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100-year-old home in Old North Durham gets temporary reprieve from demolition

Like people, some houses wear their age well. Although they require regular maintenance, the homes are nonetheless declared by those who have poked and prodded them and shone flashlights in their nether parts, to “have good bones.”

But the bones of the century-old home at 204 E. Trinity Ave., are bad, bowed, broken. 

GetPropertyImagePhoto courtesy Durham County Tax Assessor

This how we got here: The 1,100-square-foot house at the corner of Roxboro Street, once graced with gables, slender columns and gingerbread detailing, embodies the classic tension between the idealism that nearly every historic home can be saved and the reality that some simply cannot.

Built in 1915, the Trinity Avenue house was neglected for at nearly 20 years of its life. As a result its front porch sags. Its back end must be propped up to remain upright. The foundation teeters. A fire burned through the roof, as if its head had been trepanned.

Despite these drawbacks, developer Stuart Cullinan had planned to renovate the home, which one of his companies purchased for $75,000 from Durham-based Community Reinvestment Partners in September.

Then the structural engineers investigated. They pronounced the house D.O.A. The front wall, perhaps, they told him, could be saved. In late November, Cullinan applied for, and received from the city, a demolition permit.

“The house is shot,” says Cullinan, president of Five Horizons Development in Raleigh. He also is the head of Tephra, LLC, the company that bought the house. “There is so little to be saved here.”

It is appropriate that the company is named Tephra, defined as “rock fragments and particles ejected by a volcanic eruption,” because that’s what Old North Durham residents did with their words when they heard that a demolition crew had arrived earlier this week.

Cullinan, as well as several Durham City Council members, were bombarded by emails and phone calls from citizens who wanted to forestall the demolition. Perhaps its condition is not as dire as it seems, they said. Perhaps the house could be moved to where it could be tended to.

“I’ve moved houses, but this one would pancake on itself,” Cullinan says. “I’m unsure if it would survive a move.”

Peter Skillern, executive director of Community Reinvestment Partners, says his nonprofit had also wanted to renovate the house. Among its many social justice projects, CRP works to increase the number and quality of affordable homes in the neighborhood of Geer and Roxboro streets. In 2011, CRP purchased three homes—202 E. Trinity, 204 E. Trinity and 1224 N. Roxboro— from BB&T Bank that had been in foreclosure.

“They were blighted,” Skillern says. “They had been used as the neighborhood bathroom.”

In addition because the three houses sat on the same lot, they did not conform to current zoning regulations. The homes couldn’t be renovated, financed or even rebuilt. CRP received a variance from the city that gave it more flexibility in rehabbing the houses.

With variance in hand, CRP demolish the abandoned, ramshackle home at 202 E. Trinity, which, Skillern says, “sat on the sidewalk.” It was so close to the road a driver had once plowed a car through the living room.

CRP sold both 204 E. Trinity and 1224 N. Roxboro St. to the Latino Community Credit Union, which turned the latter into affordable housing.

Then CRP eventually bought 204 E. Trinity back from the credit union, with hopes of renovating the house. But because of CRP’s numerous projects, that plan was delayed. Meanwhile, Cullinan offered to buy 204 and renovate it.

And then reality set in.

“I know I look like the bad guy,” he says, adding there was no other option.

Nonetheless, he agreed to delay the demolition to allow the Reuse Warehouse to salvage as much as it can, some wood flooring, part of a wall.

Cullinan says his company will build a new house, which will be for sale, that will “be as close of a match” as possible to the original architectural style that will better blend with the neighborhood.

“This is a natural tension about what’s important,” Skillern says. “What’s the best outcome?”

The Latino Credit Union wants affordable home ownership. Cullinan wants to turn a profit. And the historic preservation community wants to save the home, or at least the siding. Skillern wants to ensure the house is not substandard.

“It’s a classic tension in historic preservation,” he says. “Divestment happens as a result of poverty. Then when reinvestment happens neighborhoods can lose their character. It represents the shifting dynamics of the city.”

Comments

Wendy Hillis

As of yesterday, the current owner has an active offer from neighbors to buy the house back and preserve it.

More than anything, this project highlights the need for local historic districts. Based on Durham's economy, we can expect more tear downs. The only way the close-to-downtown neighborhoods stand a chance in the face of development is to become historic districts. A local district would trigger a one-year waiting period of the demolition application, which allows for alternatives, creative solutions, and, in many cases, preservation. In any case, it would have kept the neighbors better informed on the project and its impact on the neighborhood.

WRAL will be airing a story tonight that interviews Preservation Durham and local neighbors.

Lisa Sorg

Speaking of tear-downs, Wendy, have you heard any more about the Iredell Street houses that First Presbyterian was going to dispose of somehow?

Lisa Sorg

Oops, I meant Blacknall Memorial.

