SETTING THE STAGE FOR A STORY: First, you must put on your Norman Rockwell glasses to return to a time of innocence, of patriotism, where a boy and girl sit at the soda fountain drinking from two straws, a sleeping boy is nestled with his dog beside him, of the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. The Post Magazine covers captured a time and a place through Rockwell’s artistry that seems long ago and far away. While looking at William Manley’s photographs of the restoration of Unity Cemetery, it took me back to a story I once listened to while sitting in the woods around the campfire, and shooting sparks disappeared into the darkness above us. The circle of faces around the campfire glowed in the light of the fire.
The YMCA played a big part in my life. The girl’s department and staff helped form who we became. After ditching a meeting I was to attend with the director of the Women and girl’s department, in favor of fries, a cherry coke, and friends, down at Cooley’s Cubbard, I was called on the carpet. It was explained that as one of the leaders in my class, things were expected. I was told, “to those much is given, much is expected.” I have never forgotten this admonition from a significant authority figure in my life that I loved and did not want to disappoint. I would be a different person were I growing up today. Correcting behavior and offering a moral compass to a young person isn’t allowed.
The Y had a two-week girls camp every August that I first attended after 4th grade. My last year at Camp Echo in Fremont, Michigan was the summer after I married. I was the Assistant camp director to Zenol Moore, who explained what was expected of me. I saw the Borealis for the first time at camp. Waking everyone, the camp girls brought out their sleeping bags and on our backs, we watched the flickering colors and movement. Another summer, a group of girls, flashlight in hand, made their way into the woods to the campfire site and listened to a story. Zenol was the storyteller. The younger girl’s eyes were becoming heavy after a full day. In the firelight, Zenol told about a village church where one by one the villagers came, lanterns swaying. The light from the individual lanterns began to fill the church. Even one missing light was noticeable. Do those girls remember the ‘moral of the story?’ How important each of us is, bringing light to the world. The girl that remains within me, remembers the shinny faces, the singing, the smell of the woods, the silhouette of the trees around us, and the story.
On February 6th, 2021, many volunteers came to Unity Cemetery, spreading out across the sections they worked on, I believe they also brought their light-filled hearts. UNITY is what they are about and their unity is the flame we can light our candles from.
This is written for the Unity Cemetery Volunteers with respect and admiration for the light they bring. (SFH)
I have spent some quiet time since the City Council meeting this past Monday wrestling with how to hold the eternal varieties of the discussion over Unity Cemetery. These adjective words describe the situation that night.
without beginning or end; lasting forever; always existing
perpetual; ceaseless; endless:
eternal quarreling; eternal chatter.
Photographer William Manley and others have provided powerful images of the Unity Cemetery restoration; a holy place where members of the community of saints rest. The response, the selflessness, the hearts that took this burial site from talking to action is the greatest example of preservation and restoration. Preserving the history and the story that each headstone represents is like an architectural dig: carefully peeling back the layers of leaves, brush, and fallen limbs that have blanketed the cemetery for a long time. I do not speak for this group of volunteers, but I know they will not be deterred by the perpetual, ceaseless, and endless rhetoric on display Monday night.
The deep and serious tone of concern in the voices of both Councilmen is predictable now that this carefully organized effort and large response have happened. Mr. Blackwell went so far as to infer that someone might deliberately destroy the black history at Unity. Never mind the years that have only become urgent now. Mr. Knight began with records of the Council in 2007 that are meant to prove their interference now. It was said, “We need to hire someone to do this right.” “Someone might get hurt.” It’s the City’s responsibility to see after this for the community.” I hope you remember the word, ‘blarney.’ I would like to add, ‘such blarney.’
These volunteers on Saturday are a dream come true. Volunteers that have come together IN UNITY are now a big problem! The reason is that these two Councilmen won’t allow anything to happen that isn’t under their control. This position is perpetual; ceaseless and endless. The fall election could free the community from one vote that has assumed the right to a lifetime position. There is no hope for me who continues to get mad and stomp around. The UNITY CEMETERY advocates know better. They have already risen above this eternal chatter. We cheer them on, which is ‘meet and right so to do.’
