The Beautiful Few

Photo by Jennifer Robertson
Inside one of Raleigh’s rare Second Empire houses

Most Raleighites are likely familiar with the Second Empire architectural style from the grand, eponymous red brick restaurant on Hillsborough Street. But what they may not know is that there are just a handful of other Second Empire buildings that are also located downtown. The vacant Heck-Andrews house on Blount Street is one of them. And, at 304 Oakwood Ave., Carter Skinner and Chapman Williams are lucky enough to live in another.

Chapman Williams (left) and Carter Skinner (right). Photo by Jennifer Robertson.

Skinner and Williams have called the historic Oakwood neighborhood home for over two decades. In 2001, their current home’s Second Empire tower, sloping mansard roof and soaring 12-foot ceilings enticed them to move from a home they had built and lived in for six years on the corner of East and Franklin Streets.

“I love the long hall,” Skinner says on a tour of the three bedroom, three bath, 3,715- square-foot home’s upstairs. Soft winter sunlight spills into the hall through the arched window of the tower. “And I love this room, I think this master bed and bath suite is beautiful. It’s a big little house; it has a lot of volume, but not a lot of rooms.”

When Skinner and Williams moved into the home nearly 17 years ago, the couple quickly set to work on renovations. They created a spacious downstairs kitchen and family room suite through an addition, as well as an attached master bathroom out of a tiny fourth bedroom upstairs. They added new plumbing and electrical wiring, crown molding and mantels in the parlor-turned-dining room. Williams, a semi-retired interior designer, upholstered the home’s walls and made all the draperies.

“It was very spartan on the inside,” says Skinner, a residential designer, of the home before the six-month renovation process. Outside, the couple created a stunning English-style back garden that’s overlooked by an old pecan tree. A coat of paint and a new roof freshened up the home’s exterior in the last year.

Photo by Jennifer Robertson.
Photo by Jennifer Robertson.

A plaque next to the home’s front door says the house was built in 1875, but it likely was built a few years later, in 1879. Thomas Briggs—a prominent local builder and owner of downtown’s now-shuttered Briggs Hardware Store—built the home for its original owner, cotton broker Marcellus Parker and his large family. The home, which was converted into rental apartments in the 1950s, remained in the Parker family until 1985.

Skinner and Williams have decorated the home with a mix of pieces they’ve collected over the years and family heirlooms, including a massive gold-framed mirror over the mantel in the dining room—a piece from Skinner’s mother’s side of the family—and framed blueprints of Skinner’s paternal grandfather’s home in Durham. A painting of the couple by Durham artist William Branson overlooks a formal living room/study. And, at the back of the room, a cheekily decorated, closet-like bathroom is tucked away.

The beauty and grandeur of the Second Empire architectural style invokes a glamorous period in French history, during Napoleon III’s reign from 1852-1870. But there’s a reason Second Empire buildings are a rarity in the south. In the U.S., the style became popular in the 1860s, while the region was undergoing Reconstruction following the Civil War. Only the very wealthy could afford to build, and, by the 1880s, the style was falling out of favor, giving way to revival of the Queen Anne style and others.

Photo by Jennifer Robertson.

Today, Skinner and Williams look forward to Halloween in Oakwood, where hundreds, if not thousands, of local kids trick-or-treat, and to the holiday Candlelight Tours, where 3,500 people came through their elaborately-decorated home last December.

“We love Oakwood, it’s a real community,” Skinner says. “It’s a really welcoming group of people, a nice mix from different professions and different walks of life.”

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