The 1820 John Johnston House in Caswell County: An Immaculate Little Cottage on the National Register, $118,500

3125 nc hwy 62 north blanch

Update: The owners accepted an offer May 30, two days after putting the house up for sale.

Caswell County has some of the grandest antebellum mansions in the state. The John Johnston House is something quite different and more rare. “Though members of the Johnston family were prominent in social and economic affairs in Caswell County from the eighteenth century onward, the significance of the house derives less from the specific historical contributions of its occupants than from its representation of a class of plantation residence that has rarely been preserved,” the home’s 1997 National Register nomination says.

“Although a number of the county’s great plantation houses are maintained in good condition, many of the modest, well-crafted Federal-inspired dwellings that once housed early nineteenth-century small planters have followed a typical progression of conversion to tenant houses, then to produce or equipment shelters, and finally, to abandonment and neglect.”

The Johnston House went pretty far down that road, too, but it was rescued by a preservationist who could see past a coat of 20th-century stucco and tacked-on porches. Today, it’s a gorgeous little cottage for sale at $118,500. The address is 3125 N.C. Highway 62 North, Blanch, near the Hamer community.

The house has two bedrooms, one bathroom and, officially, 937 square feet ($126/square foot). The house’s 1990 renovation added a rear ell with a modern kitchen and bathroom. The second floor has an additional 486 square feet that can’t be counted for statistical purposes because the ceiling is only 6 feet, 10 inches high. But it’s heated, air conditioned and perfectly livable. Which means you could look at it as $83/square foot, an amazing price for a meticulously restored 19th century home on the National Register.

“As a result of the restoration, all early twentieth-century alterations were reversed, including the removal of the stucco and porches from all facades,” the nominations states. “The stucco was probably applied during the 1910s or 1920s, reflecting a common treatment of many other Caswell County buildings. The original beaded lapboard siding and window framing, which were deteriorated beyond repair, were replicated and milled to closely resemble the historic.”

The interior received the same attention to detail.  “Narrow horizontal wood sheathing, perhaps of the 1920s era, was removed from the first-floor interior walls along with the greatly deteriorated plaster throughout the house. Plaster-like sheetrock was installed over the walls and ceilings. When the wood sheathing was removed from the first level walls, ghostmark evidence of chair rail molding was revealed. The molding profile was reproduced using remnants of chair rail molding that remained on the upper floor as a pattern. The missing sections of chair rail and baseboard on the upper floor were carefully replicated in the same manner. … Although new five-inch-wide pine floor boards were installed perpendicularly over the original boards on the first floor in 1970, the original five-inch-wide pine boards remain intact throughout both levels of the house.”

From John Johnston to Hilda Brody

John Johnston built his farmhouse around 1820 just north of Yanceyville. He was a first-generation American of Scotch-Irish descent. His gloriously named father, Dr. Lancelot Johnston, came over from Fermanagh County, Ireland, and served as a physician with the Continental Army. John’s acreage totaled as much as 500 acres, but he never built a bigger house for himself and his family. He and his wife Fanny had at least four and perhaps six children who reached adulthood. Son Thomas became one of the richest people in Caswell before the Civil War and built Clarendon House in Yanceyville, one of the grandest houses still standing in the county.

John died in 1860, and his second wife, Nancy, in 1872.  The house had several owners before J.E. Zimmerman bought it in 1921. His heirs sold the property in 1970. “A small parcel containing the old house saw a couple of short term owners until — long abandoned and deteriorated — the house was purchased in the late 1980s by Hilda Brody, who owned nearby Melrose Plantation and recognized the house for what it had been and what it might be again,” the National Register nomination says. “Her restoration was completed in 1990, and received an Award of Merit from the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina in 1995.”

Hilda, a true preservation hero, also was a co-founder of the Animal Protection Society in Yanceyville, God bless her.

