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Seeking understanding on a tour of Oakwood in Raleigh



I never understood historic Oakwood. The hype and investment the nationally designated neighborhood in Raleigh began receiving in the mid-to-late 2000s always seemed incommensurate to the terrestrial reality. After all, the neighborhood seemed to be entirely oriented around a crumbling old graveyard— a nice graveyard, but a Bonaventure or Pere Lachaise it is not.

Sure, Oakwood abuts downtown, but something about the too-wide streets and the way the houses are spaced always filled me with agoraphobia, reminding me of suburbs in the Midwest—and hence, the void. Regardless, sometime in the mid-2000s, lured by its burgeoning reputation, I went to look at a one-bedroom apartment in a subdivided historic house on Polk Street. The apartment was tiny and overpriced, and imperceptible signifiers indicated that the landlord and neighbors would be neurotic.

I didn't take the place. I hardly thought of the neighborhood again until the debacle over the legality of architect Louis Cherry's modernist dream home brought Oakwood into the national spotlight and seemed to confirm my earlier preconception that the neighborhood was uptight.

It was with these prejudices and the news that Cherry would be allowed to keep his million-dollar dream home in mind that this past Saturday I attended an American Institute of Architects walking tour of historic Oakwood.

Your correspondent can now report that he understands Oakwood even less. Matthew Brown, a resident and historian for the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood, led the tour. Brown, with his cowboy hat and too-young-to-be-55 face, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hank Williams. Brown says he grew up in Statesville, and moved to Oakwood in 1986, but his accent is nothing I've ever heard in Raleigh or Statesville. He looks and sounds more like an oilman from 1975 Dallas as depicted in a Cormac McCarthy novel, or a young Hank in Alabama in 1945. He says the traffic in Raleigh doesn't bother him because he rides his bike everywhere.

The majority of houses in Oakwood were built between 1870 and 1929, the year of Wall Street's economic crash. The wealthy powerbrokers lived on Blount Street, while Oakwood played home to the merchant class. In keeping with Raleigh's recent rapaciousness in regards to development, large swaths of Oakwood on Peace Street were bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for Soviet-bland state government office buildings. Many of the houses from that area were put on trucks and moved.

"Better to move them than tearing them down," Brown said. But that area of Peace Street now constitutes its own kind of void—construction sites mingle with skyscrapers and retail in an uneven way, neither neighborhood nor downtown.

Starting around the 1870s, Brown explained as he walked us through the drizzle, Oakwood developed in several successive architectural phases. The earliest (and simplest) houses were built in a native North Carolina Victorian style. The richer residents tended to build in the more ostentatious Second Empire style, notorious for their teetering Mansard towers, like the house in Beetlejuice.

In the 1890s, the Queen Annes appeared, with their steep roofs and scalloped slates. Brown led us past five gorgeous old Victorian houses on Person Street that had been empty for 15 years, owned by the state of North Carolina and left to rot.

"People have made all kinds of offers but apparently our governor is too busy to deal with them," Brown said.

The most beautiful of the five, at the corner of North Street and Person Street, was a Queen Anne built in 1897, with a keyhole window still filled with the original stained glass. Brown said the original owners were his distant kin, and that he hopes to buy and restore it one day. Many of the Oakwood houses built in the 1900s were in the Neoclassical revival, with their Doric and ionic columns, or in the Craftsman style.

Not quite fitting any of these categories is the vast, stone Capehart-Crocker mansion at 424 N. Blount St., built by Adolphus Gustavus Bauer in 1898, who killed himself shortly after it was finished. He was only 40 years old. The 6,500-square-foot mansion is currently home to the N.C. Ethics Commission, the members of which are probably some of the only career civil servants who have the privilege to work in a creepy mansion instead of a bland, bureaucratic filing cabinet.

As I grasped for the essential nature of Oakwood as represented by Brown, the truth of the place and the man seemed to recede farther and farther from my grasp, like dark matter. Over and over again, in different formations, I tried to get Brown to tell me what exactly made Oakwood special, and why he loved it so much.

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether those obsessed with the small and the local are actually fastening onto something singular and exceptional or whether it is a kind of provincial pathology—becoming starry-eyed for what surrounds you.

Brown's eyes glittered when he talked about Oakwood—he clearly loved it—but was it the blind love of the fanatic. He said the same thing each time I asked: "I love the fine architecture and fascinating history." OK... but what specifically? While the old houses were quite beautiful, I still don't get it.

This article appeared in print with the headline "On the heels of history"

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