I usually sleep in on Saturdays, but it's not every weekend you get to see half a million pounds of history towed down the street.
I'm on North Blount Street in downtown Raleigh to watch the Blake Moving Company haul two historic houses to new foundations as part of a new development, an event that will be filmed for the National Geographic Channel's Monster Moves. A brochure I'm given points out that Blake (who also moved the Midway Plantation for the family of Independent film critic Godfrey Cheshire, who documented the event in his film Moving Midway) has never dropped a building. For some reason, I'm a little disappointed.
The houses being moved are part of Blount Street Commons, a plan to revitalize the North Blount Street historic district through a combination of redeveloped homes and new units. As part of this, several houses are being moved from their foundations on North Wilmington Street onto North Blount Street.
A large crowd has gathered on my side of the barrier, many of them architects and engineers. One member in particular stands out: 79-year-old Mary Lou Pressly, who lived in the 133-year-old Merrimon-Wynne home from 1934 to 1964. Her father was president of Peace College, and the soon-to-be-moved home served as the president's residence. She recalls it as a big house with lots of room to play, though she doesn't mind seeing it uprooted. "I'd much rather see it move than get torn down."
Pressly says her family lived in the Merrimon-Wynne home "on sort of the edge of the good times," before the Blount Street neighborhood began to deteriorate. She's a fan of the Blount Street Commons development: "They want to revitalize it by using the old. I hope they can do it and make a neighborhood thing out of it."
Pressly, who now lives in North Raleigh, is both optimistic and slightly wary about the many developments in the area. "I think there's some progress, but I think sometimes they bite off too much to chew at one time," Pressly says. "Right now, we've got a lot on the books to get chewed."
The move represents a major step forward for Blount Street Commons, though there's still the question of what will happen with the houses once they're moved. One house is currently available for sale, while the other will be for sale once the land is purchased from the city next August.
Michael Davidson, the director and cinematographer for the TV show, says the Monster Moves episode will probably air in November. The Blount Street houses represent a unique type of move for the show. "It's rare in a moving project to find a collection of historic homes," Davidson says. He's filmed everywhere from Vancouver to London, but he's found shooting in the North Carolina heat a unique experience: "A few months ago, we were at minus-40 degrees in Manitoba." Luckily, it's a pleasant, non-humid 75 degrees this morning, though gnats appear as it wears on.
There's a lurching noise as the first house, the 102-year-old Hume Home, slowly heads down the street. "Bye, house!" calls a kid in the crowd. Work begins on getting the 250-ton Merrimon-Wynne home up on six-wheel dollies. The PR lady reminds me again that Blake has never dropped a house. I'm watching carefully. Both houses arrive at their new lots safely—though whether they'll find new owners as well remains to be seen.
For more information, visit BlountStreetCommonsRaleigh.com
Read also: Zack Smith's July 2007 story "Building Blount Street Commons"