How NoDa residents are preserving their historic homes despite Charlotte development

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It was 2008, and the house next door to NoDa resident Dale Treml had just been bulldozed.

He wasn’t necessarily surprised: the subprime mortgage crisis was still to come, and modest homes built in the early 1900s (including the one beside his) were coming down left and right in the arts district, in the name of bigger and newer.

However, Treml and some of his neighbors on East 37th Street couldn’t help but feel like history was being erased right in front of their eyes.

“I really like old homes and the history and soul they have,” Treml said. His house, he said “is one of the better-preserved examples of this style of home in the mill village and that is exciting for me.”

Many of the neighbors, clustered together at 37th and Alexander streets, felt their historic homes were quickly becoming the rarity. They wondered if there was something that could be done to save them from ever being torn down, even by future generations.

Leigh McDonald, a neighbor who also owned an original mill-era home, had a friend who offered assistance. Mike Leonard, a conservationist, had recently received a protective easement on his home in Bethania, N.C., through Preservation North Carolina.

Leonard grew up in Charlotte and his father’s tire business was located just across the train tracks on 36th Street, so he knew all about NoDa’s history. “NoDa has a … uniqueness, the appearance and feel of an earlier time, a ‘lived in’ sense and aesthetic,” Leonard said. “NoDa also has a simpler, not ostentatious, proportionality that is refreshing.” He recommended McDonald and other neighbors contact the nonprofit preservation group.

Preservation North Carolina was founded in 1939 with the intent of protecting the state’s landscapes and structures. The organization works with properties, some of them in large states of disrepair, to restore and preserve the historical value, according to Western Regional Director Ted Alexander.

After the 2008 mortgage crisis, construction slowed in the area, so the neighbors put the idea on the back burner for some years — but the plan was not forgotten. Fast forward to 2017, and McDonald and Treml’s homes now officially have easements placed on their homes. Because of these easements, a portion of NoDa’s streetscape will be preserved through future generations. Other neighbors are in the process or are considering doing the same.

“One hundred years from now, a class of school children can walk down 37th Street and see what a mill house looks like as well as imagine what a mill village would have looked like,” McDonald said.

Leigh McDonald

What exactly is a protective easement?

According to Preservation North Carolina, an easement is a legal document between a homeowner and a preservation organization. It prevents a current or future homeowner from making changes that will alter the home’s historical value. The terms of the easement are to be decided between the parties at the time the documents are signed, so each home can have a unique set of rules. In return, the homeowner often qualifies for tax breaks and other financial incentives, assistance with deed paperwork and guidance for updating a historical home properly while preserving its value.

What an easement doesn’t do is prevent a homeowner from modernizing his or her home. On a recent Sunday, Treml made a pour-over coffee in his kitchen, which currently sports a huge window salvaged in 2008 from the teardown of the house next door. It also boasts new upper and lower cabinets, a full range of modern appliances and white subway tiles. When he moved in, the kitchen was made up of a sink, range and refrigerator.

“I am pretty proud to say I built all of the cabinets and counter tops myself,” he said.

Dale Treml

McDonald’s mill home includes an addition that she built with her husband, John Richards, after the two married in 2010. In their expansion, the couple chose to keep everything in the spirit of the original style.

“We scavenged old siding from mill houses being razed in NoDa at that time. And then we put the old siding on the newer part in the back, incorporating the materials of 1905 into the newer back of the house,” McDonald said.

They made two of their 13×13 rooms into one large room, then they added charming touches such as a sleeping porch off of an upstairs addition.

NoDa homes are a Charlotte icon

Community historian Tom Hanchett said NoDa, and mill villages in general, are central to why Charlotte is the city it is today. With NoDa being an old textile mill village, housing what was once the largest mill in North Carolina, the neighborhood made its mark on the city.

“The technology was cutting edge back in the day,” Hanchett said. “It was mills more than any single thing that catapulted Charlotte from being just another farm town. The mills were part of Charlotte, but the offices uptown were businessmen who serviced the mills with what they needed.”

Stewart Gray, Senior Preservation Planner of Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks, said he is thrilled to hear what NoDa homeowners are doing to preserve history. 

Charlotte is a city of growth, Gray continued, and older structures have become fewer and fewer as time goes on. “It’s not that we don’t have a lot of historic resources—we do; they just become a smaller and smaller percentage of our structures.”

Saving NoDa’s charm

NoDa specifically “is such an unusual neighborhood to have such a scale of housing. It’s such a pedestrian and walkable neighborhood, and the history of the houses ties in,” Preservation North Carolina’s Alexander said.

Alexander said his organization is currently working with five homeowners in NoDa, including McDonald and Treml, and the organization is interested in working with any other homeowners with mill-era homes.

Homeowners may qualify for federal or state tax credits, depending on the use of the property, according to Alexander. Generally speaking, there is a 15 percent North Carolina State Rehabilitation Credit. “They do have to meet the historic criteria, but it’s a great incentive,” he said.

Now is the time for homeowners to consider preservation, Treml emphasized. “It is important to consider all of the reasons why you wanted that home to begin with and consider taking steps to preserve that. Once that character is gone, it’s gone,” he said.

Have an old home?

Generally speaking, Preservation North Carolina is interested in working with homeowners whose homes are 50 years old or older. However, Ted Alexander, Western Regional Director, said they consider each home on a case-by-case basis. “We are certainly not adverse to protecting properties of later date that have architectural or historical significance,” he said.

Think you may have a qualifying home? Contact Alexander at (704) 482-3531 or talexander@presnc.org.

Also, visit Preservation North Carolina’s web site for more information.

Photos: Melissa Oyler

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