Explore Chatham’s History Through Its Architecture

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By Anne Tate | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Kimberly Steiner of Fearrington Village began a project with the Chatham County Historical Association in October 2019 to survey historic homes in Chatham County and preserve memories of places that played significant roles in the community’s history.

The long-term goal of the project is “to survey all homes within WilliamsBaldwinNew Hope and Center townships (including Pittsboro) that predate 1930, with some exceptions.” So far, she has surveyed all of Williams and New Hope townships and, though the pandemic temporarily paused the project, she hopes to complete the Baldwin and Center townships by the end of 2021.

“The historic homes of Chatham are a part of our county’s collective memory,” Kimberly says. “I believe it’s important to keep this memory alive because it tells the story of who we are as a community. It’s our identity, our common bond. Our history can bring us together and inspire us as we move forward.”

To celebrate Chatham’s 250th anniversary, we talked to the current homeowners of a handful of some of the county’s oldest homes. All have worked to maintain the historical integrity of each property while also leaving their own mark.

The Yellow House (Late 1700s)

Janet and Ray Carney in front of Patrick St. Lawrence House
Janet and Ray Carney purchased the Patrick St. Lawrence House in 2012 and have worked to carefully restore the home with historical accuracy.
1955 st lawrence picture sepia
Photo courtesy of Ray Carney

The Patrick St. Lawrence House, also known as the Yellow House for its original color, is Pittsboro’s oldest surviving home, according to “The Architectural Heritage of Chatham County, North Carolina’’ by Rachel Osborn and Ruth Selden-Sturgill. The structure was built between 1786 and 1792 by one of the town’s first commissioners, Patrick St. Lawrence, and was used as an inn and tavern for Chatham’s elite residents and visitors.

The house’s initial location faced the public square, next to a new courthouse. It has been relocated three times since then, finally ending up at the end of South Small Street among other historical houses.

Ray and Janet Carney were searching for a historical property to restore during their retirement when they purchased the former tavern in 2012. They put extensive work into its restoration, replacing decay and rot with detailed replications of the original structure – Ray even made reproductions of the moldings by hand. The couple worked to camouflage modern amenities like electrical, plumbing and heating components among historical elements to maintain the look of the 1800s to the highest degree possible, Ray says.

During the restoration, the Carneys discovered old script, woodworking tools and even silver shoe and sock buckles. The interior is 99% complete, Ray says, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on the exterior of the home.

Inside of the yellow house
Photography courtesy of Ray Carney
the inside of the yellow house
Photography courtesy of Ray Carney

A unique feature is the hinged panel wall that can be raised to transform a wide hallway and an adjacent room into one large room ideal for activities like dances, meetings and dining. Another highlight is the second-floor balcony above the front porch. “Imagine being back in the 1780s on the Fourth of July on the courthouse square,” Ray says.

But when it comes to Ray’s favorite part of the home, he can’t pinpoint any one thing. “All of it,” he says. “It’s like walking back into 1790.”

Joseph B. Stone House (1797)

Joseph B Stone House
Photo courtesy of Chatham County Historical Association

The Joseph B. Stone House off Farrington Road remains where it was built in 1797. The two-story home is on the National Register of Historic Places and is thought to have first been owned by either Francis Stone (Joseph B. Stone’s grandfather) or Thomas Revelry, Kimberly writes in her survey of the house. From her research, Kimberly found that the home passed to Joseph from his father, John Stone, in 1847. Joseph was a wealthy planter and slave owner who owned more than 1,000 acres in 1860. He lost much of his land after the Civil War and died in 1878. His daughter, Martha Fearrington, sold the home to her son in 1907. The home was a rental in the 1950s, and most of the original tract of land was claimed by the impoundment of Jordan Lake.

The historic house is a “superb example of a transitional Georgian/Federal-style Piedmont plantation residence,” according to “Architectural Heritage.” Archaeological remains of slave quarters and an outbuilding can also be found on the property, Kimberly writes.

Alston-DeGraffenreidt House (1810)

Alston DeGraffenreidt House
Photo courtesy of Chatham County Historical Association

The Alston-DeGraffenreidt House off U.S. 64 was constructed in two stages between 1810 and 1825. The Georgian/Federal plantation house was built for UNC graduate John Jones Alston, according to “Architectural Heritage.” As one of the largest landowners and slaveholders in the area, John served in the state House of Commons and was a prominent planter in Chatham County. Unique features of the two-story house include a detached kitchen, raised brick basement and large stone chimney.

