Can I Interest You in Alleys? Rocky Mount Has Some to Talk About

The alley behind the 800
block of Tarboro

I’ve always been interested in people’s ‘unlived lives;’ what other choices they might have made, still wish to make. I have many of my own ‘unlived’ possibilities. Never once have I thought about someone becoming an authority on alleys. Now I appreciate the value of this pursuit and the creative use of this space.

I wish I could have known Grady Clay. (1916–2013)  I was intrigued immediately when I read his name. Grady Clay is such a Kentucky name. Never mind that he grew up in Atlanta Georgia. He was an American journalist specializing in landscape architecture and urban planning. Mr. Clay wrote a small book called Alleys: A Hidden Resource. It appears to be no longer in print. Clay said that back alleys represented Americana. After 1939, Clay made it to Louisville, Kentucky, where he actively wrote and gardened. He was a founder of the Crescent Hill neighborhood Community Association. Most of his professional papers were given to the University of Louisville. His journals and other papers going back to 1939 are in the archives of the Loeb Library at Harvard.

Alley behind 800 block of Tarboro Street

Clay’s 1978 book traced the history of alleys in this country. Prior to his contribution there didn’t seem to be much interested in the subject, which makes me laugh.  That is no longer true. The wide trash-pickup-type alleys were actually unique to the United States. According to Mr. Clay, “To skulk through an American alley is to step backward in time, downward on the social ladder, and quickly to confront the world of trash collectors, garbage-pickers, weekend car mechanics and children.” In Evanston, IL. where I grew up, I regularly walked the alleys or rode my bike, with their garbage cans, back gates, and garages. I would have disputed this ‘downward social ladder-view’ to talk about short cuts to friends backyards, or our driveway off the alley into the garage at home.

Clay was among the first to propose that American alleys could and should be reimagined. They could be used as space for homes and businesses, predicting that commuting costs would increase and older city blocks would rise in value. Commuting costs have grown, many older city blocks have rebounded, and walkable neighborhoods have become some of the nation’s most desirable.

Peeking over the gate from the back alley on Tarboro Street

Roses are hidden away on  Tarbor0 Street alley

City planners have come around to Clay’s way of thinking. Advocates in many cities now seek to make alleys more hospitable and intriguing, as passageways that add commercial, community, and environmental design value.

Howard Street-A Street to Build a Dream On -Part 1  

Howard Street – Part 2

A ghost sign on Howard St. An alley waiting to  be utilized, to become a  great Rocky Mount destination

Rocky Mount’s intriguing alley full of possibilities

Wonderfully recovered alleys in Elizabeth City, NC -Here is a great in-fill idea of green space

Pool Street Park -green space
Elizabeth City

Elizabeth City turns the alley pictured below into a destination with outdoor seating, lights, charming use of space that draws people to gather. It takes imagination and purpose, and I know….money. We’ll talk about our alley behind the Davis Furniture block on Main Street soon.  This post is dedicated to all who grew up with alleys as part of their experience and to people like Grady Clay and Daniel Toole, past and present advocates for these spaces.

Posted in Reimaging the use of alleys in Rocky Mount and Beyond | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stepheny Attends a Free Choral Concert -Saturday AM – May 11th – Edgemont Historic District

800 Tarboro Street
Built by D.J. Rose

Preservation Rocky Mount had a walking tour this morning in the Edgemont Historic District and I had a fantasy come true. I stayed behind in a comfortable wicker chair on the front porch of the D.J. Rose house belonging to Jean Bailey at 800 Tarboro St. I’ve written about this special home several times. It was all mine for an hour!

Wrap around sound: a chorus of vocal birds sang with abandonment. Several solo parts were cooed by morning doves. There was a problem without a conductor to keep time and cue the various parts when it was their turn. You know how an orchestra sounds when warming up before a performance; all the instruments playing their own notes? The bird concert went mad with sound but without sheet music. Still, it was glorious. I even managed to fall asleep missing some of the performance. I must speak to someone next time to prevent the whoosh of tires on pavement that dashed across the Tarboro Street stage.

