by Ilina D. Ewen
photographs by Catherine Nguyen
They said it couldn’t be saved.
From the sidewalk, the stately house at 304 E. Park Drive was proof of the adage that looks can be deceiving. Off came the rose-colored glasses once you stepped inside. It was a duplex, split in two. Floors were bowed, electricity was of the knob and tube variety, the plumbing questionable, and historic integrity was stripped at every turn. We counted eight different styles of doors and knobs, a crazy quilt of trim, and original space chopped up to serve as bedrooms. Our contractor said he would have struck a match to the place if we hadn’t had a convincing vision to transform it. I should have recorded the faces of every friend who saw the house in its pre-renovation state. Their bugged out eyes and inflection said it all. “You’re, um, actually going to buy this?” We noted the exchange of sideways, skeptical glances.
Suffice it to say we’ve proven the naysayers wrong. Today they are eating their words in our glorious kitchen.
It’s a satisfying result for a house with quite a past. It has stood since 1921 in the historic Cameron Park neighborhood (That’s 94 years old, in case your math is as rusty as mine), carved from the holdings of the Duncan Cameron plantation between 1910 and 1927. The 1942 Hill’s Raleigh City Directory shows that noted local historian Charles Crittenden, once director of the state archives, lived here. An annual award in his name is presented by the N.C. Literary and Historical Association to people who preserve and study the history of our state. As a history major myself, I think his is a fitting legacy to follow.
My husband and I have always been drawn to old spaces, beginning in our first home, a 100-year-old Chicago condo with 12-foot ceilings, picture frame molding, and a marble fireplace. Our sense of place is heightened knowing we are part of a story, leaving our own mark as we respect the architectural vernacular of a neighborhood. We celebrate living in a storied house. I’m not talking about the three floors of living space we enjoy. We’ve yet to see ghosts or hear any spirits murmur in the night, but there is a palpable sense of living in the throes of other families’ commonplace goings-on that weave together to create a blended history. Our family is simply adding another chapter to the story.
We follow on the heels of nine Dominican friars who made the house a priory. Some time before them, another sort of fraternal order lived here: the brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu, an N.C. State fraternity inaugurated in 1938. Other characters peppering the home’s history include various N.C. State students, musicians, a mid-life bachelor who apparently lived like a fraternity brother himself, and a woman who ran a daycare in the back of the home. Meditative piano ballads and a book about Buddhism were penned here.
Based on what we uncovered during renovations, the house hosted many raucous parties over the years. The front room that served as a chapel of sorts for the friars had also used as been party central for the brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu.
We found artifacts of all kinds, remnants of previous lives: A poster of Dumbo from the 1940s, a ball cap with the words “Negro Swimming Invitational,” a tattered parchment of prayer sheets. Various odds and ends reflect the trappings and mysteries of an old house – enough blue marbles to fill a couple of jars; a strange teardrop-shaped, smooth stone attached to a burlap string; thick rusted nails from a bygone era that the construction crew cursed at every turn; a veritable storybook of fraternity paintings. The pledge class of 1958 decorated the walls with their nicknames: Fish, Babe, Berk, and Stud. In fact, the sidewalk in front of our house still bears the names of fraternity brothers etched into wet concrete in the 1960s. One of those brothers knocked on our door one day shortly after we had moved in. He had a glimmer in his eye as he recounted some tales of his time living here.
The house couldn’t have anticipated a family of four like ours enjoying its gracious spaces. It was built originally as a duplex. We are the first to make it a single family home. It was our third historic renovation, so we were no strangers to the work entailed in reviving an old house. But this project was daunting. We applaud the North Carolina Historic Preservation State Tax Credit program for making such a massive renovation possible. The 30 percent state tax credit it provided allowed us to save this historic Raleigh home, and two before it.
You can’t build something new to look historic, after all. Character is earned.