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A contemporary home threatens to tear Oakwood apart

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The modernist-style home under construction at 516 Euclid St. in the historic Oakwood neighborhood in Raleigh is about 80 percent done. But the owners can't move in any time soon.

Last week Raleigh's Board of Adjustment— a quasi-judicial governing body that deals with city zoning regulations—voted 3-2 to overturn the historic certificate that Louis Cherry, an architect, had obtained from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission for his home.

The board's decision is final. The decision came after a hearing that lasted nearly two months.

The RHDC approved construction of the new 2-story house, garage and driveway last September. The commission decided that his design was "not incongruous" with its guidelines. Cherry said he made all the changes that the RHDC requested after a "thorough and proactive" public hearing; then he obtained a permit from the city soon after and started building.

But Cherry's neighbor, Gail Wiesner, a Realtor who lives across from Cherry's lot, and a handful of other Oakwood residents, complained that the contemporary style of the house did not fit in with "the overall feel of the neighborhood."

"It's a round peg in a square hole," Wiesner said of the home. "It's massive. It towers over the other houses, it's close to the street and monolithic looking. There are cement panels on the garage. It's anachronistic."

Houses in Oakwood were built over many decades in several styles—Neo-Classical, Second Empire, Queen Ann—according to the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood's website.

Cherry said that while his design for the 2,100 square-foot house is modern, contemporary designs for new houses in historic neighborhoods are encouraged by historic development commissions in North Carolina and across the country.

Cherry said he does not want to build "a watered-down historic copy," but a house that honors the spirit of Oakwood.

"New homes are expected to reflect their era of architecture and continue the evolution of the neighborhood," Cherry said. "Oakwood and other historic neighborhoods are not museums, they're living, evolving neighborhoods."

Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, says that the historic preservation community has for decades "supported differentiated, contemporary design for new construction in historic districts."

"From what I have seen of the designs being built by Louis and[his wife] Marsha [Gordon], it is clearly contextually designed," Howard said.

Peter Rumsey, a Realtor and Oakwood resident, said at the Certificate of Appropriateness hearing that the essence of the Oakwood neighborhood is its diversity.

"People matching the big house and the little house, this house and that house ... in a constructive way this really continues the legacy of Oakwood," Rumsey said.

Wiesner says the home is better suited to an area like North Hills. She says she is worried that tourism, like the Raleigh Segway and Carriage tours, and the Candlelight Homes Tour in Oakwood, would be diminished by modern-looking homes.

"It's a case of someone so proud of their work and they want to show it off where people will see it and notice it and it will stand out," Wiesner said. "There's nothing wrong with that but when individual property rights trump the rights of hundreds of other people, that ain't right."

But Howard says Cherry Gordon, are the ones being treated unfairly. "I dare say they have an open and shut case against the city for issuing a permit," Howard said. "They went through the process as fully and completely as they were supposed to. It's going to tear the neighborhood apart."

Cherry says he and Gordon are "distraught" about the board's decision.

"The members were just not experienced in or expert in interpreting the design guidelines and they really did not respect the idea of evolving historical development," he said. "They imposed their judgment over the RHDC's."

City Councilor Russ Stephenson says this is the question everyone involved should be asking. "The key point here is whether the BOA majority wanted to substitute their judgment on the merits of the project, or whether they had problems with the kinds of evidence and the kind of process (from the RHDC)," Stephenson says.

"If they based their decision on the first thing, the Board is wrong and if they based it on the second question, they were right."

Howard says RHDC guidelines make it difficult to define what is "not incongruous" for a new home in a historic neighborhood. Commission members—who are appointed by the City Council and mostly architects—decide on a case-by-case basis.

Cherry and Gordon are considering whether to apply for another Certificate of Appropriateness or to appeal the Board's decision in court.

"This should not come down to taste from a legal standpoint," Howard says. "It's one thing for a neighbor to not like the house being built across the street. But it's not the RHDC's role to be a tastemaker. Its goal is to go through the guidelines and see if it fits."

This article has been corrected. Originally it stated the building permit is no longer valid. It is still valid and construction continues on the house.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The rest is history."

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