Hope still high for Carter House

Published 3:23 pm Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Newcomers to town might not notice the Henry Clay Carter House as they pull into the parking area of Brown Library, never knowing how much history and emotion are held in the brick house at the corner of the lot. If you ask local history buffs, you will learn that the Carter House is a symbol of gentler times, as well as a recent battle about whether or not the structure is valuable enough to keep standing.

The home is a mix of Tudor, Colonial Revival and Art Deco styles, built in 1950 and listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a “contributing structure” to the town’s well known historic district. Currently owned by the City of Washington, it is located on what was once the rear yard of property owned by the grandfather of legendary movie producer Cecil B. DeMille. Last used as a tax office, the structure has been vacant since 2014. Townwide conversation about what to do with it became heated in 2017, when the city council petitioned the Historic Preservation Commission for a “certificate of appropriateness to remove the house.”

So many people were incensed about the possibility of losing the structure that a web site – “Save Henry Clay Carter House” – was created to keep the public informed about the process. The issue became a focus of the

2018 election when three city council members voted to demolish the house. Posts appeared quoting the 1970-era Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi, which includes the signature line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Not to be ignored, the site also included newspaper coverage from as far away as Raleigh about the destruction of the DeMille home decades before the Carter House became a town-wide issue.

This porch may hold the secrets of previous homeowners who would have used it as a quiet place to read, study, pray… or just enjoy the gentle breeze.

Members of the Washington Area Historic Foundation enlisted the help of Preservation NC, a similarly dedicated group that advocates for the rescue of “interesting, historic, sometimes abandoned but always important properties,” according to its website. The city council eventually reached an agreement that saved the house and allowed Preservation NC to market the property. According to City manager Jonathan Russel, it was eventually bought by the town in 2016 for “site control,” due to existing roof damage and future issues. Roof work has since fixed leaks in at least two locations.

Those repairs have not solved the issue that haunts members of the Washington Area Historic Foundation: finding someone who will buy and refurbish the historic home. “It is beyond rare. It anchors that corner of the  Historic District and, without that house, there would be a significant gap in the streetscape that could put our entire designation as a national historic district at risk,” according to foundation president Donald Stroud. “If it sells it will have covenance attached that will protect it, which is extremely important. We need to save it,” he added.

Historic Commission vice president Dee Congleton echoed Stroud’s love and excitement about the house. “It’s beautiful. It would be wonderful for a young lawyer to live upstairs and work downstairs, because the new police complex is going to be right across the street,” she said about the thought of someone buying the house from the town.

“The house is a steal at what I think was $50,000 for the town’s purchase, Stroud said of the home which, according to town records supplied by the association, carried a value of just over $75,000 in 2017. “My house was a thousand times worse,” Stroud said of the 1870s-era home he lives in, “so anything can be repaired.”

Depending on whose dreams are being expressed, these stairs could lead a newlywed couple to their first-ever bedroom or become the quiet resting place of whoever has set up a business on the first floor of Carter House.