Real estate listing for 3125 N.C. Highway 62
National Register nomination

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From An Inventory of Historic Architecture: Caswell County, North Carolina, Ruth Little-Stokes and Tony P. Wrenn (1979). The Johnston House, then associated with longtime owner J.E. Zimmerman, was still a decade away from being  restored. Click the image for an entry from the invaluable Caswell County Historical Association blog.

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The 1925 John Ehle-Rosemary Harris House in Winston-Salem Is Sold Without Being Listed

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Even with the shutdown of the economy in recent weeks, the market for historic homes in the Piedmont has been ticking along. Activity has been a bit slower than you would expect in the spring, but houses are still coming onto the market, offers are being made and accepted (sometimes very quickly) and sales are closing.

In Winston-Salem, one of the most remarkable houses sold in the past two months is 125 N. Westview Drive, the home of one of the city’s most significant families of artists — John Ehle, Rosemary Harris Ehle and Jennifer Ehle.  The Buena Vista mansion was sold without being listed. The sale closed April 15 for $910,000, a modest $108 per square foot. A listing belatedly posted this week includes only the photo above (Google Street View isn’t any help).

Novelist John Ehle and actress Rosemary Harris Ehle bought the Spanish Revival home in 1969. They were apparently only the second owners of the 8,400 square-foot mansion (the deeds aren’t available online to prove it). It was designed by Charles Barton Keen and built in 1925. An intriguing house, it has a pink stucco exterior and red Ludowici-Celedon tile roof. It sits on two prime acres of Buena Vista.

John Ehle was a novelist, known as “the father of Appalachian literature,” and government official. He published 11 novels, including a seven-book series set in the Appalachians that started with The Land Breakers. He also wrote six non-fiction books. He was named to the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 1997. “Filled with a respectful awareness of the drama of everyday lives, his books were written in a style that critics said ‘portrays without frills or frippery … not the glories of the day but the hardships,’” the hall of fame’s website says. “His respect for the dignity of his subjects, fictional and non-fictional, was a common thread running through all of his work.”

Ehle served as an assistant to Gov. Terry Sanford and was a major figure in establishing the N.C. School of the Arts, the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, the N.C. Governors School and the North Carolina Fund, a major anti-poverty initiative. He also worked in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, serving as an advisor to the White House Group for Domestic Affairs, a member of the U.S. National Committee for UNESCO and the National Council for Humanities. Ehle was born in Asheville. He died in Winston-Salem in 2018 at age 92.

English actress Rosemary Harris married Ehle in 1967. She has been a major figure in British and U.S. theatre and films since the 1950s. She has won two Tony awards, Best Actress in a Play for The Lion in Winter in 1966 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. She received an Emmy Award in 1976 as best leading actress in a mini-series for Notorious Woman and an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress in 1994 for Tom and Viv. She also played Aunt May in the first three Spider-Man movies. She returned to Broadway in 2018 to play Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady, taking over the role from Diana Rigg. Harris is a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame, where her peers include contemporaries such as Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith. She has split her time between Winston-Salem and New York since her marriage; she now plans to live in New York.

Their daughter, actress Jennifer Ehle, also has won the Tony Award twice, both for roles in plays by Tom Stoppard — Best Actress in a Play for The Real Thing in 2000 and Best Featured Actress in a Play for The Coast of Utopia in 2007. She received a BAFTA TV award for Best Actress as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s miniseries Pride and Prejudice in 1995. Among the films she has appeared in are The King’s Speech, Contagion and Zero Dark Thirty. She attended the N.C. School of the Arts and the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She now lives in upstate New York.

John and Rosemary Harris Ehle (photo from the UNC School of the Arts)

Historic-Home Buyers Are Moving Fast, and Sellers Are Accepting Offers in Days Rather Than Months

Updated with closings June 1, 2020

Like the daffodils that started blooming before this winter’s first snow, spring home-buyers are rushing out early this year. New listings of historic homes in the Triad are being scooped up as many sellers are pricing their homes just right and buyers are jumping at the opportunity.

