|People in Preservation: Restoring Old Houses, Building Social Capital|
from NC Preservation (fall 2006)
When we think of historic preservation's benefits to communities, we often think in terms of saving historic buildings that might otherwise be lost. But often just as important is the role of preservation in building a community's "social capital." Social capital refers to the connections among individuals social networks, and the reciprocity and trust that arise from them. Much has been written in recent years about the importance of social capital in building a strong society.
Preservation can help build social capital. The people who take on the rescue and restoration challenges of their own historic buildings often then expand their horizons to build new networks and make broader contributions to their adopted communities. The work of Preservation North Carolina's Endangered Properties Program during the last quarter-century in Warren County is illustrative of how preservation can build social capital.
In Warren County, and its county seat Warrenton, a "Preservation Renaissance" has succeeded not only in saving extraordinary architectural landmarks but also in bringing in newcomers who have added energy and positive action to community life.
Warrenton and Warren County, located less than an hour's drive north of Raleigh, are justly famous for their rich collection of fine architecture from every period. Before the Civil War, Warren was the wealthiest county in the state, and Warrenton was a fashionable town known for its academies, elegant manners, and the work of its artisans. After a downturn following the Civil War, Warrenton modernized itself in the early twentieth century, retaining its antebellum architecture while adding handsome new houses and utility systems, and making its downtown into the classic American Main Street. As the twentieth century progressed, however, the rural county like many others faced severe problems, including out-migration of people, and neglect or loss of many of its historic buildings.
Today, historic buildings are being restored and enlivened, and Warrenton is a lively place with shops open and buildings in good repair. And, preservation newcomers restoring properties sold by Preservation North Carolina (PNC) in Warren County soon to exceed twenty have been an important part of that picture!
Preservation North Carolina has been involved in Warren County since 1978, only months after getting its tax-exempt status from the IRS for its property work. Through its Endangered Properties Program, often called its revolving fund, PNC helps save endangered historic buildings by finding new owners to restore and maintain them, and it assures their preservation with covenants on each property.
The rescue of Shady Oaks, a unique Federal-period plantation house with stunning interior woodwork (which in 1978 was reputedly going to be removed for installation in a decorative arts museum in Connecticut), was PNC's first in Warren County. However, one buyer after another had to give up their dreams of restoring Shady Oaks for personal reasons. In the 1990s, Shady Oaks' fourth owner, David Peebles, accomplished much of the restoration but he did not make it his home. In 1995, after visiting the house on a PNC tour, John and Barbara Kennedy bought Shady Oaks, and set about completing the restoration of the house and its outbuildings and adding an architecturally harmonious kitchen wing. Richard Hunter, who had shown the house year after year to one potential buyer after another, said: "with the fifth owners, it finally took."
The Kennedys' interest in Warren County stretched back for years. They lived in a historic house in Hillsborough and had traveled widely throughout the world. Michael Southern of the State Historic Preservation Office recalls "a moment in the early 1980s when John Kennedy, then active in Hillsborough preservation, told me he had recently driven through Warrenton, was captivated by it, and asked me what was going on there. I told him there was a National Register district in Warrenton and great houses countywide, but not much going on a once-rich county long fallen on hard times. I remember John had a gleam in his eye."
Falling in love with Warrenton and the county, the Kennedys expanded their focus beyond their own home. "We were," as John says, "just really trying to show that historic preservation helps build a community." They found that "when you restore a historic building in the community, before long you meet a little nucleus of people" interested in local heritage. Some were long-time residents, but many were other newcomers. The mix was vital. In Warren County, as in many communities, he observes, "people who have been here relax into the mold, while new people stir things up."
In the mid-1990s, John joined with other owners of historic buildings in the county to organize a group called Preservation Warrenton. The organization, which includes both long-time residents and newcomers, is currently working to restore a modest 19th century house next door to the Jacob Holt House in Warrenton, the home of the town's leading 19th century builder, and to produce a video on the history of the county for the Visitors Center. A special house tour is planned for Spring 2006 to broaden awareness of the county's architectural heritage. Says Dean Ruedrich, PNC's regional director in Louisburg, "John pushed the group to think about the community's best assets and bring them forward."