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” –Warren G. Bennis
I often leave comments on the Concerned Citizens Facebook Page. Like all of us, the page has its good days and bad. Some comments have more clarity than others. I have no trouble making room for diverse opinions as long as they are well stated, no swearing or name-calling. I will admit that my reaction can vary if that line is crossed in this public forum. You could find me talking to myself, saying, “Give me a break!” or “What???” or in plain speak — “Man, you gotta get a life.”
I have an on-going struggle with what it means to be complicit. I’ll read something, weigh its merits, consider my past experience with the writer, and then decide if saying nothing makes me complicit in the matter. Sometimes it is easy, Stepheny,When I determine, this cannot stand, I write.
“What about the May Graham buildings or the Carlton House, or any other structures Jesse Gerstl and gang owns. It was great at first thinking he was going to fix something which turned into 2 years of the buildings getting “worser” as you call it. Jesse Gerstl was allowed to buy many of these properties knowing he had no money or intention to fix any of it up. The only thing we got out of the hoarding of money in our downtown was a coffee house; had it not been for the owner of the coffee house we wouldn’t have that.”
In this instance, I know, admire and applaud, Jesse Gerstl. This post is written in appreciation of him and is also my reply to the Concerned Citizen who was good enough to weigh in with the above comment. This blog post is neither written in anger nor denying others their opinions. I, however, have personal knowledge that Jesse wears a Superman’s cloak hidden under a tee shirt, part of his regular attire.
Larema Coffee Shop is located on the opposite corner in the Five Points area. A success story of what the revitalization of our historic downtown district will look like. A building Jesse bought and renovated with his heart for preservation and his ability to see things not as they are but could be. I can’t think of a greater place for the community to enjoy. A repurposed First National Bank Building that now welcomes everyone in a setting that only Main Street can provide. People love it, and why not with as fine a young man as you could hope for, Kevin McLaughlin presiding over his dream.
MACHAVEN, restored, and saved. In acquiring this property, Jesse stopped everything to save this grand architectural gem. Click Here to read an earlier post that includes photographs. The crown jewel, as they say, in the Villa Place Historic District, Machaven is surrounded by an outstanding inventory of residential homes, a walkable distance to downtown. This is a gift to the community that holds many memories of this historic home. I have lost count of how many shotguns and other small homes he has undertaken.
Saved for last, The Carlton House. I have never heard Jesse moan or groan over the obstacles placed before him by our City Government as it pertains to the Carlton House or any project. That’s because he is a good man. I fail the test in this category. I am appalled at the loss of this opportunity and deliberate dragging of feet to thwart him in these efforts. “Oh, ghee that $14,000 grant money must have gotten lost on my desk.” I am fortunate to have seen the plans for this significant asset while touring the property with Jesse.
What we have here is a haphazard, arbitrary, unprioritized approach to planning. The latest scheme rather than recognizing a pivotal piece in the Main Street puzzle. We now know why the Carleton House was sabotaged. Presented as a fait ac·com·pli., we have a single-source bid again as the results of a trip to Florida by the City Manager. The rationale, we’ve never had a hotel in Edgecombe County. Oh, and a zillion-dollar parking garage while we are at it. There are no substantial statistics to prove need, probable success, necessary occupancy to even hope to make a go of it. And, of course, how are the usual suspects going to make any money out of The Carlton House. You wonder how many investors have been run off because there is no attempt to work towards a win-win outcome for the city and the investor. Jesse and others like him, deserve our gratitude and support for the restoration and repurposing of Main Street. We have councilmen serving beyond their usefulness who have done little to protect Main Street except where it suits them and their cronies. It is shameful.
