Jacqueline Key knew before she moved to Chapel Hill that she wanted to continue raising her family in an old house.
Four of the six years she and her husband, Jeff, lived in a historical Huntington cottage on Long Island, they were renovating it. Key, who left a career as a textile designer and colorist to raise their children, enjoyed the restoration challenge.
After the Keys came to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2004 and Jeff, a business strategist, took a job with Tekelec in Raleigh, Jacqueline searched for that next project. The homes she was shown in the historical districts as well as Meadowmont and Southern Village were nice, but they didnít offer what she wanted for her children, Henrietta and Oliver, now 11 and 9, respectively.
"I wanted an older house," Key said. "My dream was to have a house with a fireplace in the dining room."
While staying at the Windy Oaks Inn on Old Lystra Road, the London native had no idea how close she was to the newly renovated Smith-Cole Plantation a few miles away on Smith Level Road.
Back at home, she found the house online. The price had been dropped to within their price range. She took a virtual tour and asked Jeff to check it out on his next trip.
He saw it and then called her.
"Youíre gonna love it!" Key remembers him saying.
It had been on the market for six months without a nibble.
The price drop caused quite a stir.
"Two others were interested," Key said.
She would have to make a silent bid.
She HAD to have the house ó nothing else in the area interested her. The renovator
Diane Eckland grew up here and, as a restorer of old homes, had watched the deterioration of the house believed to be the largest antebellum home in Chapel Hill township.
One day a friend told her it was for sale.
"As soon as I saw it, I did everything I could to be able to buy it," Eckland said. "I would have done it for free. Iíve been restoring old houses 26 years . . . there were so many things Iíd never seen before."
Like the way the peg-and-groove house, built in the 1840s, was constructed without nails; the quality of the solid oak; the different-sized baseboards hand-cut to fit the angles in the floor.
"There was a perfect level line all the way around the dining room. It fit perfectly like a glove, the house had moved very little in over a hundred years," Eckland said.
In the attic she found bills of sale for the lumber that had come from Virginia by horse and buggy; and for the 37 windows that cost a total of $350.
"It was grand but simple, the craftsmanship exquisite," Eckland said.
During the six months she worked on the house, she learned more tidbits about its history.
"Almost every day, people would stop by and tell us about the house and how happy they were it was being fixed up," Eckland said. One of the visitors, Barbara Cole Guthrie, knew a lot about it.
"It was cute," Eckland said. "Barbara would come every few weeks and hang out at the house for a couple of hours.
She came on her birthday ó she was born in the guest bedroom. She was real happy with everything we were doing."Born there
Guthrie and her sisters were the last of the Cole family to own the property. They inherited it from their father, George Cole, who was born there after his father, who had worked for the Smith family as farm manager, bought the property.
"When (the Smiths) died, it was sold and a few years after that my grandfather bought part of it," Guthrie said from her home in Durham.
The original owner was Dr. James S. Smith, a congressman and N.C. legislator, who bought the 1,400-acre Price Creek Plantation. As a trustee of the University of North Carolina, he offered 1,000 acres (in Chatham County) for the campus but his offer was declined to keep the school in Chapel Hill.
George Cole was raised in the house until his father died and he and his mother moved to Durham to live with her sister. It sat empty, Guthrie said, until George, in his 30s, married Alice Womble; Guthrie would be the first of three girls born and raised there. George Cole lived there until 1996, spending the last three years of his life at Alterra Wynwood.
In 1999, the Cole sisters sold the remaining 105 acres (years before George had sold acreage for the development of Heritage Hills), which were split into 10-acre lots including the one with the house, which Eckland bought.
Among Guthrieís many memories of her childhood are the trees on the property. Besides the huge oaks between the house and the road, there were four smaller trees near the house, one planted and named after each of the four children growing up in the house during her fatherís childhood, of which George was the last survivor.
"In the last 25 years all of them that were named were gone, except my Dadís," Guthrie said. "Itís the maple near the kitchen thatís still standing."Getting it
As Eckland neared completion of the project that was so close to her heart, she decided to have an open house for all the people who had stopped by. She put two announcement signs in the front yard just before Christmas 2003 and was blown away when 600 people showed up, filling the house. Then the house sat until, "virtually" simultaneously, Eckland dropped the price. Key found it and the bidding war began.
"We got six offers in two days," Eckland said. "We ended up selling it for about what we had originally asked for it."
With Jeff traveling, Key arrived at RDU for the closing. "Gary Saleeby, the Realtor I worked with, was very brave," Key said. "He met me at the airport and brought me here, a woman whoís bought a house and never seen it."
It didnít matter. There was the fireplace in the dining room; plenty of room for dogs, children and gardens; and pristine palettes for the artist to paint and decorate.
"I was really attached to the house and nervous about the closing," Eckland remembers. "I was crying . . . it was pretty embarrassing. Since then Iíve gotten to know them. Theyíre perfect for the house. We couldnít have gotten better."
Learn more about the Smith history in Pauli Murrayís book, "Proud Shoes." Among Murrayís many accomplishments was being ordained the first black female Episcopalian priest. Her grandmother and mother were also born at the plantation.Contact Valarie Schwartz at email@example.com or 923-3746.
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