The majority of these homes are in the more affordable end of the price range, under $300,000, although there are some conspicuous exceptions. Also, these homes are mostly in the larger cities (especially Winston-Salem — what’s going on over there?). Quick sales aren’t happening much in the Piedmont’s smaller towns and rural areas.

Although the fast sales are eye-catching, older listings are moving a bit, too. Since January 1, sellers have accepted offers on historic homes originally listed in 2016 and 2017 (one each), 2018 (two) and four 2019 listings that are at least a year old.

Here are 23 historic homes newly listed in January and February that resulted in offers being accepted in 15 days or less. Six sales have already closed. Twenty sales had closed by June 1. Among the outliers, one was under contract for the fourth time, one for the third, and one had been under contract for four months.

2020 Buena Vista Road, Winston-Salem, same day

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  • Sold for $1.65 million on March 31 (originally $1.68 million)
  • Listed February 19
  • Under contract February 19
  • 1922 mansion
  • Note: Million-dollar houses are always a slower-moving segment of the market; exceptions like this are pretty rare.

408 S. Main Street, Lexington, 15 days

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  • Sold for $425,000 on March 31, 2020 (listed at $435,000)
  • Listed January 15
  • Under contract January 30
  • 1834 mansion
  • Note: Located in downtown Lexington, it’s also being marketed as a potential b-and-b or wedding venue.

417 Woodlawn Avenue, Greensboro, 3 days

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  • Sold for $349,900 on March 2, 2020 (listed t $349,900)
  • Listed January 17
  • Under contract January 20
  • 1920 home
  • Neighborhood: Westerwood, one of Greensboro’s most popular

413 McAdoo Street, Greensboro, 8 days

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  • $310,000
  • Listed January 16
  • Under contract January 24-February 7
  • Under contract again February 10 to March 3, 2020
  • Under contract again May 4
  • 1935 home
  • Neighborhood: Southside, a small, popular downtown neighborhood where houses go on the market very infrequently

407 S. Chapman Street, Greensboro, 1 day

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  • Sold for $290,000 on March 26, 2020 (listed at $289,900)
  • Listed February 13
  • Under contract February 14
  • 1930 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: Sunset Hills, traditionally a very popular neighborhood

722 W. Davis Street, Burlington, 3 days

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  • Sold for $280,000 on January 31, 2020 (listed at $280,000)
  • Listed January 7, 2020
  • Under contract January 10
  • 1923 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: West Davis/Fountain Place Historic District

1309 Clover Street, Winston-Salem, 6 days

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  • Sold for $279,000 on February 18, 2020 (listed at $269,900)
  • Listed January 7, 2020
  • Under contract January 13
  • 1925 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: West End Historic District

134 N. Sunset Drive, Winston-Salem, 6 days

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  • Sold for $276,000 on March 26, 2020 (listed at $268,000)
  • Listed February 12
  • Under contract February 18
  • 1920 home
  • Neighborhood: West End Historic District

1275 Westminster Drive, High Point, 5 days

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  • Sold for $265,000 on March 13, 2020 (listed at $265,000)
  • Listed February 8
  • Under contract February 13
  • 1966 Mid-Century Modern
  • Neighborhood: Emerywood Forest

1601 Wilton Drive, Greensboro, 5 days

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  • Sold for $259,900 on February 18, 2020 (listed at $259,900)
  • Listed January 7
  • Under contract January 12, closed February 18 for full price
  • 1959, Mid-Century Modern
  • Neighborhood: New Irving Park

919 Rotary Drive, High Point, same day

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  • $240,000
  • Listed February 19
  • Under contract February 19 to March 3, 2020
  • Under contract March 7 to March 16, 2020
  • Under contract March 25, 2020 to April 3, 2020
  • Under contract May 21, 2020
  • 1935 home
  • Neighborhood: Emerywood

1113 Clyde Place, High Point, 13 days

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  • Sold for $231,000 on February 26, 2020 (listed at $225,000)
  • Listed January 24
  • Under contract February 6
  • 1924 home
  • Note: A fix-and-flip sale