Years ago I sat under a white tent that covered the invited guests to a rehearsal dinner. Much to the dismay of those of us who were older, the toasts by so called friends turned into a roast of the groom. “I remember the night you were drunk and knocked on my door at 2:00 AM.” It went down hill from there. My reaction: how will this couple make it with friends like this, no talk of love, respect, or support? The marriage didn’t make it.
A few days ago I wrote on the new Facebook page by the same name as this blog – Main Street Rocky Mount- about the renovated building located on Sorsby’s Place at 116/118 Sunset Avenue. 118 has been leased to Better Blends Juice and Smoothie Bar. James Silver & Kydeem Vaughan plan to be open early Spring. (Check out Better Blends FB page to learn more.) You are going to love the concept, the location, and Kydeem Vaughn, who is pictured on the FB page, along with James Silver, pictured here. They are the co-owners of this new business.
I went to the Goat Bottle Shoppe at the mill the other evening for a gathering that sipped delicious samples of what is on the horizon for everyone when the store opens. I know it is going to be a successful business. The reason I know this is because everyone who came to support James & Kydeem were lovely, enthusiastic, friendly and believe in James and Kydeem. The partners have a lot of love under their wings that will create a happy place for customers to enjoy. Kydeem and James are part of the new reality on Main Street. They have planted their flag along with a growing number of Repairers of the Breach. A designation I give to those who are investing, renovating, repurposing, preserving, saving Main Street and Surrounds. You too can be a Repairer by your attitude, positivity, supporting the new businesses that are opening, and enjoying the new Main Street scene. Follow this blog and the FB page to read about what’s happening.
to Elizabeth City, N.C. a community named one of the “100 Best Small Towns in America.” Situated in the northeastern corner of North Carolina on the Pasquotank River and Intracoastal Waterway, the City lies just west of the Outer Banks of North Carolina and just south of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Rich in history, saving their sense of place and the story of their people is evident everywhere. They have protected and cherished what has been left to them. The preservation and restoration of their downtown and adjacent areas is cause for great admiration and celebration. I had some time by myself on a bench. A breeze blows your hair askew and a noticeable fragrance hangs in the air from scented bushes, climbing Jasmine, and roses. The quiet is filled with a sense of timelessness. You dare not move knowing this
particular moment will be gone all too soon.
Like Greenville, S.C., this place is an inspiration. Besides the architecture, the people are friendly and helpful and just plain wonderful. My favorite was the UPS man. I was standing on one side of the street taking photographs of a Victorian home when I realized a UPS truck had stopped in front of me. The driver threw his hands up like he was posing and smiled and then waved as he drove off. His good humor will not be forgotten. It was hard to leave this preservationist’s dream. When you see what can be done with honest leadership, vision, and goodwill towards Men, you can’t help but feel envious. This business of being, what I call, a day late and a dollar short, can’t be over soon enough with the elections in October and when justice prevails. Nothing less will do.
On Waters Street, there are three buildings being worked on.
The Green 3-story became my favorite commercial building of all.
Attention to the historical details of this building can be found in all the structures that have been restored. In total, the visual impact is spectacular. Where there is a will, there is a way! New leadership, desperately needed here in Rocky Mount will provide the wind beneath our sails to protect and save our commercial and residential gems too. Elizabeth City proves it can be done.
This post is written with Diane Henderson in mind who has a heart for the preservation of old homes. She is a great tour guide and friend. She lived with her weatherman husband in Elizabeth City for two years. Our long-planned adventure finally realized. Thank you, Diane, I loved every minute!
Running Away -Part Two on Wednesday
There are subtle design details that have a powerful ability to make a building look or feel “right” in a certain area. Context tells us whether a design fits in and guides our decisions. We want a city’s buildings to share some regional characteristics that make a place a place. -Joe Bucher, AIA
Urban infill is city planning lingo for development in areas that are already built up. These projects have fewer costs attached to them because of existing infrastructure and are already serviced by transit, shops, and food.
