One of Monroe’s oldest homes approved for demolition

A local church has secured approval to demolish one of Monroe’s oldest homes, one of the few remaining antebellum houses in the city.

And while St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has not decided whether it will proceed with demolition, the potential for such a move has left some neighbors aghast at the prospect of seeing another piece of Monroe’s history vanish.

The Laney-Lee House, at 202 E. Windsor St., dates to 1858. The two-story frame home was built for A.A. Laney, a prominent merchant and cotton planter who was Monroe’s mayor in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.

“This is not just some old house. It’s one of the only pre-Civil War houses still in Monroe,” said Theresa Eaman, who lives near the property and created a Facebook page trying to rally people to save the house. “Do we want to end up like Charlotte center city, where there’s nothing left of historic value?”

The church, which sits adjacent to the 4,635-square-foot house, received the home as a donation in 1989 and used it as a rectory until 2008. It has been vacant since then.

St. Paul’s is still considering all options, including demolition, finding someone who wants to move the house or rehabbing it, said Dick Brainard, the junior warden at the church who is in charge of the building and grounds. He said church leaders will present the parish with options for the site, likely by next spring, before deciding how to proceed.

If the house is no longer at the site, he said, the church might use the property for a garden where people could meditate.

Brainard understands the neighbors’ concerns, but added, “We’ve got to do what we can afford. The house has been in disrepair for years.”

An order delayed

On Oct. 13, the city’s Historic District Commission unanimously approved the church’s demolition request but delayed that order for 180 days to mid-April. Under city ordinances, the board’s only options were to grant immediate approval or an approval with the delay, said Doug Britt, senior planner for the city.

Brainard said the church sought approval for demolition to keep its options open. It also held talks with someone who wanted to move the house, but those plans fell through.

At the commission meeting, several residents spoke in favor of saving the house, according to draft meeting minutes. One neighbor, Jon Richardson, hoped the home didn’t go the way of other historic structures in town, such as the old opera house. The 1898 structure was knocked down in the early 1970s.

Church representatives told the board the Laney-Lee House has asbestos mitigation and lead-paint issues, the minutes show, and St. Paul’s does not have the money to fix it up or destroy it at this point.

The 180-day delay was meant to give the church and any other interested parties time to find a way to preserve the building, commission Chairwoman Vickie Hedgepeth said.

She called the house a beautiful landmark with historical significance and wants to see it saved, perhaps as a community center or another use.

Hedgepeth hopes St. Paul’s listens to its neighbors, adding that perhaps they could help with fundraising to modify the house or find someone to move it. “The house could help bring together the community,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be a beautiful love story?”

The commission had asked Preservation North Carolina, a nonprofit that helps protect and preserve buildings and landscapes, to talk with the church about the house.

Ted Alexander, the preservation group’s western regional director, said he met with church officials in August to let them know his group was willing to work with them with any technical assistance they might need.

He called moving the house a last option before demolishing it because moves are costly and logistically challenging. But knocking down the house, Alexander said, would be wasting an opportunity to perhaps find a tenant willing to improve it and preserve city history.

On Tuesday, the Monroe City Council will hear from staff on costs to move the house. The board is responding to residents’ concerns, city spokesman Pete Hovanec said, but does not have the authority to overturn the historic commission’s actions.

This old house

In mid-19th century Monroe, A.A. Laney was a big wheel.

The mayor owned a lot of land and also ran a sawmill, tannery, and a saddle and harness shop. After Laney and his wife died, their daughter and her husband, the merchant George Lee, moved in to the house. The Lees extensively remodeled and expanded it over the years.

Laney’s great-grandson, Lanier Laney of Beaufort, S.C., said in an email interview he was “saddened and puzzled” that anyone would consider knocking down the historic home of someone who did so much for Monroe. But he was heartened by the community support.

He wanted church members to consider other, less expensive options than demolition, such as turning the house into a senior center, a facility for children with learning disabilities or “other more Christian uses.”

“It brings to mind the Joni Mitchell song lyric,” Laney said, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”

(This story was updated on Nov. 7 to correct the location of the church.)