legacy of her family’s home and of the surrounding freedman’s community, one that had flourished after the Civil War. In the early 1950s, as Cameron Village Shopping Center took shape and Oberlin Road became a major thoroughfare, what remained of the neighborhood diminished block-by-block, until only five remaining landmark homes stood against new development. This home, the Graves-Fields house, was one, along with its neighbor, the Rev. Plummer T. Hall house. Both stood in disrepair with extensive deferred maintenance.
They dodged the wrecking ball thanks to Preservation North Carolina (PNC). It’s our only state-wide historic preservation organization, and it works to protect the diverse heritage of North Carolina by caring for the properties that have written our state’s history.
Preservation N.C. rescues old houses —and also factory mills, churches, general stores, schools and all manner of historic properties. “We jokingly refer to ourselves as the animal shelter for endangered historic buildings,” says PNC President Myrick Howard. Supported by a membership of 4,500, with an operating budget from private sources, the organization works to find buyers who will protect these endangered historic locales and landscapes. They also host an annual conference, in addition to preservation celebrations, tours and happy hours. Their work recognizes the value of history, the importance of preserving both the endangered properties and the stories they hold.
Since its inception in 1939, PNC has worked directly with more than 900 properties, most of which would have otherwise been lost, with a current total market value of more than half a billion dollars. “Saving buildings is all about solving real estate issues,” says Howard. Buyers have reconfigured properties for a vast array of new uses, creating a multitude of jobs and adding millions of dollars to local tax rolls. Take the recently redeveloped Loray Cotton Mill in Gastonia, which was the largest textile mill in the South under a single roof. As the backdrop of the infamous Communist Textile Workers Union strike in 1929, the mill plays prominently in the history of Southern labor and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It closed in the 1990s and sat deteriorating for years before Firestone donated the mill to Preservation N.C. After a lengthy effort, PNC sold it to developers in 2012. Now, they’re rejuvenating Loray Mill with almost 300 residential units and around 100,000 square feet of retail space, including a history center, plans for a brewery, restaurants, fitness center, and neighborhood market. And property values are rising all around the mill.
PNC’s restorative work has provided momentum for these types of turn-arounds across the state. In Edenton, a cotton mill has been converted into condos, with four previously demolished mill houses rebuilt and preserved. In Goldsboro, over the last decade, PNC has helped save twenty vacant historic houses on the edge of the commercial downtown. In Rockingham County, the 165,000 square-foot dilapidated Spray Cotton Mills building will be converted into a mixed-use space with outdoor amenities along the Smith River. From Pittsboro to Shelby, projects continue, transforming old schools and hospitals into affordable housing, protecting thousands of acres of open space under restricted development.
PNC, which the National Park Service cited as “the premier state-wide preservation organization of the South, if not the nation,” also helped pioneer the surge in downtown Raleigh’s rejuvenation. They renovated the Briggs Hardware Building on Fayetteville Street in partnership with the AJ Fletcher Foundation, as well as the Bretsch House on the corner of Morgan and Blount Streets, which became their office in 1982. “Folks thought we were crazy,” recalls Howard. “We are unusual among preservation organizations because of our work with endangered historic buildings: We don’t just talk about preservation, we do it.”
In November, PNC moved into its new Oberlin Road headquarters: the Graves-Fields and Hall houses, which were moved (fifty yards and thirty feet, respectively), renovated, and connected by a basement. Using these restored homes as the organization’s headquarters under-scores PNC’s commitment to diversity preservation: they’re two of Raleigh’s most important surviving African-American landmarks.
Both built in the 1880s, these homes were pinnacles of a thriving Oberlin Village, where freedmen used hard work and education to create better futures for their families. In its prime, Historic Oberlin Village, which was not part of Raleigh, ran about 12 blocks from Hillsborough Street to what is now Wade Avenue and had more than 1,000 residents. This community of former slaves and their descendants prospered through the establishment of schools, churches and fashionably-painted Victorian-style homes with rose-filled front yards.
Willis and Eleanor Graves, active leaders in Oberlin, built their ambitious house while still in their 20s. Both had been born into slavery and freed soon after, the husband working as a brick mason. (He used the framing of an older home to build his house’s second story, including a hodgepodge of materials— mismatched baseboards doors, and hardware—which would later present a challenge to preservationists.) The Graves’ children attended Ivy League colleges, became renowned defense lawyers and acclaimed organists. A Graves grandson became one of the first black journalists to travel with a U.S. President (Truman) on an official state visit abroad. On and on, the Graves legacy of talent and achievement goes, as eventually each of the descendants moved North to escape racial oppression.
“Our research on the Graves Family blew us away,” says Howard. Susan Mask, a great-granddaughter of Willis and Eleanor Graves, has been moved by the experience of reclaiming her family’s history through the preservation of the home. “Preservation NC has done an amazing job uncovering facts, deeds and documents that tell the wider story and provide a greater context,” Mask says. An attorney and artist, she recently exhibited paintings inspired by the former freedman’s village at a gallery in Seattle. She says of her great-grandparents: “While they may not have thought of their efforts this way, our ancestors laid a foundation that we as a family and the wider community can look up to. It’s the kind of history that helps fortify you in these fraught times,” she says, “We’ve been challenged before and we have risen.”
Fields hopes that people will drive by and take notice of the rejuvenated historic homes. She hopes they’ll wonder why they are there, and that it will lead to curiosity about where they came from and what stories they have to tell. “Preserving a legacy is and should be of the utmost importance for any culture or heritage,” Fields says. “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how do you proceed?”