When it comes to a downtown like ours and older neighborhoods, preservation today is engaged in questions of how to respect the past while fostering development to fill in the gaps. Urban ‘infill’ is a topic we need to be smart about if we are to preserve the continuity of our Main Street buildings that are significant when telling Rocky Mount’s story; when offering people a place to live that has a sense of place. Preserving this continuity is key to this kind of development.
Again, we will turn to New Orlean’s for infill Preservation inspiration. Deftly tucked into a narrow former parking lot on a densely occupied business district street, the new Cambria Hotel represents a successful approach to urban infill in a historic district. The project transformed an empty space into a handsome and vibrant hotel building. Thoughtful design and careful planning took care to recognize the scale and context of the surrounding neighborhood, utilizing a simple palette of materials commonly found in the district that is respectful of the mix of historic buildings and converted warehouses around it. (Please reread these highlighted sentences just short of memorization.)
Infill can be added to an existing structure, become a new layer over the old, placed on an irregular shaped site, or it can fill an abandoned lot. This infill will include mixed-use and multi-functional purpose to a site or building, promoting different uses at different times.
Compatibility of this infill with the overall design strategy should always be a strong goal focused on integration with the surrounding area. Infill should not overpower nearby buildings. Successful infill projects are those that go unnoticed; apparent only upon examination. These simple, but vital requirements for any planned infill in the downtown historic district of Rocky Mount must include sensitive and respectful attention to the surrounding architecture.
I hope you agree. Leave your thoughts below.
Let us look to New Orleans for preservation inspiration with this trio of mid-19th-century buildings that sat vacant for decades. Even in their key location, the buildings suffered the indignities of leaking roofs, rotting floors, and termites. This situation sounds familiar to us on Main Street.
**Constructed in 1858 during the city’s booming antebellum years, this visually united row of three four-story masonry stores stood for decades as dismal reminders of the bad things that happened to downtowns in the 1960s. Neglected, unused and failing structurally, the buildings overlooked a vast parking lot. Taking advantage of the economic benefits of federal historic rehabilitation tax credits and the Preservation Resource Center’s façade easement program, the developers crafted a successful mixed-use development of 16 spacious apartments and three ground-floor commercial spaces. The new development is called 419 Carondelet. (This same concept is being developed here.)
The same successful preservation and repurposing of buildings can be ours. We thank the investors who have embraced the promise of Rocky Mount and will not be deterred. Read about: A hallelujah chorus of bright, young entrepreneurs that have come home. We have a newly energized, emboldened citizenry that will be voting this fall and will prevail. I believe the investigation will bring justice and remove the obstacles of mismanagement and corruption that have prevailed. Our word and agreements with ECC will be restored. There will be no public housing sited on Tarboro Street.
Before long, we will have photographs of our own newly restored and repurposed buildings to brag about. Ours can be the most beautiful Main Street in North Carolina. PLUS – Our existing affordable housing will be saved, restored, and safe to live in again. I hope you will join me with an AMEN! to that.
**Information about 419 Carondelet came from the article – Honoring Top Historic Preservation Projects in New Orleans • Hillary S. Irvin, Sally Reeves, and Michael Duplantier • April 2019, Preservation in Print. I subscribe to this excellent magazine and follow their Facebook Page, an endless source of delight and research.
A successful approach to urban infill
You would have loved being with me the other day for a special brunch with the new innkeepers of Bellemonte House. It was a behind the scenes view of a major production just before the curtain rises. There were skilled workmen scurrying around taking care of last-minute details, an electrician with a few more chandeliers to hang.
I peeked into cardboard boxes that cluttered the stage waiting to have their treasures unpacked and placed. Several gorgeous pieces of antique furniture were still being appraised for best location. Flat screen TV’s were pulled from their wrappings and when a delivery of delicate smelling soap bars and lotion arrived, one more thing checked off the list. Bellemonte House is about to open, a reprisal of the original play, Historic Plantation House now known as a Bed and Breakfast.
Today this historic home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, is a testament to the glories of preservation, an example of what is possible when we look at our architectural inventory through the eyes of possibility, set aside local politics and the constituency of neighborhoods, and think only of what is best for each project, residential and commercial, all worthy of protection while their fate is considered.
