To understand who we are, we must ask the walls around us.
Though they can’t actually talk, walls aren’t the best at bluffing. Their scratches are an expected consequence of moving furniture. Their faint pencil marks measure the growth spurts of children who lean against these sturdy structures, rising to their tippy toes in the hopes of gaining a few inches.
If the walls of one particular house that’s perched on the corner of Raleigh’s historic Oakwood neighborhood could speak …
“Oh, they’d have to be censored,” says Chapman Williams with a laugh.
Williams, who is an interior designer, and his husband Carter Skinner, a residential designer from Durham, are Triangle natives and have been residents of Oakwood for more than 20 years. They’ve lived in this home they love for 15.
With its wraparound porch and cozy sitting rooms, it’s a proper Southern home. Williams and Skinner’s chapter in its story began on a rainy day in March.
“Right as we were driving by, the realtor was literally putting the ‘For Sale’ sign up out front of it,” Skinner says. “We bought it without ever having set foot inside of it.”
To them, it was a matter of fate. What they would later learn is that their ownership would inextricably link them to those who lived in the home and neighborhood decades and decades before they did.
The couple’s Second Empire-style home, which was built in 1875, is a rare find in the South. A prominent tower with a steeped roof gives a building of this style its distinctive character. (Think of The Louvre — or The Addams Family house.)
Born in France, the architectural style was in vogue in the mid-1800s. During that narrow time frame, the South was also undergoing Reconstruction. Few people could afford to build such a lavish home then, and by the time Reconstruction ended in 1877, Second Empire was on its way out.
The home stands out from many of the more modest bungalow homes in Oakwood. But its elegance did not spare it from the growing pains experienced by the whole neighborhood in later decades.
Following World War I, some residents of the centrally located Oakwood left for the city’s outskirts as cars became available. Homes, including Williams’ and Skinner’s, were converted into tiny apartments as the Great Depression took its toll. They stayed that way until the 1970s.
By the 1970s, efforts to revitalize the neighborhood were nearly thwarted by plans to build a highway in the area until a group of residents banded together to form the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood. The neighborhood stayed, as did its spunk and spirit.
Camaraderie is alive and well among Oakwood residents.
“It’s a sidewalk community,” Williams says. “It’s spontaneous. It’s not one of the places you move to if you don’t talk to your neighbors.”
On the last Sunday of every month, neighbors take turns hosting dinner in their homes.
“We call it the ‘athletic club.’ The only athletics is doing this,” says Williams as he mimics the repeated exercise of picking up a wine glass and bringing it to his lips.
Both Williams and Skinner love to entertain, whether that’s in their dining room, its walls as rich as red velvet, or in the garden shaded by pecan trees original to the nearby, former Mordecai Plantation. The squirrels, unfortunately, are not so generous with the pecans.
From the chandeliers to the charming fountain out back, history drips from everything here.
Though the couple had to gut the house after decades of decline, they’ve made a point to preserve the soul of the home.
People have come and gone over the years here, but they’ve all walked on the same heart pine floors.
“They’re scratched and dented, but that’s a part of the character of the house,” Skinner says. “We’d like the house to be more perfect than it is, but we don’t ever expect it to be perfect.”
It’s not uncommon to find a corner of a rug upturned, evidence that the couple’s two poodles, Albert and Corbin, had been using it as makeshift Slip’N Slide. If you think sophisticated equates to stuffy, here’s hard evidence that claw-foot furniture and clawed paws can coexist quite wonderfully.
As beautiful as the house is, what makes it a home is not its appearance.
“We were renovating the house during 9/11, and I began thinking about all the things that had taken place throughout history,” Skinner says. “After the sinking of the Titanic, well, they would’ve been seated in this house reading about it in the paper … or during World War I or World War II. You begin thinking about the people who were living here during these major events in history.”
Sometimes the people who lived here come back to Oakwood to tell the story themselves.
The great, great grandson of the home’s original builder once popped by to retrace his roots.
During one of the neighborhood’s regular home tours, another man stopped in and introduced himself as a former North Carolina State University student who lived in the dining room when it was once a converted apartment that consisted of a bedroom, bathroom, closet, and kitchen, all tiny of course.
A carpet installer once told Williams how as a teenager he had to climb on top of the roof to fill the oil tank when he worked for his dad’s oil company. “I remember having to do that. I was mad at my daddy every time I had to do it,” he said.
One Jewish man became teary-eyed when he revisited the neighborhood and reflected upon his childhood when his family would walk from Oakwood to what was once Raleigh’s only temple. Given the temple’s location on nearby Hillsborough Street, several Jewish families lived in Oakwood because they could not drive on the Sabbath.
As for what keeps people coming back?
“I don’t know that it’s actually the home itself,” Williams says. “I believe it’s the memories created within the home.”
The memories are all still here. Just ask the walls.
Presented by Andrew Roby
Andrew Roby is the premier custom residential contractor in the Carolinas, serving communities from the mountains to the coast. Specializing in custom homes, remodeling, kitchen and bath renovations and handyman services, Andrew Roby “makes it home” for clients through exceptional quality, craftsmanship and customer service for life.
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