107 Devonshire Street, Winston-Salem, 3 days

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  • Sold for $227,000 on April 13, 2020 (listed at $224,900)
  • Listed February 18
  • Under contract February 21
  • 1940 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: Washington Park

836 Oak Street, Unit 506, Winston-Salem, 11 days

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  • Sold for $170,000 on March 6, 2020 (listed at $175,000)
  • Listed January 30
  • Under contract February 10
  • 1920 condo
  • Neighborhood: Downtown

611 Trollinger Street, Burlington, 4 days

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  • Sold for $182,000 on March 5, 2020 (listed at $175,000)
  • Listed February 5
  • Under contract February 9
  • 1919 home
  • Neighborhood: West Davis/Fountain Place Historic District

722 Granville Drive, Winston-Salem, 6 days

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  • $169,000
  • Listed January 24
  • Under contract January 30
  • 1916 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: West Salem

1107 W. Bank Street, Winston-Salem, 2 days

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  • Sold for $171,250 on March 31, 2020 (listed at $169,000)
  • Listed February 19
  • Under contract February 21
  • 1931 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: West Salem

371 Gwyn Avenue, Elkin, 10 days

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  • Sold for $145,550 on February 10, 2020 (listed at $143,500)
  • Listed January 13
  • Under contract January 23
  • 1919 home
  • Note: Bankruptcy sale

1809 Hattie Circle, Winston-Salem, 11 days

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  • Sold for $107,000 on March 24, 2020 (listed at $105,900)
  • Listed January 27
  • Under contract February 7
  • 1958 Mid-Century Modern
  • Note: Designed by Lamar Northrup; the house hasn’t been sold since it was built.

222 Hames Street, Lexington, 8 days

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  • Sold for $52,000 on April 3, 2020 (listed at $57,000)
  • Listed January 21
  • Under contract January 29
  • 1917 bungalow
  • Neighborhood: Erlanger Mills

921 Thurmond Street, Winston-Salem, 7 days

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  • Sold for $55,500 on January 31, 2020 (listed at $55,500)
  • Listed January 13
  • Under contract January 20, closed January 31 (full price)
  • 1915 restoration
  • Neighborhood: Northwest Winston-Salem

7930 Shallowford Road, Lewisville, 4 days

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  • Sold for $40,000 on March 5, 2020 (listed at $50,000)
  • Listed January 7
  • Under contract January 11
  • 1898 restoration
  • Note: The owner is writing off the house — “No value being given to home. Would make a nice building site …”

1326 Bretton Street, Winston-Salem, 1 day

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  • Sold for $20,000 on January 17, 2020 (listed at $15,000)
  • Listed January 10
  • Under contract January 11
  • 1924 restoration
  • Neighborhood: Waughtown

Villa Fortuna: An Eclectic 1888 National Register Property in Reidsville, $99,900

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The Jennings-Baker House, also known as Villa Fortuna, is one of the most affordable National Register properties you’re likely to see. Accordingly, it also needs more work than most National Register properties. It’s not a complete wreck, though, and some of its charm has stood up to the years very well.

The brick exterior is notably elaborate. The National Register nomination calls Villa Fortuna a distinctive and vernacular mix of styles — Gothic Revival, Italianate and more — that were popular in the mid-19th century. The current real estate listing says it’s simply “the perfect blend of unpretentious elegance and a rustic urban farm,” although even an urban farmer might want more than the villa’s half acre.

The house is at 608 Vance Avenue in Reidsville. It was built in 1888. It has three bedrooms; one bathroom, more or less; and 1,548 square feet. It’s priced at $99,900, a bargain-basement $46 per square foot. It’s also a for-sale-by-owner deal.

The villa is near the Old Post Road Historic District, but, like the other houses on its block, it has fallen on hard times. The house was foreclosed upon in 2010 and then sold in 2011 for $25,000.

“The facing came off the back of the second story and squirrels got in and damaged the wiring in the ceiling of the purple bed room,” the listing says (the purple bedroom has to be seen to be appreciated, though the chewed-up wiring is hardly its most notable feature; see the photos below). “All 22 windows need to be replaced.” Or, in keeping with the historic stature of the house, the original windows could be repaired, if there are any left.

