Small Buildings Can Have Big Stories

Posted June 20th, 2017 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

By Guest Blogger, Myrick Howard

Most preservationists would agree wholeheartedly with these two statements:

  • Small buildings are often the toughest to preserve; and
  • Historic buildings provide a tangible link to our past.

When you lose a historic building, you also effectively lose its stories. Thus, all too often, the stories of “regular folks” get lost because small buildings are not treasured.

For several decades, Preservation North Carolina (PNC) has used its Endangered Properties Program (a revolving fund, by any name) to save many small properties. At the Edenton Cotton Mill Village, we sold 57 mill houses with preservation covenants, and at Glencoe Mill Village, we sold 31 more! We restricted the size of additions to 30% of a house’s original size. Descendants of mill employees were so grateful for our highlighting working-class history that small mill museums were established at each location to dig deeper.

In East Durham, we again worked with small houses built for mill workers. There we explicitly touted the virtues of small houses:

  • More affordable to own and operate
  • More environmentally sustainable
  • Consistent with the small household size (1 or 2 persons) that make up more than 60% of American households
  • Good starter homes for Millennials, who are going to dominate the work force by 2020
  • Attractive for downsizing Baby Boomers

We like to think of small houses as “workforce housing” for another generation.

PNC doesn’t just work with small houses. We worked for more than a decade to save the 660,000 square foot Loray Mill in Gastonia, a landmark of Southern labor history. To put its enormous size into perspective, the six-story mill has two acres of roof.

The Loray story is well known. The 1929 Loray strike is featured in history books, magazines, graduate courses, plays, poetry, television shows, etc. The University of North Carolina’s largest digital history archive is about Loray, thanks to recent collaboration with PNC. But, we felt that our business at Loray wasn’t done with the sale and $50+ million renovation of the mill.

The nationally-significant National Register district includes nearly 500 mill houses (four of which are shown above), and the neighborhood was hemorrhaging badly. With a PRI from The 1772 Foundation, we are working in the Loray Mill Village, where most of the houses are between 800 and 1100 square feet, conducive only to one-bedroom floorplans. Our goal is to sell a total of forty houses there by 2022. Small mill houses are integral to the story of Loray Mill, which would be so much less evocative if only the mill survived.

Most recently, a very different convergence of buildings and stories came our way.

Four times we’ve moved our Headquarters Office to save a highly endangered building, and we’re looking to do it again. We are currently downtown in a four-story commercial building, only a block from the State Capitol. Its renovation by PNC and a local foundation helped catalyze the renaissance of Raleigh’s main street, so our mission has been achieved.

For several years, we’ve been looking for another “poor dog” that needed love, and we found not just one, but two: the homes of Willis Graves and Rev. Plummer Hall in Oberlin Village.

The story of Raleigh’s Oberlin Village has nearly been lost since so many of its buildings have disappeared. Established as a freedman’s community around 1870, Oberlin ran about twelve blocks. By 1880, the town had about 750 residents, mainly former slaves. Many went on to remarkable careers.

For decades, Oberlin was a thriving community with churches, schools, businesses and homes, but it has been largely wiped out since the 1940s by a shopping center, highway project, urban renewal, public housing, and recent development. Out of several hundred Oberlin structures, only 34 remain. Sadly, it’s a common story with tragic racist overtones.

Willis Graves House

The Hall and Graves Houses are two of only five Oberlin structures individually listed in the National Register. The Graves House, which looks like a large Queen Anne-style house, only has 1,400 square feet.  The six rooms are modest, and ceiling heights are relatively low.   It’s as if they shrunk the house, so it still looks impressive from the street. The strong street presence of these exuberant Victorian houses belies their modest size. They vividly tell remarkable post-Civil War, up-from-slavery stories where former slaves optimistically embraced the importance of hard work and education as the means to provide a better life. Due to the continuation of centuries of racism, that path was not easy, but they and their descendants overcame relentless obstacles with remarkable achievements.

 

 

 

Francis Dent, Edward Swan, Orsel McGhee, Willis Graves, Jr., & Minnie McGhee

Born into slavery, Willis Graves was a brickmason. His son, Willis Graves, Jr., went to Howard University School of Law and became a major Civil Rights attorney in Detroit. He worked with Thurgood Marshall on a US Supreme Court case that invalidated racially restrictive covenants. Grave and Marshall are shown in the photo to the left with the McGhees, the defendants in a Michigan racially restrictive covenants lawsuit that was merged with a similar Missouri case (Shelley v. Kraemer) and resulted in the landmark US Supreme Court decision. Another son, while getting a Master’s Degree from Cornell, was the first initiate into Alpha Phi Alpha, now the largest and most prominent African-American fraternity; he moved to Harlem at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. A grandson was appointed by President Kennedy to head Voice of America in Latin America.

 

 

We didn’t know these stories until we started working to save the two houses as our future headquarters. The National Register nominations are bland and incomplete, having been done pre-Internet. We now are working with Graves descendants spread all over the country to unearth more – for their edification and ours…and ultimately for history.

We’ve only scratched the surface. The preservation of these two modest houses will have significant and inspirational educational value as these stories are told and new information uncovered. Further, these highly visible houses will help tell the remarkable story of Oberlin. Without PNC’s direct property intervention, these important houses – and their stories – would be lost.

Small houses may have outsized stories. We’ll never even learn about these stories unless we first save the buildings.

 

For 39 years, Myrick Howard has been President of Preservation North Carolina. He’s still in his first job.  To learn more about PNC’s work, go to www.preservationnc.org.