The year was 1966, and the gilded luster of the aged grande dame had faded long ago. With great trepidation I walked up to the front door. My buddy and I had been roving Blount St. for more than a year by then, exploring and photographing the once elegant mansions being demolished by the state in the late 1960s. And of course I always had my trusty Kodak Instamatic camera in tow.
The flamboyant Heck-Andrews House, with its faded and peeling yellow paint, rotting ornament, overgrown and weed-choked yard — and especially its decadent grandeur — had always fascinated me. I wildly wondered what fantastic treasures could possibly lie within! By looking in a Raleigh city directory, I learned the house was owned by Mrs. Julia Russell.
‘Knock, knock, knock’ on the heavy, leaded-glass oaken door — a grizzled old woman with coke-bottle glasses peered suspiciously from around the partially opened door. We introduced ourselves — “Hello Mrs. Russell” — and politely asked if we might see the interior of the mansion. “I don’t let ANYBODY in my house!” and she promptly slammed the door in our face. So that was the end of that — or so I thought.
Encountering a Shadowy Enigma
Several years later, by then in my 20s, and ever engaged in my downtown explorations, I encountered on several occasions a curious older woman who had the appearance of a ‘bag lady.’ She always wore a black cloth ladies’ hat, a plain black dress, and an overcoat — even in the warmest weather. Her hair was dyed shoe-polish black and her face was heavily powdered in white pancake makeup; her lips were thick with ruby red lipstick. I soon learned this intriguing woman was Miss Gladys Perry.
The Youthful Gladys Perry
The old woman with the coke-bottle glasses whom I had encountered in 1966 was Gladys’ mother. Gladys was born to Julia and Henry Perry in 1907; before her fourth birthday in 1911, her mother had been widowed. Mrs. Perry later married Robert Russell, and by the mid-1920s, the family was living at 516 N. Person St. Gladys was a student at Peace College at the time, enrolled in the business curriculum.
Nicknamed ‘Shug,’ a diminutive for ‘Sugar,’ (also spelled ‘Sug’ or ‘Suge’) Gladys apparently was a well-liked young lady in the 1920s. She had many friends, went to movies and dances, and regularly attended Edenton Street Methodist Church. She also loved to cook and sew, and she wrote poetry. Gladys also had at least four suitors during this decade.
I Love You
I love you when you’re laughing
I love you when you’re sad
I love you when you’re teasing
And I love you when you’re glad
I love you when you’re fooling
I love you when you’re true
And the reason that I love you
Is just because you’re you.
— Gladys Perry
By the early 1930s Mrs. Russell was taking in boarders in the family home on Person St. Before the decade was out, Mrs. Russell once again found herself a widow. Gladys’ older brother Clark had married and left home to start a family; Gladys herself was employed as a typist and stenographer by the NC Division of Motor Vehicles.
In 1948 Mrs. Russell purchased the Heck-Andrews house from the Andrews heirs, who were probably very happy to unload the aging and decaying behemoth. And daughter Gladys moved in with her mother.
Gladys Perry, the Enigma
After 1948 there follows a gap of 25 years in what I know about Gladys, but she apparently retired from the DMV in the early 1970s.
This is where the story picks up.
Nearly every time I went downtown in the 1970s I would see the phantom figure of Miss Perry rummaging through trash barrels set on the street for pickup. I have no idea what items attracted her attention, but she always seemed intensely focused on selecting her acquisitions.
Gladys seldom spoke as she wandered through downtown collecting her treasures. The story goes that she powdered her face white believing people would think she was a ghost and would leave her alone. It was rumored she also carried a gun on her person for protection should anyone dare accost her.
As the years went on, I saw less and less of the mysterious black-clad figure with the ghostly white face.
By the mid 1980s, Gladys was spending less of her time roaming the streets of downtown Raleigh and more of it roaming the lonely and emotionally empty rooms of her Blount Street mansion.
The State of North Carolina vs. Gladys Perry
In early 1987 a Raleigh Times article announced:
The state will condemn the historic Heck-Andrews house on Blount Street because its unsafe condition poses a danger to the elderly woman who lives there and to nearby chemical labs… the state will seize the property through its power of eminent domain, and will relocate the resident, Gladys Perry. … the home [is] virtually without heat and electricity, since her utility bills are only a few dollars a month. … Miss Perry couldn’t be reached for comment.
