A few years ago, over my morning coffee, I noticed an interesting new listing in my Connecticut MLS. Developers were offering for sale a “gutted to the studs” circa 1802 Colonial on less than 2 acres (photo, left). The agent added that the apparent rehab project was “part of a $500,000 subdivision,” an obvious effort to brag up the potential profit, since $500K is well above-average for homes in this part of Connecticut. I was immediately a bit angry — “stripped to the studs” sounded to me as though someone must have destroyed a fair amount of the house’s historical integrity. But then I paused . . . I admitted to myself that I had not been through the house before. What if the house had been long abandoned, with a leaky roof, and the developers were actually helping to preserve the house by investing in & subdividing the property?
Generally, most historic house folks would agree that subdivision of land belonging to a historic house is best avoided, since new construction almost always detracts from the character & feel of the historic setting. This was the argument in Camden, South Carolina in 2002, where a battle erupted over the possible subdivision of historic “Sarsfield” — the post-war home of Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut. During 2002, the battle appeared to have been quickly won by the preservationists, as the local Planning Commission denied a request by the owners to cut 10 building lots from the 5+ acre property (right). The Commission explained their denial was based at least partially on the significance of the “site context.” This rejection of the subdivision was so popular that it resulted in “thunderous applause” from the standing-room-only crowd at the town hall. Yet two years later, in 2004, the owners of Sarsfield renewed their application with an altered proposal (to create only 8 building lots), a possibility that was so controversial that even film maker Ken Burns expressed his desire to see Sarsfield preserved. The Commission again rejected the proposal. The owners appealed. Finally, early last year, the South Carolina Surpreme Court ruled (opinion here) that the Planning Commission had acted within the law in stopping the subdivision of Sarsfield.
Yet I have to say that I am impressed with a major subdivision currently underway in North Carolina, just a few miles outside of Charlotte. The developers of “Cedarvale Farm,” a planned 363-house development being built on an historic 245-acre plantation, have designed their subdivision to emphasize the history of the property. In fact, columnist Doug Smith at the Charlotte Observer says that the Robert Harvey Morrison plantation house (left) will be “the centerpiece” of the ambitious project. The developers will convey a sense of history by building the new houses so that they encircle & “emphasize the view of the plantation house between the cedar trees lining the entryway.” Smith’s article highlights the developers’ strategy to preserve a focus on history in the neighborhood of new houses:
The development tract, on Morrison Road off N.C. 24/27 (Albemarle Road), also has an 8-acre pond and the remains of the Pioneer Mill gold mine. Plans include historical markers along walking trails. “Our thoughts are to keep as much history out there as possible,” [developer] Fiorenza said. The development team worked with the state historical society, he said, to design its amenities center [below] to match the time period of the house, log barn, smokehouse and former Pioneer Mill community post office on the site.
“This is an accepted practice,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “The real key issue is the setting of the house – if it has enough space to retain something of the rural feel.”