In this instance, we have Rick Lambeth, and his entire staff, who were the wind beneath the wings of this restoration project. When I think of their passion, their hearts for history, the incredible skills they acquire when entering the field of preservation and restoration, I click my heels and salute them. Let us not forget Monica Flemming and the program she heads at ECC that helps educate and train people for this profession. These are the skilled artisans that preserved the heart of pine floors throughout Bellemonte House, who repair and save original windows and duplicate a missing piece of crown molding. The ones who restore the fireplace mantels and painstakingly recover the exteriors of the architectural gems placed in their hands to save.
Enter stage right…. the stars of the show. I am on my feet applauding. You will never meet two nicer Innkeepers than Denise and Rick Wilkie. They deserve to take a bow. Welcome them to Rocky Mount. We are now their friends and family. They are committed to the run of this production and are working twenty-four-seven to open their new home in February to all who are waiting in the wings to come on stage.
(Call now for reservations – 252-955-2054)
The Wilkie’s welcome Wesleyan College parents, community leaders, the boards and directors of our business community, everyone looking for a tasteful, authentic setting to meet, entertain and conduct business. I look forward to having tea with my book club while sitting around the handsome dining room table or gathering with the board of Preservation Rocky Mount to celebrate this great success. There will be many reasons to enjoy this beautiful new house. Though filled with beautiful antiques, many from the collections of generous local families, this restoration is not intended as a museum to showcase antiques but to be enjoyed as a living, comfortable and welcoming outreach to the current needs of the community. Overnight guests will be given star treatment with bedrooms and baths that have been created with comfort and rest in mind. A coffee station close at hand, space in each bedroom to work quietly, it’s all there. I know brunch, provided for those who stay, will be lovingly prepared and beautifully presented. …mine was. You know me well enough by now, this preservation success story offered up in the midst of ALL that is happening, brings a tear to my eye. On your feet, folks, this is another reason to applaud the hard work of so many. Congratulations to Bellemonte one and all.
“In my opinion, cities have got to be committed to downtown if they are going to save it. If they aren’t committed, they can’t expect other people to be.” -Lynell Bynum “
On the right, you find a photograph of the Municipal Offices in downtown Rocky Mount, NC. before the city made a commitment to build a new city hall in a part of downtown that needed revitalization. Enter Lynell Bynum along with Errol Warren, a local architect, and Sandy Bulman of Bulman-Frazier Design Studio in Raleigh, who together would redevelop an entire city block across from the city hall and turn it into a modern shopping center and office space.
Mr. Bynum proposed a partnership with the City of Rocky Mount offering the city a 3-1 proposition. I don’t know the exact figures but let’s just say Mr. Bynum put up three million dollars of his own money and asked the city to provide one million to acquire property which would provide parking for the retail area. I wrote in Part 1 why Mr. Bynum would be predisposed to do such a thing. Click Here to read the ‘greatest generation’ aspect of this story.
When it was all said and done, the Station Square project, named for the railroad station next door became the gold standard for how private and public partnerships can develop projects together within the community. The significant renovation of the Douglas Block in 2010 is another prime example.
Let investment in the preservation of our commercial downtown buildings take inspiration from Mr. Bynum who took basic commercial structures, some in dreadful condition, and restored them with a sensitivity to their glory days. Other downtown buildings were then restored by following this great example of Mr. Bynum’s imagination and commitment.
In the light of today’s revitalization of historic downtown Rocky Mount and beyond, Ben Braddock, real estate investor and general contractor has stepped forward and is once again offering Station Square as a model of ‘how you do it.’ In my estimation, he has appropriated the same set of American values that underpinned Lynell Bynum’s risk. The next phase in the life of Station Square requires a strong work ethic, courage, and faith in this community. We honor Mr. Bynum, and we vigorously shake Ben Braddock’s hand for what he is doing on many fronts.