‘Back in good hands’: One of NC’s oldest colonial homes has an unlikely savior
Down a long gravel drive and beside a soybean field in a remote part of northeastern North Carolina, one of the state’s oldest houses is having a renaissance.
The wisteria that enveloped the Duke-Lawrence House has been cut back, and workers are gradually rehabbing the brick and clapboard building, parts of which are more than 270 years old.
Windows installed in the 1980s have been replaced using hand-blown glass from Germany that has the same waves and air pockets the originals would have had in the 18th century. The red cedar shingles on the roof are being refinished with a mixture of pine tar and linseed oil used since colonial times.
The oldest section of the T-shaped house is a story and a half and was built in about 1747, when North Carolina was still a British colony. The newest section, two stories clad in brick, was added a decade or two later.
At a time when most homes were a single room, this was a grand house, says Reid Thomas, a restoration specialist for the State Historic Preservation Office. It has six large rooms with five enormous brick fireplaces, a central entryway with a winding staircase and a basement kitchen.
The house was built for John Duke, most likely by enslaved laborers, Reid says. Each brick would have been made by hand from locally dug clay and then held together using mortar made with lime from burned oyster shells. So many shells, Reid says, that the pile would have been higher than the two-story house.
“It was an enormous amount of work,” he said, looking up at the house. “It’s just great that it survives. We’ve lost so many. Glad it’s back in good hands.”
Those hands belong to Bob Tucci, who bought the house outside the town of Rich Square last year. Tucci, 75, set out to create a “museum-like” home for him and his wife, Alice, restored as close as possible to its original look and feel and filled with 18th century furniture or accurate reproductions.
“But it has to be comfortable,” Tucci adds. “It’ll have a television.”
Tucci is an unlikely savior of a colonial plantation house. He works as a sales associate at a Home Depot store in a suburb of Baltimore, where he and Alice live in a modest townhouse.
But Tucci has always loved colonial houses and wanted to build one of his own. He taught high school science and in his free time apprenticed with builders to learn the skills he would need to lay out a floor, cut rafters and strap a roof.
He took the job at Home Depot 30 years ago, he said, because it let him pursue his dream.
“I wanted a job that allows me to do all these other things, and I wanted to build a house,” he said. “I wanted to build a colonial house, a small house. I’d wanted to do that since I was in high school.”
So he did, over many years, in the rural New Hampshire town of Grafton. And he says the fate of that house made the Duke-Lawrence project possible.
DUKE-LAWRENCE HAD BEEN GUTTED AND NEGLECTED
Tucci is not the first to fall in love with the Duke-Lawrence House and work to bring it back to life. (The name reflects the fact that John Duke’s daughter married John Lawrence, whose family owned the home until 1850.)
When Edward and Mildred Regan bought the house from the Murfreesboro Historic Association in 1979, it had been gutted and had no electricity, water or indoor plumbing. The roof had been replaced with tin, and the original interior woodwork, including the stairs to the second floor, had been stripped out in the 1930s and installed in a Richmond, Virginia, mansion that later became the Willow Oaks Country Club.
The Regans — retired steel company engineer and school teacher — had spent 10 years restoring an old home in New Jersey and wanted a new challenge. They recreated the wood paneling based on photos from an archive at N.C. State University and replaced the cedar shingles and missing dormers on the roof. With their support, the state successfully nominated the home for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Subsequent owners continued the work. A Catholic priest who moved into the home in the late 1990s is credited with restoring the missing stairs.
But by the time Tucci came across Duke-Lawrence during an online search, it had not been lived in for many years and had started to deteriorate again. Tucci paid $230,000 for the property, which included nearly nine acres of land.
“A lot of people liked the acreage and the price,” said Andy Tucker, the broker who handled the listing. “But Bob’s the right person for the house.”
The Duke-Lawrence House is not widely known beyond certain circles of historians; it doesn’t appear on Wikipedia’s list of the state’s oldest buildings, even though it would rank about 12th (the oldest is the Lane House in Edenton, built in about 1719).
That’s because it has always been privately owned and far from the public eye, says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, the nonprofit historic preservation group. But Howard said Duke-Lawrence is historically important, which is why his group holds an easement on the home that prevents it from being demolished or significantly altered.
But the covenants don’t preclude changes that “make the house livable,” as Tucci puts it, including the modern kitchen a previous owner installed and the new wiring and air conditioning that were among his top priorities. A closet off the kitchen now houses a washer/dryer, while two others have been converted into bathrooms, each with showers.
“Alice says, ‘Bob, I need a shower,’” he said. “Now we have two showers where there never was one.”
When the work is done, the couple plans to visit the house often but not live in it full-time.
Tucci says he expects to spend more than a half million dollars buying and improving the Duke-Lawrence House, including a kitchen garden and small orchard with persimmon, peach, plum, apple, pear and fig trees.
Most of the money will come from an insurance settlement he received after the colonial Cape-style home he had built in New Hampshire was destroyed by fire in October 2020.
’THIS IS AN AMAZING WALL’
Tucci is able to do some of the work himself, but also relies on specialists and contractors. Cardinal Joinery of Winston-Salem created the windows using the German glass and construction techniques from the period. Kurt Leahey, who was overseeing prep work for Cardinal Joinery last summer, said despite the neglect and its age Duke-Lawrence is still in good shape.
“The house is really well built,” Leahey said. “It’s still incredibly plumb and square. This has been a real delight.”
Tucci also brought in Reid Thomas, whose job with the state historic preservation office includes advising owners of historic properties on how to care for them. Thomas said he had visited the house before, to meet with previous owners, but it had been a long time.
As they toured the house, Thomas pointed out historic details, such as the trammel that once held pots over the fire in the basement kitchen and what appear to be original hand-planed shelves in the closet with the washer and dryer.
Thomas was especially impressed with the brick work on the exterior of the house. He pointed to the polished headers, or small glazed bricks, between the larger ones, that created a checkerboard pattern.
“This is an amazing wall,” he said.
Thomas said much of the exterior wood siding appeared to be original or close too it. Some of the paint was wrinkled from sun exposure, but Thomas advised against replacing the wood.
“I think it would be worthwhile if you could keep it,” he said. “It would probably outlast anything you replace it with.”
Tucci spent about 20 years building the house in New Hampshire, working when he could and learning along the way. He knows he doesn’t have that kind of time now and is hoping to finish the Duke-Lawrence House in two years, three tops.
“If it all stops tomorrow, we had fun while we were at it,” he said. As for the house? “We’ll just hand it off to somebody else.”
Click here to view the article
By: Richard Stradling, The News & Observer
Click here to listen as Bob Tucci describes the process of restoring the Duke-Lawrence House in Rich Square, N.C. The home, whose oldest section was built in 1747, is one of the oldest houses in the state of North Carolina.
By: Kaitlin McKeown, The News & Observer