Gladys’ mother, Mrs. Russell, had apparently died sometime in the 1970s. She left no will, and the mansion passed to Gladys and her brother Clark.
Since the mid 1960s the state had been systematically buying up the properties in the Blount Street area, intending to transform the acreage into a state government office complex. Most of the Victorian structures were demolished and paved over as surface parking lots. Only a handful of the grandest homes were spared, and were re-purposed as state office buildings. By 1985, the Heck-Andrews House was the sole survivor remaining in private hands.
Gladys’ brother agreed to sell his half ownership to the state for $84,000, but Gladys remained steadfast in her refusal to sell. She refused to even discuss it with state officials. (Gladys claimed it was she who had bought the property in 1948 and had recorded it under her mother’s name. But as Julia Russell’s name was on the deed, Julia was recognized as the legal owner.)
During her two-year battle with the state, Gladys’ health began to seriously deteriorate. She seldom left the house now, and state workers in the neighboring office buildings who were familiar with the shadowy figure began to worry.
Snow began to fall one afternoon in January 1987, and a concerned state employee went to check on Miss Perry. She had not been seen for days. As there was no response to repeated knocks at the locked front door, the police were summoned.
The police went around to the back of the house, jimmied open one of the windows, and climbed in. They were amazed at what they saw. Trash and rubbish from Miss Perry’s forays were piled chest-high throughout the house. There were old calendars, books and stamps, a pair of silver-glittered dancing shoes and old clothes, spoiled food and every other odd and end one could imagine. Narrow aisles and tunnels through the trash offered the only passage through the rooms.
The police snaked through the trash passages and finally found Miss Perry in her second-floor bedroom behind a six-foot trash heap. She was huddled under blankets in the frigid house. … Sick, she was unable to move from her bed. Rescuers … saw blue and red streaks running up her feet and legs.
She refused treatment and would not let them take her to the hospital.
— Kathleen Christian, columnist, The Leader, November 1988
Ultimately the Good Samaritan state employee persuaded Gladys to see a doctor. She lost several toes to frost-bite and the early stages of gangrene had set in.
Gladys was later resettled in a small apartment in Raleigh, where she died a few years later. Thus, the state had won its battle against Gladys Perry.
Following Gladys’ eviction from her home, the state began the onerous task of disposing of her belongings. An enormous plywood chute protruded from one of the upstairs windows and workers unceremoniously tossed tons of her things down it into a huge industrial trash dumpster waiting below.
Ever curious, I used to go up there and poke around, hoping to find a way to get inside the empty mansion. I was unsuccessful in gaining entry, but one day I did find lying beside the dumpster a broken-open box — the contents of which lay strewn about on the ground. I made a quick inspection of the contents and was astonished at what I found. To the state of North Carolina the items in the box were merely trash, but to me it was treasure. I scooped up the box and ran home with it cradled in my arms.
I could not believe what I discovered in ‘The Box.’ Its contents revealed nearly every detail of Gladys’ life over the course of two decades from 1922 until the early 1940s. I found hundreds of items as mundane as utility bills, her pay stubs from the DMV (Gladys’ pay for the month of October 1937 was $60), typed and handwritten recipes (Tuna Fish Sandwich Spread and Easy Meringues, for example), a receipt for a purchase of film from Daniel’s Camera Shop, greeting cards, handwritten prayers and Bible quotations, notes to herself to buy fabrics (“3 1/2 yds lace for slips. Ask at Boylan Pearce”), her 1926 report card from Peace College (her worst mark was for spelling — ‘passing.’) and dozens of newspaper clippings from the N&O, including poems, recipes, movie ads and political cartoons.
The Box also contained a wealth of far more interesting items than just the mundane — such as Gladys’ handwritten poems and musings on love, a pair of 3-D movie glasses (a souvenir of the 1939 NY World’s Fair), and a WWII pamphlet instructing Raleigh residents what to do in case of an air raid.
Below is an example of only one of the dozens of Gladys’ musings I found in The Box:
For a long time he had avoided falling in love
turning away from it while there was still
time, because it made life so complicated
Do you know what it is to be in love? To sit up
waiting until someone turns the key in the [illegible]?
To think of no one else? To be happy when he is in
the same room with you and miserable when he is not?
Do you know what it is like to go about saying it to yourself:
I won’t let him keep such a hold on me. I must escape from him,
and then never be able to escape.