According to the 1986 National Register nomination, the first owner and probable builder of the house was William G. Jennings, a brick manufacturer. His trade may have figured prominently in the eclectic design of the house. The nomination cites “the possibility that Jennings may have intended his house as a sort of advertisement for what was then a young enterprise, exhibiting the products of his brick yard and demonstrating the masonry skills of his workers.”

The Reidsville Times carried this ad for the firm in 1887:

Manufacturers and Contractors of all kinds of Brick and Brickwork, and can also furnish
any one with fire proof Brick. Have none but the best of Workmen.

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Brick appears to have been relatively new in Reidsville. As of 1986, there were only six pre-1890 brick houses still surviving in the town, and the nomination says it’s unlikely that many more had been built.  Five are Italianate. “The Jennings-Baker House is a much more vernacular and personal expression of Victorian tastes, as it combines elements of several styles. The triangular patterned brickwork above windows and doors on the facade have a vaguely Gothic flavor, while the segmental arch openings on the side and rear elevations and in the ell … are typical of masonry construction of the period. The facade’s projecting bays and porch suggest the influence of architecture predominantly found at military institutions, while the corbel table on the facade and the parapeted side elevations of the main block are reminiscent of commercial architecture in the late nineteenth century.”

Brick stands up to the ages better than wood, so, aside from the misfortune at the back of the house, the exterior looks to be in reasonably good shape. Current photos show the interior requires at least some cosmetic work. “For the most part, the interior of the Jennings-Baker House is much more simply finished than the exterior,” the nomination states. “Common throughout the house are plaster walls, pine flooring, simple baseboards, four-panel doors with rim locks and china knobs and relatively plain though molded post and lintel mantels, all standard Victorian finish details.”

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Many older houses have an odd, inexplicable feature or two. But few old-house surprises have the stop-you-in-your-tracks quality that you’ll find in the purple bedroom.

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Through the years

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The house was bought by Avery Baker in 1905. It was owned by the Baker family for more than 50 years.
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An undated photo included in the 1986 National Register nomination
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A Google Street View photo from 2018

Current listing for Villa Fortuna

Rivermont in Eden: A Landmark 1936 Mansion on the Smith River, $650,000

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When the glory days of Rockingham and Caswell counties passed, they didn’t leave  much behind except some grand old houses. Rivermont in Eden is a relatively late example of the old mansions of Rockingham County (there are two others currently for sale and another under contract). Built in 1936, it’s move-in ready and all yours for $650,000.

With 5,200 square feet, the price works out to $124 per square foot, modest by mansion standards, especially for one that appears to be in such great shape. Rivermont has 5 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms and 2 half-baths. The address is 351 W. Meadow Road. The property comprises 15 acres on the Smith River in the Leaksville section of Eden (you know about Eden, right? Leaksville, Spray and Draper were three small towns that grew together and merged in 1967 to become the town of Eden).

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Rivermont was used by its last previous owners as an event and performance venue (Facebook page, last updated more than a year ago). The current owners bought the house in March 2019 for $400,000. They’ve made some renovations, secured designation for it as a local landmark in June 2019 and now have it for sale again (at a 62 percent mark-up).

Early in the 20th century, the land belonged to B. Frank Mebane, a grandson-in-law of Gov. John Motley Morehead. Mebane built a “log clubhouse” there in the 1920s. The property was bought by Frank Letcher Eggleston (1897-1980), who owned a tire store, and his wife, Mattie Sue Parker Eggleston (1904-1998). They hired prominent Danville architect J. Bryant Heard to design their home.

“The property is locally significant  as a largely intact example of a large, stately Colonial Revival style home,” the landmark ordinance states. “The house is well set back of the road and is accessed by a long circular driveway lined with mature boxwoods. Originally, there was a large riding ring for horses that were kept in stables on the property (no longer standing). The grounds were landscaped with 1,500 English boxwoods as well as native shrubs and large trees.

