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Death of a Victorian: Fabius Briggs House to be Razed

After countless stays of execution and pleas from Preservation North Carolina to save the Fabius Briggs House located at 1301 Hillsborough Street, it seems its day has come. Built in 1906 by a son of Thomas H. Briggs, founder of Briggs Hardware, it has stood witness to the evolution of one of Raleigh’s most attractive and well traveled streets.

An ominous precursor appeared late last week in the form of a chain-link fence circling the property, as if a white sheet had been laid over its lifeless body. This fencing is usually the first step in the abatement process many Raleigh residents have become accustomed to in recent months. With the loss of the NC State bookstore, the Ballentine’s Cafeteria building in Cameron Village, and The Brewery many downtown residents are starting to raise a few eyebrows.

The Briggs House is a typically-styled Queen Anne Transitional, an architectural style common to Raleigh in the early 1900s. Our ancestral residents would have seen these houses lining Hillsborough street from the campus of NC State all the way to the Capitol. Many have been lost over the years to development and neglect, but thankfully the city is still holding on to a precious handful. But by early next week, one more will be gone.

FMW, a Charlotte real estate company, has plans for a mixed-use development on much of the land that has been cleared. The Bolton complex and long-abandoned Staudt Bakery on West Morgan Street were razed last week and cleanup on those sites continues.  Cameron Park Apartments, the neighboring retail shops including Jade Garden and our iconic IHOP will remain — for now.

According to Mike Campbell, superintendent of demolition for all three sites, work began Monday and will continue through this week as the green asbestos siding that covers the exterior of the house is carefully removed to partially reveal its original wood clapboard siding.  It will be a sight no one has seen in nearly 60 years.

The inevitable end all started in late summer when some of what makes the Briggs House special was luckily salvaged from its interior. Mantels, mouldings, wainscoting, doors, door and window hardware and the entire staircase were removed. Word has it that the staircase has found a new home in a residence in North Raleigh.

Shortly thereafter, the windows were sealed with plywood and the doors nailed shut. Not even the birds could roost in the old gal.

Following a 2009 Goodnight Raleigh article written about 1301 Hillsborough Street, Preservation North Carolina, an organization devoted to preserving North Carolina’s historic and endangered properties, started efforts to save the house. Director of Urban Issues at PNC, Elizabeth Sappenfield, enthusiastically took on the project. Until very recently it was still listed on their website. The price? Free. If you could move the behemoth, you could sign the deed.  The glaring problem, among several others, was a spot to set the house down. Sappenfield worked to find a site, but there was really only one site suitable for the house in the immediate area; a gravel parking lot just across the street from Cameron Park apartments. The owners of the lot were contacted and they replied by swiftly snuffing any notions of a sale.  Another issue was the present condition of the house. City inspectors claimed that the house wasn’t structurally sound which leads one to wonder, if the house isn’t stable sitting still, how would it react if it were teetering down Hillsborough Street on wheels?

Many will claim good riddance to these neglected structures, but some see these changes as a loss of character and would much rather see them re-purposed — or even moved. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that our city will lose structures with history and character. Raleigh is constantly sloughing off its decaying, aging and even inconvenient structures. Sometimes, it seems as if planners and developers are irreverent about our history and the aesthetic that makes Raleigh so beautiful, and that may be partially true. However, it is also important to remember that as our city changes we learn to recognize good change from bad. Realistically speaking, 1301 Hillsborough is an eyesore that also poses a danger to the public. In this situation, assuming that moving the house is not possible, razing the house is, sadly, the most rational plan.

On a personal note, and barring any realistic notions of what should happen to the house, I will miss the element of mystery and grittiness it brings to my neighborhood. Passing by and imagining how regal the house once was, what stories it could tell, and pondering its ultimate fate have kept my imagination busy for years. I believe part of what makes losing any old structure, especially the Briggs House, so difficult is the thought of edging ever closer to a point where the Raleigh landscape would be unrecognizable to someone that lived a century earlier.  We are not only losing a historic house, we are losing a faint glimpse of our past.  A past that holds the foundation of our wonderful city.

All photos in this article are by Ian F.G. Dunn.

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