A New Kind of Habitat

Annual preservation awards recognize top accomplishments

Habitat
One of historic Cherry Street buildings in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Credit: Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County

Winston-Salem, N.C.'s historic Cherry Street neighborhood, established in the 1920s as a haven for middle-class African Americans, has suffered from a host of ills in recent years—crime, blight, and neglect. Sylvia Oberle witnessed the decline firsthand as director of a city-wide violence-prevention initiative. After she took a new job as executive director of the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, she saw an opportunity to help spur community revitalization by building affordable housing.

Although Habitat is known for building new housing rather than restoring historic structures (80 percent of the housing constructed by the international nonprofit is new), Oberle wanted to preserve the historic character of Cherry Street, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "We think that Habitat and preservationists can exist hand-in-hand, and should," she says.

Oberle worked with city officials and members of the state historic preservation office to buy houses and vacant lots in a three-block area, then persuaded two private developers to risk their own capital to restore historic structures there. She also agreed to build 15 new houses and received city permission to demolish five houses that were beyond repair.

Principals from Landmark Group, a development company lauded for its preservation projects, agreed to restore three historic Y-stair apartment buildings (one of which is pictured above). And local real estate agent Jeff MacIntosh, who has directed several successful renovation projects, signed on to restore six single-family houses, including a classic Craftsman bungalow.

Oberle understood that the new housing needed to be sympathetic to the historic character of the neighborhood, MacIntosh says. Indeed, she worked with an architect to develop a master plan.

Work on the houses began on an April morning when more than 500 volunteers descended on the neighborhood. Oberle watched new structures go up alongside the old Y-stair buildings, and spoke about how important saving the historic structures will be to the neighborhood. "If we had come in here and torn everything down, people would have opposed our plan," she says. "Seeing all of this come together, right in the midst of this community, is wonderful."

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