In Raleigh’s historical Oakwood, a modern house divides neighbors

Amid the Victorian homes and simple historical bungalows of the Oakwood neighborhood, Louis Cherry and Gail Wiesner both built their dream homes on tiny lots that once served as backyards.

But that’s where the similarities end for the two central figures in an architectural debate that has bitterly divided neighbors, drawn a spotlight to obscure city-appointed boards and is now in the hands of a Superior Court judge.

The controversy has been building for months around a 2,000-square-foot modernist house on a quiet side street in Oakwood, northeast of downtown. Cherry – a 30-year veteran architect who designed buildings for the Cameron Village Library, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh and the N.C. State Arboretum – designed the home with his wife, Marsha Gordon, and secured approval from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission last September.

The commission, appointed by the Raleigh City Council, is charged with making sure new construction meets the city’s guidelines for historical districts. Its approval allowed Cherry to begin building his house, but a week later, Wiesner – a real-estate agent who lives across the street – hired an attorney and filed her intent to appeal.

Wiesner’s appeal took the matter to the city’s Board of Adjustment, which voted 3-2 to revoke the approval, prompting another appeal to Wake County Superior Court with the looming threat that the Cherry-Gordon house could be torn down if they lose the case.

“We are in a nightmare,” Gordon said. “All of our money now is going to lawyers.”

Garden club, and a band

Modern styles of architecture are a rare sight in Oakwood, but Cherry and Gordon say it’s where they want to live. “We wanted to be connected to downtown, and we wanted to be part of a neighborhood that we felt had a sense of community,” Cherry said.

Oakwood’s patchwork of historical houses is home to passionate, politically active residents who are quick to sound off on the neighborhood’s email listserv. It’s the sort of neighborhood that has both a garden club and a rag-tag marching band, an annual candlelight home tour and a Halloween house where volunteer zombies jump out to scare children.

It’s a neighborhood where modest cottages in need of a fresh coat of paint are tucked between immaculately maintained, pastel-colored Victorians. Any homeowner seeking to change the outside of his or her home is bound by the historical commission guidelines adopted in the 1970s after a proposed freeway threatened to tear through Oakwood to shorten commutes for state government workers.

The well-preserved collection of historical homes is part of what attracted Wiesner. She and her husband bought a 1901 house on Bloodworth Street in 1996 before they decided to design a new home on Euclid Street in 2008.

Wiesner and her architect spent months tweaking the house’s design with historical commission staffers. She can point to numerous changes she made to address their concerns, from the location of her front door to the shape of the windows.

“It did make it look more fitting for the neighborhood,” she said. “But you can do whatever you want to the inside of the house, and that’s more important to us.”

Should it look ‘historical’?

Cherry and Gordon also faced a rigorous review process before they got the historical commission’s blessing in September. Cherry said he spent hours poring over the guidelines and used Oakwood “historical precedents ... as a springboard to creating a contemporary interpretation.”

But while Cherry looked to the Craftsman style for inspiration, his house’s unpainted wood siding and modernist look is almost unheard of in Oakwood.

Wiesner first learned of Cherry’s plans when the two met in the street and Wiesner asked to see the design renderings. “I said, ‘It’s a lovely house, but I don’t think it fits into Oakwood,’ ” she said.

Others agreed with her. The Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood adopted a resolution opposing the house. If the historical commission could “allow a modernist house in this district, then it will allow almost anything,” the resolution said.

Will Hillebrenner, an engineer who has been restoring his Oakwood bungalow, is among those who think the house doesn’t belong there. “By being a self-admitted living piece of art, it’s actually stealing attention away from those historic structures,” he said. “I believe that new construction in the neighborhood should blend in – not look old, but blend in.”

Hillebrenner’s opinion is one side of an enormous divide among historical preservationists nationwide: Should new architectural styles be introduced to historical districts, or should new construction mimic what’s already there?

Most of the new homes built in Oakwood in recent decades – including Wiesner’s – take the latter approach, and Gordon is not a fan. “The prevailing style really seems to be this watered-down, Disneyland-ish style architecture,” she said.

Myrick Howard, president of the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina, thinks modernist houses work fine next to historical homes, pointing to the diversity of styles and periods already in areas such as Oakwood.

“Amongst the (historical preservation) professionals in the field, most folks strongly favor the contemporary design,” Howard said. “The public seems surprised. ... People tend to think that if you’re building in a historic district, you want to have it look historic.”