The walking tour returned, full of a new appreciation for this special location, and with knowledge about roof lines and architectural styles. Lovely people with an appreciation for the story of the neighborhood, its people, it’s future. I didn’t say anything about the free choral concert they missed or reveling on the beautiful front porch with a short nap. Instead, I gathered the experience to take with me to revisit in my mind when needed. There is a matching wicker chair and if you promise not to talk, I’ll invite you to join me should there be another occasion.

These Gorgeous Photographs by Carl Lewis

Posted in D.J. Rose Contractor -Rocky Mount NC, Edgemont -A Star in Rocky Mount's Crown, Preservation Rocky Mount | 4 Comments

I Ran Away With the Weatherman’s Wife ……Part One


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

Posted in Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Preservation Success | 2 Comments

Positive Change In City Leadership Will Guarantee Main Street’s Successful Outcome – ‘Urban Infill’ For Instance

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.




Posted in Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Preservation Rocky Mount, Preservation Success, Reimagining Rocky Mount, Rocky Mount Building Preservation | Leave a comment

New Leadership and Justice for Rocky Mount Is At Hand – Thanks to Investors with Vision, The Reimagining and Revitalization of Main Street Is Picking Up

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 




Posted in Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Preservation Rocky Mount, Preservation Success | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Help Me Write – The Story of the Kyser Drugstore Family

“It was frustrating to gather bits of disconnected information without understanding how it all fits together.”
― Wendy Percival, Author


I readily identify with the Percival quotation as I begin to write about the Paul Kyser family. Because I don’t know enough, the storyteller that lives within me wanted to create my own tale. With a fascinating historical backdrop, (the 1890’s when Paul Kyser moved to Rocky Mount, I could carry on from there. We have some idea of the manners and fashion of that decade. I could write a whole chapter about the 1890s through 1905 as part of the Edwardian era, also known as the Gibson Girl era. Dana Gibson created the iconic Gibson Girl look with extra wide puffy tops and blouses paired with a curved corseted waist, A-line skirts, voluminous Gibson hair topped with a large flower and feather hats. Men’s style was still formal from the Victorian era but growing more relaxed. You see how easy it is to set the stage for the beginning of our Kyser story.

Did you ever play one of my favorite games of making up the beginning of a story and dropping out, letting the next person continue on, and the next and next? It’s great fun with children, but this time I am going to play the game with you. I’ll give you some details about Paul Bynum Kyser (1856-1937) and his family, and from what you’ve been told, who you might have known, please help me understand how it all fits together. ThePaul Kyser family keeps on giving with multiple generations of interesting people who left a great mark on Rocky Mount. Connected by marriage in ways you may not have known or forgotten, this has the making of a long tale. Help me with it.

(Use the COMMENTS section below: to write what your contribution. Thank you!)

Recently I wrote about Andrew Clark, Investor, who is renovating two commercial buildings on Main Street. The Kyser Drugstore building is pictured here at 135 S.E. Main St. In 1979, Kate Meams wrote in a Central City Historic Buildings Inventory about this building.

“The Kyser Drugstore was established in the 1890s by Paul and Emily Kyser* and moved to its present location c. 1912. Mrs. Kyser has the distinction of being North Carolina’s first licensed woman pharmacist, though family tradition states that she never practiced. The building, altered somewhat over the years, retains two cast iron pilasters manufactured by Mesker Brothers, a firm well-known for this type of ornamentation. The building also possesses one of Rocky Mount’s earliest neon signs, recently put back in working order.”  *Emily Royster Howell 

This photograph says: Main Street looking North, showing the Kyser Drug Co. Rocky Mount, NC. (Corner of Main and Tarboro St. )