John Kennedy has also dedicated his efforts to another great plantation house just down the road from Shady Oaks: the Italianate-style Cherry Hill. At Cherry Hill, Warren County native Edgar Thorne and his sister Elizabeth Johnson developed their vision of having cultural events at Cherry Hill, including classical concerts on Sunday afternoons. These events have become a major attraction for the county, drawing participants from far and wide. Ruedrich, who is also active in the Cherry Hill Foundation, says that John has put it an "incredible amount of time" for Cherry Hill, having lead the successful campaign to publish a book about the plantation, and helping to plan and publicize the concerts. John Kennedy, Dean explains, "is a big-picture thinker at a critical time for Cherry Hill." Following the death of Edgar Thorne in 2004, John and others are planning for the future preservation of the plantation house and continuation of the music programs that have become a "real plus" for the county.
Don Arnold and Ernie Fleming were planning to take early retirement from their jobs in High Point and wanted "a retirement project" and a new location. In the National Trust's Preservation magazine, they saw an ad for a PNC property, the ornate Italianate-style Oakley Hall at Ridgeway in Warren County. Almost on a whim, they clipped it out and went to see the property on a fall weekend in 1991. Local preservationist Richard Hunter met them at the boarded-up house and showed them through its immense rooms by flashlight. Then, as Ernie recalls, Richard took them to Warrenton, where they had lunch and "fell in love with the town. Without Warrenton we wouldn't have done Oakley Hall, but we saw the great potential in Warrenton."
After buying Oakley Hall in 1992, Don and Ernie spent their weekends working on the restoration, sleeping in a trailer in the yard, while keeping their jobs in High Point. Over six years, they accomplished a painstaking renovation of Oakley Hall and its outbuildings. The process was "a real character builder," Ernie remembers. "You learn that you can't expect everything at one time."
From the beginning, Don and Ernie knew that their commitment to the county extended far beyond their own house. As Ernie put it, "if I'm going to live here, I'm going to invest here." In 1993, with Oakley Hall still underway, they bought the Marshall Moore House, which includes an 18th century tavern, also in Ridgeway, and had a big Christmas party there. They bought a bungalow on Main Street in Warrenton and renovated it for Don's mother, and they got involved in saving other threatened houses in town. Further, they bought four commercial storefronts on Warrenton's Main Street, opening Oakley Hall Antiques (staffed by Don's mother) in one building and renting the others to local merchants for shops. In addition, they founded Warren County's SPCA, operating it initially from their home. They organized numerous tours of historic Warren County, including the one that brought the Kennedys to Shady Oaks. Most recently, they have helped organize a historical association in Ridgeway, the community around Oakley Hall. This summer, the "first annual" Ridgeway Cantaloupe Festival celebrated the long-famous local fruit and the community's heritage.
According to Barbara Wishy, long-time director of PNC's Endangered Properties Program, Don and Ernie's role in community life has been extraordinary. "When they bought Oakley Hall, they came to Warrenton with the clear intention to not only restore a great plantation house but to help 'put Warrenton on the map.' They were so excited about Warrenton's history and its extraordinary architecture. They felt that the world needed to know about this wonderful place, and they considered it their mission to publicize it. Soon they realized that they had to get more deeply involved in the economic life of the community." They not only bought and saved buildings themselves, but they also encouraged the establishment of other downtown businesses, including the Hardware Café in a beloved old-fashioned hardware store. "They demonstrated that tourists and newcomers - will come to a community that offers good food and beautiful architecture and enticing objects to buy and take home."
Don and Ernie have served almost as "PNC's Warrenton office," says Barbara. They helped PNC obtain options and easements for numerous properties. Early in 2005, Don and Ernie hosted a special benefit dinner for PNC's "Virtual Auction," with eight schoolteachers coming from Guilford County to enjoy a sumptuous meal in Oakley Hall. Moreover, as Barbara observes, they extol the economic benefits of historic preservation to anybody who is willing to listen. "They have encouraged everybody to get in touch with PNC to participate in the great Warrenton Preservation Revival!"