Building during an appeal

Opponents of the Cherry-Gordon house say Raleigh’s historical commission is making a disturbing shift toward the pro-modern approach. Last summer, the commission approved a modernist, rusted steel addition to the back of a blue pastel cottage on Oakwood’s Linden Avenue.

Several neighbors said they were caught off guard by the commission’s support for the Linden addition, which Wiesner called “a travesty.” No one appealed the decision. But when Cherry came before the commission a few months later, Wiesner and her allies were ready to fight.

A few dozen Oakwood residents turned out for the first hearing on the Euclid Street house. Cherry won approval by the end of the four-hour meeting, and Wiesner began preparing her appeal to the next level – the Board of Adjustment.

As Wiesner hired a lawyer to continue the fight, Cherry and Gordon were issued their building permits and broke ground on the house. They said no one from the city told them to wait until the appeal was resolved.

“We were repeatedly assured that Gail’s appeal was only procedural in nature,” Gordon said, adding that she was told the worst-case scenario was that the Board of Adjustment might ask the historical commission to clarify its ruling.

On Nov. 21, historical commission staffer Tania Tully told Cherry via email that he didn’t need to come to the December Board of Adjustment meeting, records show. Cherry and Gordon came anyway, and that’s when they learned they were building at their “own risk,” the board’s attorney said.

By then, the foundation was poured and more than $100,000 of building materials were on the way. “We were really misled,” Gordon said. “There’s something really wrong with that process. Surely they should have pulled our permit.”

Opponents of the house say Cherry and Gordon should have known better. “Nobody has ever built when there was an appeal pending before,” Hillebrenner said. “He chose not to wait.”

City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said that Cherry and Gordon’s predicament shows problems in the system. “The city attorney and city manager are going to look at our processes and make sure that everybody is appropriately trained and everybody understands their roles,” she said, adding that the confusion around the appeals should never happen again.

Tearing it down?

The Board of Adjustment’s 3-2 vote to yank the approvals shocked many. Members were told not to vote on whether they agreed with the commission’s ruling – just whether it had a “rational basis” for it.

Board member Ted Shear, a forestry professor at N.C. State University, was the most vocal opponent of the house and the commission’s approval. Last year, he cast the lone vote against a community garden proposed by the owners of the Irregardless Cafe.

“I find it very difficult to find that the guidelines were the driving consideration here,” Shear said at the meeting, adding that the historical commission’s approach would seem to allow any design in Oakwood. “I can’t find any house design I couldn’t take, run through that process, and then find it compatible by that standard.”

Shear was joined in opposition by fellow board members Timothy Figgins – a former historical commission member – and Tommy Jeffreys, the Wake County commissioners’ appointee. Two attorneys, Charles Coble and Carr McLamb, voted to uphold the historical commission’s approval.

Citing “procedural irregularities” in the Board of Adjustment’s ruling, the Raleigh City Council voted unanimously this month to appeal the decision to Wake County Superior Court.

City attorneys say the board failed to establish whether Wiesner has legal standing to challenge Cherry’s permits and would need to offer proof that her property value will be affected. They also said the ruling needs to be based on the “physical environment” of the entire Oakwood neighborhood, not individual streets or homes.

Battle of city lawyers

The latest appeal sets up an unusual court case where each side is represented by attorneys the city is paying. The Board of Adjustment retains a private-practice lawyer, while the historical commission will be represented by City Attorney Tom McCormick’s staff. Lawyers for Wiesner and Cherry will also be involved.

If a judge upholds the Board of Adjustment ruling, historical preservationists fear it could set a damaging precedent for historical districts and commissions throughout North Carolina. Howard said the media attention surrounding the Oakwood case has already made living under historical guidelines seem undesirable.

“It’s going to be really hard to get any new historic districts (created) in Raleigh,” he said.

Cherry said he wishes he’d hired a lawyer at the beginning of the process. Gordon said the challenges have dramatically increased the cost of the house, which represents the couple’s life savings.

“It’s so hurtful to think that people in this neighborhood are thinking that this is some kind of victory to do this financial harm to us,” she said. “Who wants to live in a world where all of your neighbors decide how your house should or shouldn’t be?”

A judge’s ruling in favor of the Board of Adjustment could force the house to be torn down, but Wiesner said that’s not what she wants. “It should be pretty easy to move it if it’s well-built,” she said. “He may have property rights, but the rest of us have property rights, too.”