The property is now used for Harland’s Creek Farm, a certified-organic business operated by Judy LesslerErasmo Flores and Yoli Nill Rios.

Lewis Freeman House (~1811)

Taylor Hobbs and Grim Hobbs stand outside the 2,700-square-foot Lewis Freeman House, which they carefully renovated to meet the needs of their office in 2016.
Lewis Freeman house
Photo courtesy of Chatham County Historical Association

The Lewis Freeman House, built sometime between 1811 and 1837, is one of four buildings remaining from Pittsboro’s earliest period of settlement, according to “Architectural Heritage.” The house stands on West Salisbury Street.

“Architectural Heritage” further explains that Lewis Freeman, a Black man who purchased his freedom in the early 1800s, owned the house and acquired 16 town lots and 20 acres of county land. According to CCHA research, Freeman owned an entire city block of Pittsboro.

The house, “Architectural Heritage” states, was originally a one-room, one-story, two-bay frame dwelling, but additions were made over the years.

Hobbs Architects purchased the house from the previous owner, the late historian Jane Pyle, in 2016 and renovated it into an office. Co-founders Grimsley Hobbs and Taylor Hobbs preserved the one-room structure, now used as a workspace, where the original fireplace remains. On the interior of the home, they uncovered some of the old siding and left it exposed as an accent wall. They expanded the outdoor space by adding a deck and renovated a historical 1870 cabin for more meeting room.

“Our job was to adapt it to our use without changing the historical character,” Grim says. “There’s a real spirit about this place. I think you come in here and feel it. Both Lewis Freeman and Jane Pyle.”

“It’s fun to know that we’re temporary caretakers of a long chain of history that we dipped into in 2016,” Taylor says.

A public park is being developed on the land behind the Freeman House at 56 Rectory St. to honor the legacy of one of Pittsboro’s most successful early settlers. The one-third acre plot, to be named the Lewis Freeman Historic Park, was donated by Jane, who also helped place the home on the National Register of Historic Places. A design for the park was approved, but construction is pending funding, Taylor says.

Terry-Taylor House (1830s)

Robert Cummings and Marie Hopper outside the home
Robert Cummings, Marie Hopper and their law firm ensured that the Terry-Taylor House maintained much of its original design.
Terry-taylor house
Photo courtesy of Chatham County Historical Association

The Terry-Taylor House was built around the 1830s, according to Jane’s research, but is not named after its builder or first owner. A.P. Terry bought the house in 1897 and sold it to Siewers P. Taylor in 1901. The Taylor family moved from Virginia to Chatham County at the time of the American Revolution. They had a lot of influence in the county and many connections to other notable Chatham families. Originally located on East Chatham Street, the house was used as one of Pittsboro’s earliest schools and was likely rented out, according to “Architectural Heritage.”

In 2011, the town moved the house two blocks from its location to South Small Street in order to build a new Chatham County Justice Center in its place. It’s now located next to the Patrick St. Lawrence House and is occupied by the Hopper Cummings law firm.

The firm acquired the house in August 2015 and took on the challenge of restoring and preserving it, keeping much of its true design. Attorney Marie Hopper was drawn to the house for its history, uniqueness and proximity to the courthouse, she says.

When the firm bought the house, its back wall was exposed due to the removal of its brick addition at its original location. Today, the wood paneling of the original back wall is left exposed, helping to distinguish the older parts of the house from the firm’s more recent add-ons. Visitors are often impressed by the wide- planked wood paneling and exposed beams in the house, Marie says.

Hopper home interior
A sheathed stair hall separates the main parlor from a more narrow parlor with a mantel that’s said to have originated in the neighboring McClenahan house.

During renovations, the firm added a conference room, kitchenette and bathroom while keeping the original rooms of the house as historically accurate as possible. The project wrapped up in August 2017 with guidance from the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina.

The firm’s goal is to make “the home into something that is usable and part of the community now and presently relevant,” Marie says.

Not all of Chatham County’s historical houses remain standing, but community members like Kimberly work to keep the memories of these places alive. New sites, like the Lewis Freeman Historic Park, add to this effort by continuing to preserve the legacies of those who came before us so that generations to come may know their stories.

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