For Don and Ernie, the whole experience has been tremendously rewarding. They instantly received a warm welcome from the community. When they began to spend weekends working on the house, "everybody in the county wanted to meet us and invite us to all the functions." They accepted the invitations and arrived at parties in their work vehicle. "The community has a great deal to offer. People here are very goodhearted." After more than a decade in the county, Ernie sees the impact of the preservationist newcomers: "It's amazing all the energy that came to Warren County with people picking up old houses." He sees newcomers "spearheading" many local revitalization efforts but working in tandem with long-time residents. "Sometimes people can appreciate an area better if they've lived somewhere else."
When Larry and Sheila Carver first saw the John Watson House, the floors in both wings had collapsed, the ornate porch was sagging, and every part of the house needed serious work. The Italianate house, a prominent sight on US 401 on the outskirts of Warrenton, had deteriorated for decades. The Carvers, who came to North Carolina from West Virginia, were seeking a "life after Nortel." Based in the Research Triangle, Larry had worked in the corporate world for thirty years. He, Sheila, and their four children had plenty of energy and a yen to do something different. They found the Watson House which they named Magnolia Manor after a large tree in the yard and discovered Warren County.
The Carvers were the second owners after PNC took on the architecturally imposing but severely damaged plantation house. As sometimes happens, the first buyers had started work on the dilapidated house, but it was more than they could handle. So PNC advertised the property again. With the Watson House, the Carvers had their work cut out for them. Their vision was to restore not only the house to its beauty as a local landmark, but also to re-establish the sociable vitality it had once offered the community as a bed-and-breakfast inn. After acquiring the house and its beautiful setting in 1997, they worked on the house with their children until 2002 when it was ready to move in, earning the admiration of their neighbors. Richard Hunter says, "One of the most amazing things about the restoration project was that Larry and his three sons one college, one high school, and one middle school came down almost every weekend and worked like dogs, doing all the 'grunt work' to get ready for the restoration. Most kids would lose interest in about an hour." The Carvers opened Magnolia Manor Bed and Breakfast (www.magnoliamanorbnb.com) in 2003. Says Sheila, it had "always been a social house," and now the family has "brought it back into circulation."
Like other newcomers attracted by the opportunity to restore a historic building, the Carvers have found themselves part of a new community and a new life. The family is delighted with their welcome. "Through association with historic houses, newcomers find a place in the community," says Sheila. Local residents appreciate seeing a familiar building being "brought back" and "here to be shared The energy is contagious. Already, we've seen several properties purchased and 'loved again.'"
Right away, as John Kennedy says, "the Carvers got involved in community life, and they are just so enthusiastic about the county." Before long, their commitment to the community took another turn. After opening the bed and breakfast, they both "stayed home" for eighteen months to work full-time at the bed and breakfast, while restoration work continued. In 2004, the town commissioners asked Larry to serve as town administrator. With his years of corporate experience, Larry feels that in Warrenton, more than ever before, he is using his skills to "make a difference" for the good of the community.
At Magnolia Manor, the Carvers attract many who come just for the bed-and-breakfast "get away" experience but end up loving Warrenton and Warren County. A specialty of the inn is hosting weddings, using the rural setting and grand porch of the house to highlight the celebration. The Carvers' future plans include a quilt show in 2006, which they hope will involve the whole community. Says Sheila, "I can't tell you anyplace I'd rather be than Warren County."
Warren County's "Preservation Renaissance" did not happen overnight. Central to the current upsurge in preservation in the county is the longer story of those who "worked in the vineyards" for many years, promoting the value of local heritage and making newcomers welcome. Richard and Mary Hunter, with deep roots in the county, are natives who have nurtured preservation for a quarter century and literally as well as figuratively opened the doors for many newcomer preservationists. "It was Richard," says Dean Ruedrich, "who hung in there year after year" and got PNC to take on one endangered local property after another. "Without Richard and Mary, I can't imagine how all this could have happened."
