Modernist House in the Eye of a Storm
Louis Cherry, an architect in Raleigh, N.C., and his wife, Marsha Gordon, won approval from the city’s historic review commission to build a 2100-sq. ft. house in the city’s Oakwood Historic District last September, and in October they had permits to start construction. By December, the foundation was in and windows were on order.
Eight months later, work has ground to a halt, and the couple finds themselves in the middle of a complex legal scuffle involving a neighbor who doesn’t like the design, the city, and the committee that originally approved it.
The house at 516 Euclid Street has become a tourist attraction as lawyers sort out the mess, and the saga has been the subject of a number of national and local stories, including an article in Vanity Fair in April and another more recently in The New York Times. Even TV weatherman Al Roker has chimed in on the dispute.
A Wake County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the dispute Aug. 25. Among the possible outcomes is an order to tear the house down.
A neighbor objects
Cherry and Gordon took their plans for the house before a committee of the Raleigh Historic Development Commission last year, making a detailed proposal in which they covered everything from setbacks and building materials to a statement of architectural philosophy.
“You would not find a bigger defender of preserving the historic character of Oakwood and the stock of historic buildings in Oakwood than myself and Marsha,” Cherry told the commission. “But what we’re proposing to build is a new home on one of the three or four remaining open lots in the community. And why do we want to do that? We want to be part of that neighborhood; we’re renting there now. We want to put down our roots there.”
On Sept. 9, they were granted a “certificate of appropriateness,” clearing the way for building permits and construction.
But there was a problem: Gail Wiesner, who lives across the street at 515 Euclid, didn’t like the design and thought the certificate had been issued illegally. She objected to the plans before the historic development commission, and later went before the city council to complain. Eventually, she took her case to the city’s Board of Adjustment.
In February, the board reversed the historic commission’s approval, in effect revoking the construction permits Cherry and Gordon already had. The city of Raleigh, according to the website North Carolina Modernist Houses, announced in March that it would file an appeal to overturn the Board of Adjustment decision.
Which brings us to the present jumble, and the upcoming superior court hearing.
Project remains in limbo
With permits revoked, the couple couldn’t keep building. But in a recent telephone interview, Cherry said that they did win an injunction allowing them to protect the property from “things that keep the property from deteriorating while we’re waiting.” That includes the installation of doors, and painting and staining the exterior to protect it from the elements.
He said the house is about 85% complete on the outside. Inside, it’s ready for drywall. The couple has invested about $400,000 in the project to date.
Cherry said he was surprised by the outcome before the Board of Adjustment. He said he was told by city staff that the hearing was essentially a formality. “We were told we were not a party to the appeal, that it was really about the procedures of the approving agency and that it wasn’t anything to worry about.”
Wiesner was not the only critic of the house who appeared before the historic commission. “There has always been a small but vocal opposition to building a contemporary home in a historic district,” Cherry said. “There are people who just believe that is not a good idea. She is not alone in her opinion.”
And the reversal by the Board of Adjustment? “That is really getting down to legislating taste and style,” Cherry said, “and that is not really what historic guidelines are about.”
Owner/builder was fairly warned
It’s not as simple as some of the coverage has made it sound, said Andy Petesch, Wiesner’s attorney, by telephone.
There was “significant opposition” to the design at the commission hearing in September, he said, and Wiesner filed a notice of an intent to appeal the day after the commission issued its written decision. “If the notice of intent to appeal is filed, that puts all interested parties on notice that there’s a likelihood that the approval will be challenged.”
In fact, Petesch said, Cherry knew at a hearing of the Board of Adjustment in December that there was a possibility the certificate could be revoked. “There was a conversation as to him proceeding at his own risk,” he said, “and if the board did reverse, he would have to figure out how he would comply with their ruling.”
Petesch added that the original building permit issued in October was voided because of changes to the crawlspace and foundation, and a new permit wasn’t issued until early December.
Several possible outcomes
There are at least three potential results of the Aug. 25 hearing, Cherry said. The judge could overturn the Board of Adjustment decision, “basically reverse the reversal,” and reinstate the permits; send the case back for reconsideration by the historic commission; or uphold the Board of Adjustment’s decision, which could force the removal of the house.
Of the possibility that he’ll be ordered to tear the house down, Cherry said, “We don’t really see that as a likely outcome, but on the other hand, there are a lot of things that happened that we didn’t see as likely outcomes, so we’re a little wary, I guess, of what seems to make sense and what could actually happen. It’s been traumatic. It’s been devastating for us personally and financially.”
And does Wiesner want the house torn down?
Not according to Petesch.
“Her desire is first and foremost that it be determined whether the committee is using the right processes and procedures and standards in reaching their decisions, and if this were an instance where this did not happen, then their decision be reversed and voided and then whatever compliance is necessary for the property is a separate issue between the property owner and the city.”
That might include changes to the house exterior, moving the house, or tearing it down.
“Miss Wiesner is merely pursuing her own rights under the state statute to appeal a decision by a local government board that she believes is unlawful and arbitrarily made,” Petesch continued. “That’s part and parcel of our democracy and reliance on the rule of law and the right of due process. While certainly property rights exist for all people, they are not absolute, and they are certainly not absolute in the contest of a historic district. Anyone who purchases in a historic district does so with an understanding that there are limitations and an approval process you go through.”
Gail Wiesner could not be reached.