$875,000: Graham house sold

Oct. 29, 2010 6:50 pm

A condemned historic home with University ties has another shot at continuing its 100-year history.

After dodging a September demolition date, Preservation North Carolina, a private nonprofit historic preservation organization, successfully completed a three-year search to match a buyer with the Edward Kidder Graham house at 115 Battle Lane — saving it from a similar fate in January 2012.

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Mary E. Froelich, of Jamestown, N.C., purchased the property from Sherman W. Richardson of Chapel Hill on Wednesday morning, according to a N.C. General Warranty Deed.

Once home to UNC-Chapel Hill presidents Edward Kidder Graham, Frank Porter Graham and Kemp Battle, the structure has been in disrepair and neglect for more than 10 years.

In September 2009 the Chapel Hill Historic District Commission gave the owner one year to either find a buyer or repair the house, enforcing a town ordinance passed three years earlier. The demolition-by-neglect ordinance requires abandoned properties in Chapel Hill to either be renovated or demolished.

Preservation North Carolina teamed up with the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill in 2007 to help Richardson find a buyer, which turned out to be quite the task.

“I’m a little stunned at the moment,” said Ernest Dollar, the executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, a few hours after the deal closed on Wednesday morning. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster to say the least.”

A week before the home’s demolition date in September, The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill learned that a 2009 N.C. Senate bill, known as the Permit Extension Act, granted another year to find a buyer.

Kendal Brown, a principal planner for the Chapel Hill town planning department, said the homeowner only recently inquired to see if the Permit Extension Act applied to his property, which is how the September demolition date was avoided.

But it turns out the little brown house on Battle Lane didn’t need until January 2012 to find a buyer.

Cathleen Turner, the regional director of Preservation North Carolina, said the house sold for Richardson’s full asking price of $875,000, which Turner said was driven by the location of the house.

According to Orange County Property Records, the 3,200-square-foot house and the 0.62-acre lot was assessed in value at $454,395 in 2009. Richardson purchased the property in 1998, but never lived in the home.

“The buyer that stepped forward has had experience in preservation, and certainly grew up in a family that had a great deal of experience in preservation and was no stranger to the effort,” Turner said.

Froelich could not be reached for comment.

Dollar estimates that restoration costs for the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home would be more than $700,000. He said that there have been offers in the past but that the price was too inflexible for many buyers.

Despite the home being condemned in March 2007, it still retains some of its original Colonial Revival character — a still-functioning pocket door, a butler’s pantry and a hidden staircase once used by servants.

Original wood floors are lined with the ghost marks of old furniture and yellow outlines on the walls show where pictures once hung.

Edward Kidder Graham built the house in 1908 when he moved to Chapel Hill with his family to become an English professor. He went on to teach the first journalism course at the school, and eventually became the University’s ninth president in 1914.

The property was nicknamed “Bulrushes,” a reference to the overgrown bamboo in the backyard and a play on his wife’s name — Susan Moses Graham.

Graham’s younger cousin, Frank Porter Graham, lived in the house as a boarder during law school with Kemp Battle, future University president. Porter Graham also went on to be a University president and a U.S. senator.

In 1945, Alpha Gamma Delta sorority moved into the house. The home became known as “the little brown house on Battle Lane,” as the sorority started referring to it in its rush songs.

Robin Peacock, who lived in the house as a sorority member, has her own historical ties to the home – her husband proposed to her on the house’s fire escape.

The University sold the house in 1948, and a family named the Warrens lived in the home until Richardson purchased it, Dollar said.

Even the attic has a place in history. The 1968 low-budget sex comedy “Three In the Attic” was filmed at the house along with other campus locations. The preservation society showed a screening of the movie in 2008 to help publicize the plight of the house, which Dollar said helps show a “sexy” side to preservation.

Turner said another side to preservation that many people aren’t aware of is the state income tax benefits, thanks to the 1998 North Carolina’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit program.

Thirty percent of the rehabilitation expenses are rewarded as income tax credits over five years.

If Dollar’s estimates of $700,000 for restoration costs are correct, the property on Battle Lane could yield $210,000 in state income tax credit for the new owner.

Turner said there not only are individual tax benefits but also an economic benefit for the community.

According to a 2008 economic impact study by the preservation society, the tax credit program created $1.4 billion in revenues, 14,100 jobs and $438 million in additional employee compensation.

Dollar said he also hopes the story of this house can serve as an example for other historic properties.

“What I’d love for this house to communicate to the community is ‘Wow, if this place can be saved, other places can be saved.”

This article was reported for the J463 Digital Newsdesk Production course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.