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“The house is an elegant, painted brick, Colonial Revival style house with a two-story gable roofed center main block with flanking one-story wings. The five-bay wide main block has a full-height porch topped by a balustrade, with six large columns which were imported from England. The front entrance has a paneled door with leaded glass sidelights. The main block has an exterior chimney on either end. The right wing houses the kitchen and servants area as well as a garage and has a recessed arched loggia with smaller columns which were also imported from England. There is a two-car garage addition on the rear of this wing. The left side wing contains the family room and features a conservatory with a bellcast roof. The house is lit by eight-over-eight casement windows. The third floor once served as an enormous playroom. The house has gabled and hip roofs covered with slate shingles. Slate is also used for the walkways and patios.

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“The main block of the house contains the living areas on the first floor and bedrooms on the second floor. the living and dining rooms feature handmade Williamsburg-style cornices. the entry hall features arched doorways and an elegant flying staircase. There are several fireplaces with original details. the family room has a wall of built-in bookcases.”

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Rivermont was built just after colored bathroom fixtures were developed.

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294 West End Boulevard: A 1920 Craftsman Gem in Winston-Salem, $445,000

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The last time 294 West End Boulevard was sold, it went for $65,000. That was in 1984, and the West End has changed a lot since then. The house went on the market today for $445,000. It’s a beautifully restored Craftsman; the price is in line with a similarly impressive Craftsman in the West End that’s also for sale now, 701 Manly Street, and other well-restored houses in the historic district over the past year.

294 West End sits well above the street with a stone retaining wall and broad stone steps at the sidewalk. It has 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms and 2,713 square feet ($164 per square foot). The interior is beautifully restored with what look to be the original mantels, balustrades and other Craftsman touches. The kitchen and bathrooms are modern.

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“The well-preserved Brown House is a handsome Craftsman style foursquare dwelling typical of its 1920 construction date,” the West End nomination to the National Register states.

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“The house has a weather-boarded first story, a wood shingled second story, a low hip roof with overhanging eaves, and a matching front dormer. Windows are paired nine-over-one sash, and the multi-pane glass and wood panel entrance is flanked by sidelights. The broad wrap-around porch is detailed with paneled wood posts set on brick plinths connected by a plain balustrade.”

The house was built in 1920 by Hiram, Joseph and Seth Brown. “By 1921 the city directory listed various members of the Brown family at this address,” the neighborhood’s National Register nomination states. The Browns owned the house until 1938. The current owners may have owned the house longer than anyone else, 36 years this spring.

294 West End Boulevard listing

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An 1889 Restoration Candidate in Kernersville: The First Thing It Needs Is a Good, Sturdy Fence

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The owner of 4981 George West Road in Kernersville apparently doesn’t think much of the house. The listing mainly is concerned with two other things. One is how nice the flat, 1-acre lot would be for a home site. The other is this goat:

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Listing: “If there is an Old Billy Goat Gruff in the yard, RUN! He is the neighbors and shouldn’t be there!”

The goat lives nearby (supposed to, anyway) and may not appreciate having visitors on the turf he’s staked out. Since the neighbors haven’t put up a fence, that may well be the first thing a buyer will want to do. It also appears that the goat may be eating the house, so someone needs to get on it right away.

“This is a bit over an acre of FLAT land with a few old trees that would make a gorgeous homesite!” the owner says, seeming to overlook that it’s already a home site. The house was built in 1889, and from the outside it appears to have a bit of charm.

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It has 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom and 1,054 square feet. There are no pictures of the inside. The house has no heating or cooling systems. The asking price is $30,000 or an economical $29 per square foot. With some work, it could be a sweet little place, a home with more character than whatever a new owner is likely to come up with to replace it.

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The outbuilding seen above appears to be a neighbor’s, judging from the county GIS system photo below.

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The house has a Kernersville address, but it’s closer to Walkertown, just east of U.S. 158.

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