The New Mystery: Ottawa Street


Just a few weeks ago I began the first whole-house renovation on the books – my first since opening 4/1, but not my first, I should note – and the building itself is such a mystery that it nearly deserves its own blog.

Located over in the Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, it is part of the expansion to the historic district that my good friend Heather worked on a number of years ago and just down the street from 501 Oakwood.  Like many of the properties in the area, it was cheap, unloved rental housing for some time, and shows it.  Chopped up with little regard to the original form, there are odd hallways and skinny passages everywhere.  The biggest puzzle to me was the front staircase: an enclosed stair that crosses over the front door’s sidelight leads to the upstairs apartment, and there is no evidence of stairs anywhere else.

Then, an odd piece of information: the Sanborn maps show a one-story house in 1913, and a two-story house in 1937.  Usually I’d assume one had been torn down and replaced, but with oddly similar footprints, matching locations, and the weird staircase issue… well, now we’re onto something.

From what I can figure out, this house was built as a one-story, pyramidal roofed, five-room house sometime around 1905 or 1910, probably with a simplified Victorian style. Sometime between then and the 1937 Sanborns were drawn, someone did a major renovation, making it sort of a foursquare colonial number.  Exactly when did it happen?  I’m not quite sure – it’s one of the things I’m digging for right now.  Single residents are listed in the 1915, 1919, and 1923 city directories; the first that lists two (that I have access to without a library trip) is 1938 – and one Mr. Donald Burke, confectioner, was there from ’23 through ’38.

Lots of houses through Durham were modified in that muddy period of the late ’20s and early 30’s, very much fueled by the Depression.  It’s a tricky era to evaluate, as much of the woodwork matched that done ten or fifteen years earlier – they did not really start cutting corners on trim until later.  I have walked through houses that people swore were built as duplexes, because the trim was consistent throughout, even though the whole idea was ridiculous.

Anyway, the brave homeowners are going to be redoing this house into a single-family home again, and one of our big challenges is where to locate the staircase.  A site visit from the State Historic Preservation Office gave me some help, and we have proposed a new staircase in the front room that wraps back and over the front door.  While we wait, I keep mulling over the history, and trying to come up with other ways to discover what happened eighty years ago.  Perhaps when demolition starts, the framing will tell us everything?

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