The Kyser home at 219 Sunset Ave

Two notable chapters in this story are Paul Kyser’s son and youngest child, James Kern “Kay” Kyser, who became a noted entertainer, which included musical comedies. His daughter, *Virginia Kyser, who married Walter Carleton Noell. Walter became one of the first franchisees of Hardees Foods, and with his two nephews, Nick and Mayo Boddie began  Boddie-Noell Inc. The downtown Carleton House Motel and Restaurant were named for Walter Carleton Noel.   *Virginia Graves Kyser + Walter Carlton Noel

Below: This is what The Carleton House once looked like. An important place marker in Rocky Mount. It has been bought by Jesse Gerstl and his investment group and once underway will be saved. There are exciting plans and hopefully, it won’t be long until we are headed to the restaurant again as in earlier days.  We will raise a glass of sweet tea to Walter Carleton Noell and to his wife Virginia and the Kyser family.                                    

After Paul Kyser’s death, one of his sons-in-law, James Stanley Pierce I (1897-1965) took over management of Kyser Drugs, which was probably the 135 Main St location.


Charles Dunn -Way Back When Provided This Clipping


Posted in People Making A Difference in Rocky Mount, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings | 11 Comments

Celebrating A New Investor – 131 and 135 SE Main Street – A New Life

Easter Week: Rocky Mount, NC – Beautiful Day on Main Street. Gorgeous pink Iris blooming in my garden. The gift of Lent this year; to realize that I need to stip away things, that in the end, do not matter. Monday night’s Council meeting (4-22-19) threatened to reel me in with the “How dare you” speech, and what followed afterward, but today I am sitting on a Main Street bench celebrating a new investor who is helping save Main Street. You and I, we must keep our eye on the ball and let those in charge of investigating bad manners and self-serving decisions bring the bad gals and guys to justice.  (Definition of keeping one’s eye on the ball: to continue thinking about or giving attention to something important: to stay focused.)

Join Andrew Clark, Rental Property Investor from Raleigh, NC sitting with me on a bench out in front of his two newly acquired commercial buildings on SE Main Street. Andrew lives in Raleigh with his wife, who is a scientist at RPT, and a new December born baby. He was drawn to the affordability of our Main Street property for investment.      Now, this is important!

Andrew shares with us: Active investors are all over Rocky Mount. I can personally attest to having friends who have in the last 18 months purchased 15 + downtown commercial buildings, 150+ single family homes, and many multifamily units. My wife and I bought two commercial properties on Main St (Music City & Lights buildings). We are currently doing full gut rehabs on both buildings financed by a local Rocky Mount bank. We will have two 2000sqft+ luxury lofts on the second floors and two commercial spaces on the bottom. We plan to attract restaurants on the bottom of each of these buildings.








The Rocky Mount story as seen and told through Andrew’s eyes calls to other investors and should energize us anew to believe in the revitalization of downtown. Rocky Mount has opened its 165,000 sqft indoor Event Center which can seat 4000+ people. It is literally 2.5 blocks from my buildings. That will become an economic powerhouse of the downtown area. The Event Center is NCAA certified, can host 16 volleyball courts, 8 basketball courts, music concerts, and has a video arcade, a ropes course. All of this is walkable to downtown.

Rocky Mount Mill has purchased entire streets and renovated all the houses (front porch rockers and kegerator included in all houses), they have 60+ condos they are currently renting/renovating inside the mill, and they have a community of 20+ TINY HOUSES they will be renting out soon. It not only sounds wonderful when Andrew talks about Rocky Mount, but it is wonderful. This is a fraction of other properties and projects that are being worked on in and around Main Street. (MacHaven is opening soon, one of the stars in Rocky Mount’s architectural crown.) We are blessed to have investors like Andrew Clark, saving two more buildings – Hallaluh!

NEXT TIME – Paul Bynum Kyser and family and the Kyser Drugstore


Posted in Economic Development in Rocky Mount NC, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings | 2 Comments