Internationally known author John Grisham got permission from a Chapel Hill town board this week to close the book on four century-old cottages near the UNC campus.
The cottages are located on four separate lots behind the home at 704 E. Franklin St. that Grisham and his wife Renee bought last year. The four lots were purchased earlier this year, county records show. The Grishams want to replace the cottages with landscaping where their property backs up to the Battle Park forest.
The plan required Grisham to get Historic District Commission approval because the properties are located in the town’s oldest historic district, Franklin-Rosemary.
The commission approved Grisham’s plan Tuesday after two hours of debate but also voted to delay demolition by 365 days, the maximum time allowed under state law. Grisham, the commission and Preservation Chapel Hill are looking for someone to move the cottages to a new location.
A moving company has assessed the cottages and found they have some foundation and flooring issues but can be moved, Grisham’s architect Jim Spencer said. A successful move depends on the cost of finding a suitable location and bringing the houses up to current building code, he said.
Grisham, reached by email Wednesday, said his team is sorting through about 20 inquiries so far from people and groups interested in the cottages, including Habitat for Humanity. Chapel Hill and Orange County have been contacted to gauge their interest, he said.
“We are confident we can put the cottages to good use in our community,” Grisham said.
Both governments have made creating and preserving affordable housing a priority in recent years. Sherrill Hampton, the county’s director of Housing, Human Rights and Community Development, said she was not aware of the cottages but would be interested in learning more about them.
Among the potential sites is the Church of the Advocate on Homestead Road, where the Pee Wee Homes Collaborative is working to build three tiny affordable homes for homeless residents.
The church “got a lot of Facebook posts and emails in the last 24 hours,” the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck said. It’s an exciting idea, but they don’t know yet what it would take to restore the cottages, build new foundations and have more people living on the property, she said.
“I really think these little houses look great,” Fischbeck said, “and the thing is it would fit very well with our church,” which was relocated in 2012 from Germanton, North Carolina. “It’s awfully tempting and intriguing.”
Still some neighbors and commission members balked at Grisham’s plan, citing fears that losing those cottages would further erode Chapel Hill’s historic charm. The commission has debated similar renovations and demolitions planned for older properties for more than a decade, particularly as new owners bought into the town’s three historic districts.
The one-story homes were built in the 1920s from kits sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and range in size from 366 to 756 square feet. The neighborhood originally had 10 cottages, many of which were built by UNC to house new faculty after World War I.
“Constructed for young families, the area was known as ‘Baby Hollow’ because the professors that lived there averaged three children each,” Spencer wrote in application documents.
Five larger bungalow-style cottages were removed in 1971; the Chapel Hill Preservation Society helped restore and preserve a sixth house at 620 Park Place. Spencer noted that the four cottages set for demolition may have been built by the previous owners.
But the Grishams also are not interested in being in the rental business, Spencer said at the commission’s September meeting, and the cottages need some work.
“The bottom line is they want to move them off the site to use this for access to Battle Park and a landscaped area,” he said.
He advised the commission during an earlier meeting to look at the bigger picture of a district “in constant change.” Some properties were carved out of larger estates decades ago, because their owners wanted to have rental or ancillary property, he said.
“The land values vs. the usability of the kind of structures has gotten to be a difficult equation for a lot of people,” Spencer said. “If you want to be in the rental business and you want to maintain old cottages like this ... it’s a chore to you and it costs a lot, and without any significant improvement to these, I don’t think it’s really a viable thing.”
The Grishams bought the historic Pratt-Wells House last year and continue to make improvements. More than a dozen work trucks spilled out of the property and onto the street Wednesday as crews worked to repair and replace windows, roofing and other architectural elements.
While the Grishams’ primary home is in Charlottesville, Virginia, Grisham said, “Chapel Hill is a lovely getaway.”
His wife Renee Grisham already owns a condo near the Morehead Planetarium in downtown Chapel Hill, which she bought after resuming her studies at UNC in 2008, he said. They also stayed there while visiting their daughter when she attended UNC.
“Over the years, we have looked at several homes in the historic district but couldn’t find the right match until the spring of 2016, when we purchased the Pratt-Wells House,” Grisham said. “Renee serves on several boards and committees on campus and we’re in Chapel Hill all the time, especially during basketball season. Plus, our first grandchild lives in Raleigh.”
Chapel Hill also was the setting for Grisham’s latest novel, “Camino Island,” which features a title character, Mercer Mann, who is a fictional writing instructor at UNC. The book’s action takes place in many settings across downtown Chapel Hill and on campus.