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    N.C. historic preservation work increases as economy improves

    After several years in which dilapidated historic buildings languished for want of buyers, Preservation North Carolina is seeing some of its properties moving again. Sometimes, they literally move, to get out of the way of a bulldozer.


    From the News & Observer
    By Martha Quillin (
    Photo by Chuck Libby

    “This one is on its fourth location,” Preservation North Carolina’s executive director and DCRP Guest Lecturer, Myrick Howard , said of the Patrick St. Lawrence house, a two-story gem believed to be the oldest home in Pittsboro. Since it was built as an inn in 1787, “It’s been moved three times. But this time, we think it’s going to stay put.”

    The building, also known locally as “the yellow house” for its sunny exterior, is one of three long-neglected historic homes relocated last year by Chatham County to make way for an expansion of its judicial complex. Preservation North Carolina offered all three houses, on their new lots, through its Endangered Properties program, through which the nonprofit finds buyers for historic structures that otherwise likely would be lost or destroyed.

    In 2006, PNC arranged for the sale of 14 properties through the program, and in 2007, it found buyers for 16. But the market began to wane in fall 2007 and then, in 2008, the recession hit with force. That year, PNC handled six sales, followed by seven in 2009 and five in 2010.
    Finally, last fall, Howard said, interest picked up again. Since September 2011, PNC has sold 17 historic structures across the state, including the Patrick St. Lawrence House. It has three more under contract, including the 537,000-square-foot Loray Mill in Gastonia, which was last under contract in 2008 when the lender backed out.

    “I think it might be a sign, in a way, of the economy improving a bit,” Howard said. “Certainly, we’ve got a lot of activity going on.”


    A positive of the recession

    In the business of saving old buildings, a recession can have positive and negative effects. In the case of an especially distressed building – one where the roof has been leaking for years or there are major structural failures – more years of inattention can make rehabilitation so costly that most buyers won’t attempt it. But if a house is in essentially stable condition, a stall in the economy can be a kind of pressure-release valve, giving preservationists more time to find a solution.

    It’s not clear what an uptick in the sale of battered old buildings in need of major rehab suggests for the larger economy.  “This is a pretty unique niche in real estate to begin with,” said Cathleen Turner, the PNC preservationist working with the three houses in Pittsboro. “This is not for the faint ofheart. This is for the die-hard preservationist, with a vision, and with a sprinkling of outside-the-box (thinking). It’s going to be someone with passion.”

    And money – or access to it – said Will Jeffers, who has taken on several old-house renovations since starting Ozark Investments in Raleigh four years ago.

    Though the asking price for a century-old house that’s been empty or abused for years may be only in the tens of thousands of dollars, it will need new wiring, new plumbing, new heating and cooling, a new kitchen, new baths and more.

    “When you’re dealing with these restorations, you’re dealing with the unknown, so it’s good to get a loan, in case you come across a surprise or two so you’re not spending out of pocket,” Jeffers said.
    Four years ago, you could go get a loan without any trouble, Jeffers said, but banks got cautious after the financial meltdown. “An old house that looks to most people like it should be torn down is not an attractive loan to make,” he said.
    Now banks are starting to lend a little more, Jeffers said. He works with investors, finding properties that have potential to be restored and either rented or re-sold. Like others who do this kind of work, he and his investors rely on state and federal tax credits designed to encourage historic preservation.  Jeffers is working on the former Gethsemane Seventh-Day Adventist Church near downtown Raleigh, built in 1923, which he is converting into an office for an architect; and a 1904 two-bedroom cottage with board-and-batten siding on South East Street in Raleigh. Both buildings had been condemned and were scheduled for demolition.


    ‘It’s a steal’

    Ray and Janet Carney of Wyoming, N.Y., plan on doing most of the work on the Patrick St. Lawrence House themselves. Ray teaches carpentry and cabinetmaking, and his wife is a former interpreter at a living-history museum. They have restored three period houses, Ray Carney said, along with an early 1800s brick store.  In the worst of the recession, potential buyers looking at historic houses often told Preservation North Carolina that they were afraid to commit to purchases until they had buyers for their existing homes.  Ray Carney isn’t worried about that. He and his wife bought the St. Lawrence House – with its massive joists and Georgian styling – for $40,000. He’s confident their 1825 home in Wyoming will sell by next year, when he’s ready to retire and move to Pittsboro to begin work in earnest on this project.

    In the meantime, he said, he’s researching porch styles on Georgian homes from the late 1700s so he can restore his as close as possible to the original. He figures the complete restoration will take about four years.

    “We’ll have a TV room upstairs. You’ve got to live in the 21st century,” Carney said. “But when you walk in that front door, the house should feel just like it did when it was built in 1787.”
    Carney hopes that as he and his wife make progress, it will inspire other buyers to invest in the houses on either side of theirs, which were also moved instead of being torn down. Each is being offered at $30,000.

    For the Carneys, this was the right house at the right time.  “Where else am I going to buy a house of that stature for $40,000?” Ray Carney asked. “It’s a steal.”

    By Martha Quillin (
    Photo by Chuck Libby

    More information

    DCRP Course

    PLAN 757 Planning for Historical Preservation (3). Concepts, processes, and policies for historic preservation; its role in the community planning and development process.


    Preservation North Carolina

    Preservation North Carolina finds buyers for historic properties and arranges for protective covenants and easements that protect their historic integrity. Here are some of the properties it has handled in the past 12 months:

    • Patrick St. Lawrence house, built in 1787, Pittsboro

    • Gethsemane Seventh-Day Adventist Church, built in 1923, Raleigh

    • Highland Memorial Hospital, built in 1922, and Armstrong Apartments, built in the 1920s, both in Gastonia

    • Grove Hill, a house dating to 1820, Warren County

    • Y.E. Smith School, built in 1920, Durham

    Elmwood, an 1805 home near Oxford, Granville County

    For more information on buildings offered through Preservation North Carolina, or to learn about protective covenants and easements for historic buildings, go to or call PNC’s main office in Raleigh, 919-832-3652.

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