Ram Neta

I'm not sure how to tell when a neighborhood has lost its character, and I worry that judgments about neighborhood character - especially when made by residents of that very neighborhood - leave lots of room for housing discrimination (try to imagine the various circumstances in which a homeowner might say "there goes the neighborhood!"). Does a neighborhood lose its character when new homes are built, or new architectural styles introduced? Does it lose its character when its demographics change, or when it increases in population? When an empty lot is turned into a supermarket? I'm sure there are answers to these questions, but how can I find out what they are? Thanks for any help you can offer.

root

somewhere recently someone quoted (I think it was Lewis Mumford) 'time becomes visible in cities'
so, seeing the 'lose its character/there goes the neighborhood' as a distorted/dilated moment within this broader concept? I'm not inclined to dismiss a house as unsalvageable even though it might require a brick by brick, stud by stud overhaul... human bodies remain the same 'person' even as every cell is replaced repeatedly..? I kind of loathe the faux style houses that have been replacing dilapidated but 'characteristic' houses in Lakewood/Lyon Park.

Adam Haile

This is a rather one-sided article. A few corrections:

- To be clear, it's 204, not 214, as you initially say.

- OND neighbors have been working for *years* to find a better future for this house. They've spent countless volunteer hours negotiating with NIS, CRP, the Latino Credit Union, Cherry Real Estate, BB&T, etc etc. After all that involvement, the new owner applied for a demolition permit without telling the neighborhood. The first OND knew of the change in plans was when the demolition crew showed up. *That's* why neighbors were so upset, not because we're an irrational volcano.

- "the neighborhood bathroom" ... WTF? Like OND residents are so uncouth as to p*ss in the house? We're not all savages east of Trinity Park. The truth is that the house had a squatter for a while, back when BB&T held it and couldn't care less. Guess who dealt with that? "The neighborhood" (specifically, Steve Graff) worked with NIS to re-secure the property.

It's a bit odd that you managed to interview virtually everyone on the developer side, but apparently didn't reach our to Steve Graff, Pete Katz, John Martin, Dylan Ellerbee or any of the other neighbors who've been engaged with 204 over the years. It may be that the house doesn't have a future, although CRP thought it did enough to buy it back for renovation. Be that as it may, the level of neighborhood engagement certainly warranted better communication than the covert demolition permit.

Lisa Sorg

Adam, I'll fix the first reference of 214; it was a typo, since the rest of the article says 204. Peter Skillern said that there was human feces on the walls when the nonprofit purchased the house. No one is saying the neighbors are responsible for that. It could have been anyone from any neighborhood who broke into the house.

I never said anyone in the neighborhood was irrational, either.

The story was intended to be a "how we got here" piece: How did a house wind up in the hands it did, and why did the plans change from renovation to demolition. I posed that question to the previous two owners of the house.

John Martin

Lisa,

As a "how we got here piece," the article is still inadequate precisely because you did not talk to the neighbors, who would have given you another perspective on how we got here.
1) Stuart Cullinan approached Reinvestment Partners about buying the house. They were not looking to sell it, but their renovation plans were delayed because of other projects. Cullinan told Reinvestment Partners that he would use their renovation plans.
2) Reinvestment Partners had Cullinan meet with board members (including me) from the Old North Durham Neighborhood Association. He talked about nothing but renovating the house. Had he said that he might have to demolish the house, we would have asked Reinvestment Partners to look for another buyer, and I suspect that they would not have sold him the house.
3) Cullinan now wishes us to believe that he truly intended to renovate the house when he bought it. Even though he is an experienced developer, he only discovered that the house was "shot," after he bought it. And you provide the gory details: the porch sags, the foundation, "teeters," and the roof has been "trepanned" by a fire. Funny, how he didn't notice any of this until "the structural engineers investigated" and said the house is "D.O.A." And, of course, the structural engineers didn't "investigate" until after the sale.
4) And so (evidently with a heavy heart), Cullinan drew up plans to demolish the house, and build a new one. But he did not inform the neighbors of what he planned to do until the last business day before the scheduled demolition. And then the neighborhood "erupted." Imagine that.

I'll leave it to your readers to decide how much of Cullinan's story is believable.

Adam Haile

Thanks, John, for providing that background and also for your work on 2014.

John Martin

I might also add that the house is older than the 1915 date given in this story. I know Lisa took that date from the tax records, but they are notoriously unreliable for houses this old.

The house is on the 1913 Sanborn insurance map, and so it is at least that old. Unfortunately, earlier Sanborn maps do not include this part of Durham, so it is almost impossible to date it exactly. But I would not be surprised if the house was built as early as 1900. This "triple-A" style house was popular in Durham in the first decade of the twentieth century.

root

I appreciate the posts from the insiders but have to laugh, sounds like Cullinan is a nearly perfectly experienced 'developer'....

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