Building a house often leads down unexpected roads, but the challenges architect Louis Cherry and Marsha Gordon faced were more unpredictable than most. Both say the design and construction phases paled in comparison to a different challenge: the legal battle to prevent the teardown of their new home.
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The couple started collaborating on the house in 2012, when they began scouring the historic Oakwood district of Raleigh, North Carolina, for a buildable site. "We were very lucky to find a very tiny lot that was empty, in the perfect neighborhood in proximity to downtown," says Marsha, an associate film professor at North Carolina State University. "Our goal was to build a just-right house—no bigger than it needed to be—and walk or ride bikes to downtown Raleigh in ten minutes."
The 50-by-100-foot lot is small, but that’s not unusual in Oakwood. Once the pair bought it, they began to define their needs. That included a shop for Louis—a woodworker and furniture maker, he milled and fabricated most of the joinery in the house—plus a studio, bath, and multifunctional space for living, cooking, and dining at ground level. One bedroom, two baths, and a den would make up the second story of the 2,150-square-foot house.
But in November 2013, just weeks after they broke ground, a neighbor appealed the house’s certificate of appropriateness, granted by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission (RHDC). At issue for the neighbor, who lived in a traditional house built in 2008, was the new home’s modern exterior, which Louis had designed.
Of all the styles in Oakwood—Victorian, Italianate, Greek Revival—Louis zeroed in on the language of the Arts and Crafts movement, reinterpreting it for the 21st century. "I felt it could be best adapted to my own sensibilities, like using local materials, simplicity, expression of structure—even the fenestration patterns," he says.
The 2013 appeal by the neighbor, who declined to comment for this story, was the opening salvo in a testy three-year battle that wound its way to the state’s supreme court, threatening demolition and halting work for months in 2014. "We were picking out tile when we realized we’d have to stop construction," Marsha says.
Calling the new home "garishly inappropriate," the neighbor’s appeal was to be heard by Raleigh’s Board of Adjustment. "The structure as proposed is incongruous to the Oakwood Historic District," the complaint stated. "It will harm the character of the neighborhood and contribute to erosion of the neighborhood’s value as an asset to its residents, to the surrounding communities, to the businesses it supports, to in-town and out-of-town visitors, and to the City as a whole."
Since Louis and Marsha had followed RHDC’s rules, and were told the appeal proceedings would be a formality, they did not attend the hearing, where the neighbor and her lawyer presented for three hours. After reviewing the argument, the BoA voted three-to-two to reverse the home’s certificate of appropriateness in February 2014.
At once, support for the couple poured in, from neighbors, from the media—most notably Paul Goldberger in Vanity Fair and Al Roker on Today—and from homeowners across the nation who had been subjected to similar cases of NIMBY-ism. North Carolina Modernist Houses established a legal defense fund for all threatened modern homes in the state. The couple would need that financial help, though their expenses would far exceed the approximately $25,000 the fund raised.
In April of 2014, Marsha and Louis obtained an injunction in Wake County Superior Court to allow construction to prevent damage to the structure. By August, the case was being heard in court. The couple’s attorney, Nick Fountain, was no stranger to design: A former chair of the RHDC’s Certificate of Appropriateness Committee, he owns the Fadum House, one of Raleigh’s iconic modern homes.
"Being embroiled in the legal situation added a lot of time to our building plan. It gave us the opportunity to think about our decisions and fine-tune the design." Louis Cherry, architect and resident
On September 15, 2014, Judge Elaine Bushfan ruled that the neighbor couldn’t prove she would "suffer an immediate or threatened injury distinct from the general community." It wasn’t the court’s place to reweigh the home’s appropriateness, she said, and, since procedure was followed, there was no ground for contesting the approval. Louis and Marsha immediately ramped up construction, but when they moved into the house in November 2014, it was no more finished than their case. After the neighbor appealed Bushfan’s decision, a state appeals court ruled in the couple’s favor in February 2016. Six months later, the state supreme court denied the neighbor’s petition for a second appeal.
"People have a right to express their desires," Louis says, now happily home. "If you’re not harming someone else, you can build the house of your dreams."