Photo by Justin Cook
Matthew Brown, on a tour of historic Oakwood
Back in July, North Carolina’s state property office announced that it was finally selling six long-neglected, historic homes on Person Street
, all of which are in or near Raleigh's Oakwood historic district.
Longtime Oakwood resident and neighborhood expert Matthew Brown learned last week that the offer he made on the 3,500-square-foot, Queen Anne’s style Lamar house, at 401 North Person Street, was accepted by the state—following a minor bidding war.
According to agent Joy Wayman who works at the State Property Office, offers have been accepted on four of the other homes as well; a fifth is under negotiation. The sales must now be approved by the state’s Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations, and then by the Council of State. This could happen by the end of the year, at the earliest.
I sat down with Brown at his other Oakwood home on Lane Street to discuss the sale and the historic preservation process (disclosure: the state also accepted an offer from my family on the Watson House at 411 North Person Street; Brown is a friend and future neighbor).
You’ve lived in Oakwood since 1986. Can you give us a rundown on the history of these homes?
Well, the state Legislature had passed a statute that any house between Person Street on the east and Peace Street on the north, maybe McDowell on the west—anything to come on the market, they had to outbid anybody and buy it. Three of those houses were already state offices. The other three were moved there—the Watson House was moved from Wilmington Street, and the [Gay and Worth houses] were moved from Peace Street as part of a 2003 state law saying this is a ridiculous waste of our money, it’s so much cheaper to just have a regular office. So we’ll sell them all. But they wanted to sell them to a developer because that’s easier, to just do it all at once. They had a bunch of community meetings about how to do it and what was the best result. I went to all those and, actually, it was my idea to move them…because I figured with that land over there, they’d get torn down eventually if they were off by themselves and not in a neighborhood…Let that other land be used for more dense development. So [developer] L&R got the low bid on the whole thing, the whole square between Person, Peace, Wilmington and Lane. They were going to buy it in four sections, and L&R moved those three houses... But the problem was, L&R signed that contract, in maybe 2006, 2007…Then the crash came, fall of 2008, and every single one of those houses under contract, the buyers backed out. Maybe the banks wouldn’t lend them anymore, or the buyers freaked out. And so L&R sat on them for a long time, they lowered the prices. They’d already moved those other houses and spent all that money…They finally paid a million dollars to get out of the whole thing and they gave up those three houses they had moved, back to the state as part of that deal. They couldn’t sell them, until they bought that quadrant of land. They owned the buildings because they had paid to move them there, but the state still owned the land, so they couldn’t sell them. They could have just held on... It was just timing. So they bought out in, I think, 2011 or 2012. And then the state just sat on their ass for several years. And we kept pestering them, writing letters to everybody, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of Administration, Secretary of Cultural Resources, Head of the State Property Office, all on down the line, Governor’s staff, anyone we can find. July 15, they finally got off their asses and put them on the market. And they probably did the right thing, because the prices kept going up, they probably did themselves a favor by waiting.
So you helped save some of the houses from being torn down?
[Raleigh photographic archivist] Ian Dunn found this old photograph of a twin to [the Lamar house] that used to be on Hillsborough Street in the ‘60s. It’s so sad that it got torn down. That whole area where the [N.C. State] buildings are was a beautiful neighborhood, just like Oakwood is. Of course, they tried tearing down Oakwood. This was all going to be, according to the 1965 State Capital Plan, this was all going be gone. There would be a freeway, and everything west of the freeway was going to be demolished too, for office buildings and big parking lots. One of the pictures even had ponds and shit. It was ridiculous. That was back in the era when anything old…bulldoze it, we have to start over.
I’m glad someone came to their senses on that. You said you think it’s going to take 2 years to get the home fixed up to where you can move in? Where are you even going to start?
That’s just an estimate. Yeah, the exterior repairs, like where there’s a window broken and the rain’s coming in, and pieces of siding missing…stuff like that. Just repairs to get it weather-proofed. I can go ahead and do that without any permission [from the State Historic Preservation Office]. I should go ahead and apply for the Certificate of Appropriateness for what I want to do to the outside of it. I like the colors [the Watson house] is painted. My colors will be something like that, not the trim, but it will be a green. Please don’t paint your trim white. I’m so sick of white trim. It doesn’t fit Queen Anne. It’s good for neo-classical Revival. But for some reason there’s just been this spate of everybody painting their trim white in Oakwood. It’s boring.
I had been thinking of painting the trim white.
The Watson House
Glad we cleared that up. I have pictures of the time, mostly from paint companies, showing Queen Anne houses with their original colors. There’s a few in the neighborhood because there was a project in the ‘80s called Operation Paint Bucket…where [the state] would do the research as to the original paint color, and buy the paint, if you would paint your house the original colors. There were about ten houses that did that and a few of them are still in those colors. Only a few.
I wonder if the State Historic Preservation Office would do that now?
Nah, they won’t do it anymore. Budget cuts, budget cuts. They almost lost all their positions when they got rid of the [historic preservation] tax credits. But they held on! In the old days, if you did a $200,000 renovation, you could get $60,000 in tax credits. Now it’s capped at 15 percent of $150,000. So the most you can get is $22,500. Which, hell, is way better than $0. But it ain’t $60,000.
You’ve had your eye on the Lamar House for a long time and there’s a story floating around that it had been in your family in the past. Is that true?
There’s only one place like that. I got so determined to get it and I was like, “ok, think of a back-up plan.” But there was nothing that I could find that...I was looking in other cities. I mean I just needed to fix up a really fine house. It was owned by “the Browns” from 1901-1939. And we’ve traced them back to a common ancestor: Adam and Eve.
Did you always feel like you were going to own that house one day?
The Lamar House
I hoped and hoped and hoped. I went in there in ’99 when the old couple left and the state bought it. It went up for auction. I went in there then and fell in love with it. But ever since they were working on selling this stuff starting 2003, I wanted that one. I was worried they were going to sell them all to a developer who would do a crappy flip job on them. Even this time around I was worried. They had some offers for all of them at once, at below asking price. But I’m sure none of them went for below.
You’re never going to want to leave it.
When I leave, it’ll be to move into a pine box.