Throughout the county's history, observes Richard, "we've always depended on newcomers." In the old days, Warren County had famous race tracks and mineral springs that drew people from far and wide. The famous builders of antebellum days, including Jacob Holt and others, were newcomers from Virginia, and the town's fashionable shops and respected academies were operated by newcomers from the north and from Europe.
It was another newcomer, more than thirty years ago, who set Richard and others on a course toward preserving Warren County's heritage. Hunter left Warren County to go to college, then returned to Warrenton in the early 1970s. He "got into" historic preservation after taking a local history class from the colorful local historian-genealogist Mary Hinton Kerr. "We just clicked," he said, and before long he was involved with PNC and the growing preservation movement.
A native of Virginia, Mary Hinton Kerr was a "newcomer" who "adopted" Warren County as her own, first as the wife of leading political figure John H. Kerr, Jr., and then as genealogist. (Her son, John Kerr III, is now state senator from Wayne County). With her friend, Warren County native Panthea Twitty, Mary Hinton "knew everything there was to know" about the county and its historic buildings. They welcomed and gave endless help to an architectural survey project by the State Historic Preservation Office in the 1970s, guiding Michael Southern, McKelden Smith, Richard Hunter, and me around the county day after day.
"Mary Hinton and Panthea knew that county like the backs of their hands," remembers Michael Southern, "and they also knew everybody in the county and how to get them interested. We had lunch Brunswick stew, ham biscuits, homemade rolls with fresh butter at a different person's house everyday of that survey, and Mary Hinton arranged it all." Richard Hunter, then fresh out of college, remembers: "Nothing can convey what an event it was to take off in the car with Mary Hinton and Panthea." The survey uncovered the county's "amazing architectural legacy," says Michael. With Mary Hinton's help, both in research and gaining local political support, a National Register Historic District nomination for Warrenton was completed in 1976 by Mary Ann Lee Blackburn and me. Later, this district designation proved crucial in opening up opportunities for investment through the use of rehabilitation tax credits.
Encouraged by Mary Hinton Kerr, Richard became a lasting force for preservation in his home community. With much "sweat equity," he and his wife Mary restored a key Warrenton house, the early nineteenth-century Fitts-Mordecai-Plummer House, transforming a long-neglected house into a life-filled family residence. "I saw that house during the survey," says Richard, "and I knew I had to have it." Over the years, he worked persistently on such projects as saving the long-vacant Jacob Holt House in Warrenton as the local Visitors Center. As president of the Warren County Historical Association, he worked with others to publish The Architecture of Warren County, North Carolina, 1770s to 1860s by Kenneth McFarland in 2001.
As Clerk of Court for Warren County, Richard is readily accessible in the courthouse, so anyone who comes to town asking about historic buildings quickly hears: "go see Richard, he's right there in the courthouse." And when they turn up, Richard says, "I try to sell them on preservation."
Richard and Mary are delighted with the impact of the newcomers who have restored the county's landmarks and the acceptance they find in the community. These people Don, Ernie, the Kennedys and Carvers, and numerous others have made great contributions to the community. "Other communities need to see what a difference a few 'new faces' can make."
So far, says Richard, "we don't get the family with three young children and a dog, but we do get retired and semi-retired people with energy and a desire to live in a special place. We don't have a mall or a mega-store here, and for some people that is just great."
Ernie Fleming, who toured Oakley Hall by flashlight with Hunter more than a decade ago, is likewise optimistic. Says Ernie: "the movement hasn't peaked at all." More people will come to the county: "people have jobs in which they don't have to live in any specific place. They want a place to have a good lifestyle and be part of a community." In contrast to the sagging condition of many other rural counties and small towns, "there's a lot going on here." A historic building in Warrenton is "still a great investment."
Catherine Bishir is PNC's Senior Architectural Historian and the author of many books, including The House Marina Built: Cherry Hill, A Plantation House and Its Family (2004) with photography by Elizabeth Matheson.