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.
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.”