The dates and the locations are different, but the scenarios are strikingly similar.
In both cases, large wood-frame homes constructed in the earliest years of the twentieth century occupy prominent corner lots at the edge of each city’s premiere streetcar suburb. In both cases, houses are located across the street from each city’s respective First Presbyterian Church (both designed by Hobart Upjohn), with both congregations seeking to expand their campus at the expense of historic neighborhoods. In both cases, neighborhood activists run head-to-head with congregation leadership in dealing with the deteriorated structures that require major restoration. In both cases: controversy.
The Ecker House in High Point and the Holleman House in Greensboro share a number of similarities. However, the outcome of these stories is likely to result in dramatically different legacies.
In November 1989 (20 years this month), a fire roared through the second and third floors of the 1908 Ferdinand Ecker House (image, right), the flagship residence of High Point’s then three-year-old Johnson Street Historic District. Efforts to create the district were a hard-won victory for High Point’s fledgling preservation community, and loss of the Ecker house would have represented a stunning defeat to the neighborhood of primarily simple bungalows and Colonial Revival homes. Battle lines were quickly drawn.
Leaders of High Point’s First Presbyterian Church made an early offer to purchase the burned house in order to tear it down and expand parking opportunities. The neighborhood balked at efforts to destroy the house with the president of the homeowners association countering in the newspaper that his group’s “main objective is to see the house does not come down”.
The conflict brewed for six months as water seepage and vandalism worsened damage to the home. City officials condemned the house, the High Point Enterprise opined that the house should be destroyed, and the preservation commission grudgingly approved a Certificate of Appropriateness to let the house go after a six month delay.
In May 1990, the story took a turn. I was a 23-year old graduate from college when I made an offer to buy the Ecker House to save it from the bulldozer. By the fall of the year, the restoration process was well underway to repair the fire-damaged attic and wrap-around porch, upgrade the bathrooms and kitchen, refinish floors and woodwork, and give the house a new historically appropriate paint scheme of teal and grey. In 1993, I sold the house to Kittenger Furniture of Buffalo New York for use as their corporate residence for furniture market. With the tax value of the house tripled, the home led renewed interest in neighborhood revitalization efforts.
Beyond the preservation of the Johnson Street’s flagship house, the project resulted in broader community-wide implications. The Ecker House directly inspired the preservation of the Elihu Mendenhall House on Skeet Club Road north of the city. The residence stands as one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in Guilford County. Later momentum led to the restoration of Chestnut Hill, a mid-nineteenth century Quaker home with history as a stagecoach stop, a post office, and a general store in the Florence community.
Buoyed by the Ecker House success story, preservationists rallied support to preserve High Point’s classic 1906 Southern Railroad Passenger Depot. The momentum gained in historic preservation led to the preservation of the nearby J. H. Adams House (now an inn) and the Briles House (now home to the High Point Junior League). The preservation easements that assure the conservation of the Ecker House into the future were repeated in an easement to preserve the Cottam-Wall House in Emerywood, the only known example of Welch Revival architecture in North Carolina.
Although the preservation of High Point’s Ecker House inspired a network of preservation projects throughout the city in the 1990s, the near-certain destruction of the Holleman House in Greensboro’s Fisher Park will have its own legacy.
As a witness to (and participant in) the positive High Point preservation story, it is difficult for me to watch an alternative storyline unfold in Greensboro. I can look back on my involvement in the efforts to save the Holleman House (image, right) with confidence that every tool available to the community was made available, from offers of funding to partnerships, and from behind-the-scenes discussions to public forums.
Putting aside the historically antagonistic relationship between neighborhood and church, the hard-feelings caused by inflated restoration estimates, the impact of the national recession on the church, and the community’s willingness to engage in a shared plan for the future of the site…the destruction of the Holleman House will resonate throughout the community for some time.
The question that the community must answer is where do we go from here?
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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