However, the most amazing find among the heaps of ephemera were the love letters sent to Gladys by four suitors over the decade 1922-1932.
Claude Pearson fell in love with Gladys in 1922, and was the author of several amorous love letters to her. He usually began with “Dearest Darling,” and spoke quite ardently of his love for her, sometimes closing with “Your future hubby.” Apparently, though, it was an unrequited love.
In October 1922 Claude wrote:
Where were you Sunday? I passed your house 3 or 4 times but did not see you either time [sic].
Guess you were out walking with some ‘guy.’ How about it?
By June of 1923 the pair had apparently broken up, as Claude wrote a rather terse note to “Dear Miss Perry,” asking for the return of a photo of himself he had given her — and signed it with his full name: Claude N. Pearson
Then, in 1924, Gladys was seeing a young man named Kenneth, who seemed to live and breathe Gladys. He would often end his letters with “Oceans of love.”
…and [went] to the theatre this afternoon. Sure wish you were up here to go with me for there sure are some swell places to go in Detroit to have a good time.
Well I must ring off for this time, write real soon.
Oceans of love and a kiss on ever[y] waive [sic].
A True Friend
I love Kenneth’s annotation: “This is the ocean”
Curiously, in this 1924 letter to Gladys, he begged her to not let her mother know he had written her. Perhaps because theirs was a ‘long distance’ romance?
…I hurry home every day to see if any mail has come for me, and when I am expecting a letter from you it makes me hurry home that much faster. …
Dear I must close my letter but not my love for you. Write me real soon.
From someone who loves you
PS. Listen Dear:
Please don’t let your mother or Clark read this. Destroy it when you read it. For they might get mad and stop you from writing to me and that would break my heart. So be careful Dear.
Just lots of extra love.
In the same letter, Kenneth pleaded:
Gladys, please don’t have your hair bobbed, for your hair is real pretty and you will be sorry after you have had it bobbed. All the girls up here are sorry they had theirs bobbed. So take fool advice and don’t do it.
Later, in 1927, Gladys was seeing a young man named Jimmie Page, a local boy who had moved to Warsaw, N.C. for his job. This relationship lasted the longest of the four — 1927-1933. In a letter to his sweetheart in 1927, Jimmie lamented that his job kept him away from her.
Gladys My Dearest
…I haven’t slept any to-night at all. I’m not even trying because I know there isn’t any use. I had planned for two weeks to surprise you. Now I had to have my plans all broken up. Gee it is tough. Dearest, life isn’t worth living no way if you can’t see and be with someone you love. …
Dear heart, please remember that I love you and always will whether I ever see you again or not. …
Sleepless nights I’ve laid awake all because of you. Jimmie loves you Dear.
Your own Jimmie
Their exchange of letters continued in a similar vein over the next five years, but they never married, and by 1933, the tone of Jimmie’s letters was more of that between friends than lovers.
Finally, Henry appeared on the scene in 1932. Gladys was 25 years old. And yet another young swain had been smitten by her allure.
Longing for my Baby.
My Own Dear Sugar Pie Darling Precious Baby Child!
How is this for a starter? Sure did miss being with you last night but I was with you in thoughts and always am. …Baby what are you supposed to do when you get someone on your mind and think of them all the time and just long and wish to be right with them every minute?… You know I ‘LO_E’ and wish for you. How about filling in the blank space if you can find a letter that will fit.
Good by[e] ‘Sug’ until I see you soon.
And this is where the letters stop.
I found this photo of a young woman in The Box. Could it be an image of our Gladys? There’s no way to know for certain, of course, but I would like to think that the pretty and stylish ingenue seen here is indeed she.
However, the image of the Gladys Perry I vividly do remember, that of a reclusive old woman, her face powdered white, with ruby red lips and shoe-polish black hair, will always be fixed in my mind; for she will forever be the Ghost of Blount Street.
Following a tip from a GNRaleigh reader, another reader has located a photograph of Gladys Perry! He found it in the 1927 edition of Peace College’s yearbook, ‘The Lotus.’ She bears a striking resemblance to the ingenue pictured in the photo I published with the story. But of course, I cannot be certain the beguiling young lady seen in the earlier photo is for a fact Miss Perry, but I do know the one seen below is indeed she.
Note: Unless otherwise credited, photos are by Raleigh Boy
Special thanks to Ian F. G. Dunn