Vigilant denizens and fans of Fisher Park have noticed the unthinkable in their neighborhood. An historic Eugene Street cottage was razed and is being replaced with new construction…without any design review through the Historic Preservation Commission.
What’s going on here?
Fisher Park is thought to be one of the most restrictive communities in the city – demolition and design review are (in theory) stringent and vigilant. How could a house be demolished, and replaced with a new design, and without input from the historic district’s commission?
The short answer is that the Fisher Park house was not inside the Greensboro Preservation Commission Historic District, despite it being considered an important house in the National Register of Historic Places Historic District.
That confusing statement illustrates that in Fisher Park, boundaries matter. The neighborhood suffers from an archaic and confusing hierarchy of borders and boundaries that ranges in different benefits and restrictions on a block by block basis.
Fisher Park as a geographical neighborhood is most frequently defined as the area between Church Street on the east and the Green Hill Cemetery to the west. Its northern boundary is generally Wendover Avenue (debatable), and its southern boundary wafts between Smith Street and Fisher Avenue.
However, in 1982 the neighborhood was considered by the Greensboro City Council as the city’s second historic district, and the debate was contentious. The historic district was established through an “overlay” that did not replace existing zoning, but was a city-regulation established in addition to existing zoning. Opponents to the district overlay grew combative to halt the “overlay” designation. Threats were made, tires slashed, and discord was rampant.
In an effort to appease both sides, city leaders drew district boundaries that carefully excluded opponents to the designation by drawing them out of the district in a form of preservation gerrymandering. Substantial portions of Fisher Park were excluded from the historic district, including all of Wharton Street, and several blocks of Carolina, Cherry, East Bessemer, Eugene, Fisher, Magnolia, Olive, Smith, Victoria, and Virginia. Those included in the historic district adhered to the design review process and delay in demolition, but those outside the boundaries took no such oversight on their property through the historic district overlay.
In 1991, Preservation Greensboro commissioned a study for the neighborhood to be listed to the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district. National Register nominations are not political actions, but they do follow a logical narrative based on the history, integrity, and context of the properties under consideration. This logical approach to district boundaries did not include the entire neighborhood as it traditionally was recognized, but omitted certain sections based on lack of integrity or their inability to contribute to neighborhood themes such as history or architecture. This new district included all of the 1982 design overlay district, and added sections of West and East Bessemer Avenues, Eugene, Fisher, Victoria, Virginia, and Wharton streets. Through the lens of the National Register, more of the neighborhood fell into historic consideration, but not all of the traditional neighborhood – areas to the north and south remained outside designation.
The result of these overlapping designations is confusion related to preservation procedure and tools. For example, a Fisher Park home may not be within the overlay district and its design review, but may be on the National Register and thereby qualifies for use of valuable historic tax credits. Such was the case with the Hewitt House at 807 North Eugene Street.
According to the 1991 National Register nomination, the Craftsman-style house was first occupied by G. G. Heweitt, a supervisor of bridges and buildings with the Southern Railway. The two-bedroom, 1,088 square foot house was built between 1920 and 1923, and might have been a rental house during most of its existence. It was owned by J. B. Meredith from 1929 till 1955, then inherited by Willie Bolick who owned it until 1965. Sari Winfree owned the house from 1965 till 2000.
Early in 2017, construction work began on the house, but progress seemed to stall in the spring. Over the summer, the entire house was dismantled to the foundations. Builders carefully retained the distinctive river rock porch supports and began erecting a new Craftsman-style house that incorporated the old stone porch details. Today, a new house is taking shape that reflects some of the original Craftsman style but little of the original house remains.
Inclusion of this house inside the historic district design overlay might not have saved it. Even the most impressive Fisher Park houses may be destroyed after a 356-day delay in demolition. Demolition in historic districts may be delayed but not denied. However, design review might have been helpful in addressing details of the new house. Design review is quite similar – though frequently less restrictive – than Home Owner Association restrictions found in nearly every suburban subdivision built since the 1980s. The review serves to safeguard existing property owner’s investments through a public design review process that adheres to a common standard.
Citizens can work with the City to unify the Fisher Park neighborhood by aligning the two “historic district” boundaries. Simplification will make it easier for residents to understand the tools available for restoring their specific houses, such as design review requirements or historic tax credits. Pairing the two tools will work to stabilize the gray areas that are on the National Register but are omitted from design review. Clarity will result in a stronger neighborhood through design and investment, and enhance Fisher Park as an asset to all of Greensboro.