Tuesday, May 06, 2014

There goes the neighborhood

Next weekend, I’ll be visiting some old friends who live in Dallas.

They have a fabulous, ultra-modern home that stands out in their neighborhood of lovely “traditional” houses, in that it’s ultra-modern, while most of the houses in their ‘hood are faux-style McMansions – chateaux, haciendas, ye olde colonial.

When Tom and Joyce went to build their dream house, they ran into quite a bit of opposition from some of their prospective neighbors. But reason, decency, neighborliness, and the lax zoning laws of Dallas – don’t mess with Texas! -  prevailed, and they got the home they wanted. I will admit that, from the outside, it looks a bit out of place. But it is one of the most spectacular homes I’ve ever been in. Architectural Digest, come on down!

But, apparently, the folks in the Oakwood section of Raleigh, NC, are not quite as reasonable, decent, or neighborly as the folks in Dallas, TX. At least not when it comes to letting one couple have it their way.

Louis Cherry, a respected Raleigh architect, and his wife, Marsha Gordon, had long liked the Oakwood neighborhood, a pleasant, older section of town not far from the center of Raleigh, and a couple of years ago they bought a parcel of land on Euclid Street, in the heart of what is called the Oakwood Historic District. Oakwood is not the kind of historic district you would find in, say, New Orleans, where the buildings are of pretty much the same style and the same period. It’s a mix of 19th- and 20th-century houses, of varying size, style, and quality, and construction there is overseen by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, which, working under pre-determined design guidelines for historic districts, opines on whether or not it considers plans for new construction in the district appropriate. (Source: Vanity Fair.)

Cherry decided to build a home that while more modern than the other homes in the area, was pretty much in aesthetic keeping with the rest of what’s there.

And the Historic Development Commission’s initial finding was that Cherry could go forth and build.

And so he did.

Cherry’s house is an example of modern architecture i.1.oakwood-nc-house-tear-downtrying hard, very hard, to be on its best manners—in essence, to be a good neighbor.

See for yourself.

But the initial thumbs up was, apparently, opposable.

The not-so-Mr. Rogers-ish neighbor across the way, Gail Wiesner,

…who had objected to the house at the hearing, decided she was not prepared to let the house go forward. She hired a lawyer to appeal the commission’s positive decision to the city’s Board of Adjustment, which reviews procedural errors by city agencies.

On the advice of a member of the Historic Development Commission that there was no need to worry, Cherry went ahead with his house. Alas, the Board of Adjustment – make that Maladjustment – decided that the Cherry-Gordon plans should not have been approved to begin with, and yanked their permit. The couple may, in fact, be forced to tear the house down.

I went over to Google Maps to take a little buzz of a tour of Euclid Street, which is where the Cherry-Gordon house has been stopped in its tracks. I believe that the pale green house belongs to Wiesner. It is:

…a fairly new house, built in 2008, but hers was designed to look like a much older house. Some of the other recent houses in Oakwood are also what you could call faux-traditional, like hers, and it is clear that at least some of the residents of Oakwood envision the neighborhood as a kind of stage set, an idealized little village in which every house looks like it has been there for a long time, a place where the buildings are old and only the people, the cars, and the kitchen appliances are young.

So there you have it. In this corner, someone putting up a house that, while not a cookie cutter clone of a style from, say, 1920, is – at least from my point of view – an excellent fit for the style of the Oakwood District. It’s not as if the neighborhood was full of real, ginger-breaded up painted ladies, and someone went and plunked down an outsized behemoth that looked like a bunker overlooking Omaha Beach. Or a Levittown split level. Or a doublewide.

This is an eclectic neighborhood to begin with – lots of old (Victorian, Arts and Crafts…) and faux-old styles in play – and, with the Cherry-Gordon house, we’re talking lovely, we’re talking tasteful, where talking the right scale.

Believe me, I well understand the benefits – and tyranny – of living in a neighborhood where everything is controlled by an architectural commission. There are even restrictions on what color you can paint your door and, if you want to be environmentally aware and replace the windows that were put in in 1850, you better be prepared to have them look exactly like the 1850 windows you’re replacing. Which means something custom-made. Ka-ching!

Much of this is for the good – this is, after all, a truly historic neighborhood – Beacon Hill – where I’m guessing that 99% of the structures were built in 1870, plus or minus twenty years. Where tourists love to roam around peering in windows. And where it’s really quite beautiful.

But I really did like that dark coral color we’d snuck in there for a while for our front door. So much more distinctive than the allowable Civil War era red.

Yet I get why there are rules.

But the Cherry-Gordon house didn’t seem to be breaking any rules. Not until Gail Wiesner stuck her oar in the water. I can’t for the life of me see what she’s so exercised about. As we used to say in Worcester, her taste must be in her mouth.

Anyway, North Carolina Modernist Houses, a 2014ldfshirtnon-profit dedicated to preserving the state’s modern architecture, has a legal defense fund, which is supporting Cherry and Gordon.

Think I’ll go get me a tee-shirt…(Only $30…)

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