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Architect’s Dream Home in Legal Limbo

Monday, May 5, 2014

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A new modern residence nestled among Victorian-era homes and 20th-century bungalows in Raleigh, NC, has sparked an architectural brouhaha that may end with a leveling.

The fate of the nearly completed home in the Oakwood Historic District is now in the hands of a North Carolina judge after a city board voted last month to revoke its construction approval.

The City’s Board of Adjustment, a body that reviews procedural errors by city agencies, determined that the home clashed with its historic neighbors and should not have been approved.

Oakwood modern home

This two-story, contemporary home under construction in Raleigh may have to come down if a court agrees that it goes against the historic fabric of its neighborhood.

The homeowner and architect, Louis Cherry, and his wife, Marsha Gordon, had received the required approval permits to construct their dream home last fall. According to the city’s website, the neighborhood is full of architectural variety, developed from 1880 to 1930.

Construction on the contemporary home began Oct. 24.

New Home on the Block

The controversy arose when a neighbor across the street took issue with the modern, two-story, 2,100-square-foot abode taking shape out her window.

Gail Wiesner voiced her displeasure in a City Council meeting and appealed the Raleigh Historic Development Commission’s initial decision to allow the construction.

She presented her case in front of the Board of Adjustment in January. Other neighbors also spoke up about the house that “didn’t fit in.”

Meanwhile, construction continued. Cherry was advised of the appeal by city officials.

He said he was told he might be sent back to the historic development commission to correct any procedural errors that the city board may have identified during its review. Thus, the architect and his wife perceived the risk as minor and proceeded with the construction project.

They did not anticipate what happened next.

Board Votes to Stop Build

In February, in an unprecedented decision, the Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to overturn the Historic Development Commission’s approval, saying that the commission’s guidelines were not properly considered when the plans in the “Certificate of Appropriateness” were approved.

The board’s decision, which became official March 10, thus revoked Cherry’s construction permits.

News & Observer / YouTube

In this video, Architect Louis Cherry and his wife, Marsha Gordon, talk about the design of their dwelling.

The officials commented on a number of design features that were not in line with the overall character of the historic district, including the roof shape.

“The proposed new construction has multiple unconnected roofs with shallow pitches unlike any other building in the Oakwood District,” according to the board’s meeting minutes.

Supporters Unite; City Challenges

Modern architecture lovers and historic preservationists alike have rallied against the board’s ruling, as the case has garnered national spotlight.

Preservationists fear that the board’s ruling could create a damaging precedent for historic districts and commissions statewide, according to

On March 20, the City Council decided to appeal the board’s decision in Wake County Superior Court, citing “concerns about procedural irregularities,” reports relate.

In April, the Court granted the architect the right to finish installing the roof, siding, heating and air-conditioning and other aspects of the structure so that the home would be protected from the elements while its fate was determined.

To Be Continued…

The unusual case pits city attorneys on both sides of the issue.

If the judge decides in favor of the board, the house will most likely be torn down, reports say.

A court date to decide its fate will be set for July or August, Cherry told D+D News.

On his blog, Cherry says he can’t believe the “desire to build a modest house in Oakwood has created such a heated controversy on a national stage.” He adds that his design for the home was meant to fit the scale and character of the neighborhood, seen here in Google's street view.

rendering of home

Cherry says the design for the home was meant to fit the scale and character of the neighborhood. However, some neighbors in the Oakwood Historic District say it doesn't fit in with the 19th-century Victorian homes and 20th-century bungalows in the area.

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger agrees with Cherry. In Vanity Fair, he describes the house in this way, “Cherry’s house is an example of modern architecture trying hard, very hard, to be on its best manners—in essence, to be a good neighbor.”

A rogue Twitter account, speaking in the voice of the house, has also joined in the conversation.

@ModernOakwood said, “’Not in my front yard,’ said the house across the street to me this week. Still sad about that.”

Editor’s Note: This story was edited to include a clarification regarding the architect’s knowledge of the appeal and understanding of the risk involved.


Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Architecture; Color + Design; Design; Government; Historic Structures; Modernism; Modernist architecture

Comment from Barry Lamm, (5/5/2014, 10:35 AM)

I often remind City Historic Properties Commissions that had Oak Park, Illinois had a requirement in 1898 that all houses built in Oak Park must be in the same design as the existing Victorian or Queen Anne forms, then Frank Lloyd Wright would not have been allowed to design the modern houses he did there in the early part of the twentieth century. Now those Wright houses have made Oak Park famous and bring in lots of tourist money every year. The city also has a Frank Lloyd Wright celebration every year with tours of the homes. Other modern homes designed by other architects were built during that same time or shortly thereafter in Oak Park and are featured on the tours. Neighborhoods need to embrace good architecture at all periods of their histories. However, that's not to same they will get good modern or good traditional designs always, but, hopefully they will.

Comment from Mark Anater, (5/5/2014, 12:10 PM)

Historic districts are far too concerned with details like roof pitch, and far less concerned with encouraging good design. How many neighborhoods in the country are blighted by McMansions and bigfoot rebuilds? I understand that Oakwood doesn't want that to happen in this neighborhood, but a little perspective is in order.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (5/6/2014, 9:12 AM)

Usually neighbors take their complaints to the historic commission. Something went wrong with the process; I would expect there to be a law suit. Who is supposed to pay for the demolition/alteration of a nearly complete house that had received an approval - the Owner?

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/6/2014, 9:26 AM)

After a look at the Google streetview, I fail to see how this design negatively impacts the neighborhood.

Comment from John Fauth, (5/7/2014, 8:44 AM)

What limits are there for a “Board of Adjustment” to review and rescind the decisions of other governmental agencies? Could it conceivably overturn the decision to issue an occupancy permit? Could it be used to force the demolition of an historic home that no longer fits into a neighborhood that has modernized around it? What agency or process can review and rescind decisions made by the Board of Adjustment?

Comment from Catherine Brooks, (5/14/2014, 11:22 AM)

I commend the owners for their sustainable design features. However, in looking at the Oakwood Historic District website, I am surprised they approved the contemporary design. The website mentions that other new homes have been built but follow the traditional designs. I don't see how the size and shape of the owners' lot should have demanded that the design be contemporary.

Comment from John Royal, (5/15/2014, 9:33 AM)

It is obvious that the design should never have been approved but the fact that is was approved is the fault of the Historic Development Commission, not the Owners. If the HDC is willing to pay for the demolition and reimburse the Owners for all the construction costs the house should be demolished. But since we all know the HDC cannot/will not do that, the house should be allowed to stand.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (5/15/2014, 11:29 AM)

In looking at what the Commission describes as the style of Oakwood and some of the posted pictures of the area, I don't think the design is actually that far outside of the area's character. Yes, it has a contemporary bent, but realistically, I think if they changed the cladding / paint from the beech and maybe added a brick-like veneer, it really wouldn't stand out. I've seen a lot of modern "monster houses" (3 storey monoliths) get shoe-horned into mature neighbourhoods here that stand out far, far worse than this house does.

Comment from William Cornelius, (5/16/2014, 12:02 PM)

After a visit to the Google Street view link, the best I can say this whole controversy must be a joke. Maybe the neighbor is afraid the increase in property values caused by this house will a dime a year to her bill?

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