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For just $29,000, you can own a two-story, century-old Victorian home just minutes from downtown Raleigh.
The catch? The historic Villa Florenza has been vacant and deteriorating since the last occupant left in 1997. Repairs could run at least $200,000, preservation experts estimate. And the neighborhood is no Oakwood. The house is a few doors down from a check cashing business in Southeast Raleigh.
City inspectors have condemned the house several times, and if it doesn’t have a buyer by Dec. 31, it’ll be torn down. Preservation North Carolina director J. Myrick Howard says that would be a big loss for Raleigh’s history.
“It’s a pretty rare survivor of the middle class African-American community from the early 20th century,” Howard said. “That house would fit in perfectly in Boylan Heights, Cameron Park or Glenwood ... but at that time, we had a totally segregated residential pattern.”
When William A. Curtis built the house in 1915, the Lincoln Park neighborhood between New Bern Avenue and what’s now Poole Road was outside city limits. The lot sat on the line between white and black sections of Raleigh at the height of the Jim Crow era.
Curtis drove a delivery wagon, sold produce at City Market and worked at a Blount Street laundry – enough to become relatively wealthy for a black man in the early 20th century.
“This was a real African-American entrepreneur who made good and built a very impressive house that is a landmark on Poole Road,” said M. Ruth Little, who researched the family for a historic designation application. “It deserves to be restored and usable.”
At 2,500 square feet, Villa Florenza has been the largest house on the block throughout its history. Most neighbors were renters, some leasing property from Curtis. He stayed in the house until his death in 1965. His sister Florence – who gave the home its Italian-sounding name – lived there with other family members in the following decades.
The last Curtis family member to own the house died without a will, leaving a complicated estate settlement that dragged on for years. “The family had to go through a legal proceeding because one of the heirs, they don’t have any way of contacting,” Howard said.
In the 15 years the house has been vacant, the roof has sprung major leaks, rotting away some of the ceilings and walls. The paint is peeling, and the wraparound porch is sagging. It’s been boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link fence sporting a condemnation notice.
“The family had had good intentions that someday one of them could (fix it up), but it had gotten beyond their ability to do it,” Howard said.
Family members finally put Villa Florenza on the market in August, enlisting Preservation North Carolina to help find a buyer. The nonprofit also helped secure extensions from the city’s inspections department, but Howard figures Dec. 31 is the final deadline.
To save the house from the wrecking ball, a buyer would need to fix the roof and repair water damage. Howard said a small addition on the back of the house would need to be razed and replaced with a modern kitchen.
Overall though, it’s structurally sound, with many of the original doors, fireplaces and mantels still in good shape. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so renovation costs would be eligible for tax credits.
The location, however, could make Villa Florenza a hard sell.
“This house in Oakwood or Cameron Park would be very easy to find a buyer,” Howard said.