Neighborhood History

Oakwood, the only intact nineteenth century neighborhood in Raleigh, was built in the dense woods of Northeast Raleigh known as “Mordecai Grove” and sold off in parcels after the Civil War to individuals and developers such as Col. J. M. Heck, Richard Stanhope Pullen, W. C. and A. B. Stronach, and Thomas H. Briggs. The variety of Victorian architectural styles represented in the neighborhood reflects the middle-class tastes of business and political leaders of Raleigh for whom the homes were built, as well as the skills of architects and builders.

Following World War I, as the automobile came into general use and fashionable neighborhoods developed in Raleigh's outskirts, second generation Oakwood residents moved away. Many of the large residences became boarding or apartment houses. This depressed economic state preserved the houses from destructive modernization, but not from deterioration.

By 1970 the area appeared destined for urban renewal. In 1970 and 1971, however, the rehabilitation of several houses sparked a general neighborhood revitalization. The 1972 announcement of a major thoroughfare planned through the heart of the neighborhood united residents, and the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood, a non-profit corporation, was formed. The thoroughfare plan was thwarted, and the neighborhood revitalization continues to this day.

As you walk through Historic Oakwood, you will notice the trends in architecture reflecting individual tastes throughout the years, as well as features common to most houses built in this Southern climate.

About the time of the Civil War, the Neo-Classical style of architecture was popular. This style was patterned after the ancient Greek temples with their large heavy columns topped with ornate capitals. The 1870s saw a trend to a style “imported” from France, the Second Empire, a pompous style typified by Mansard roofs. Coming into the 1880s and 1890s the Victorians looked to England for a new type of architecture, the Queen Anne style. Queen Anne architecture sought to delight the eye with contrasting elevations, uses of texture and color, and free “romantic” forms. After the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, architecture saw a reversion back to the historic styles of the Greeks and Romans in the Neo-Classical Revival style. The architects were once again striving for correctness of form and symmetry.

Although most of the homes in Historic Oakwood reflect individual tastes and differences in architecture, there are many common denominators. The architectural styles were modified for a Southern climate. Better than 90 percent of the houses have at least one porch. The roofs have a deep pitch in order to form large attics for added insulation. Latticework appears on rear service porches and under the houses to maintain circulation of air on warm summer days.

There are other interesting features to watch for in a walk through the neighborhood. Low walls, sometimes of granite, on the property lines of many houses were used to demarcate the property. Some of the homes still retain the blue porch ceilings to resemble the sky and, according to Southern folklore, to scare flies away. The transoms and sidelights seen often on the homes, were methods of lighting the hallways before electricity. Decorative and unusual vents in the attics were also a reflection of the individual tastes of Victorian homeowners. 

Historic Oakwood is now one of Raleigh's tourist attractions. In recognition of Oakwood's importance as a valuable tangible reminder of Southern urban life during the 19th and 20th centuries, the neighborhood has been listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1974, the City of Raleigh designated Oakwood as its first “local historic district” to ensure the physical charm and special character of the neighborhood is maintained. As part of the designation, all exterior changes to the homes are subject to design review by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.