The Raleigh City Council has supported historic preservation activities in the city through an appointed citizen commission since 1961, five years before the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. At that time the council formed the Historic Sites Commission--the first such body in the state--and allowed it limited powers to further preservation objectives within the municipal limits. The Commission incorporated in 1962 and gained its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status in 1965. Its first efforts were directed toward public education to raise awareness among citizens about the values of the community's historic places and the threats they faced.
By 1967, the Historic Sites Commission had gained enough experience to be instrumental in obtaining local legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly that allowed it broader powers. Among these powers was the right "to hold, manage, preserve, restore, improve and operate [historic properties]." This legislation was central to the success of the Commission's first major preservation initiative: securing the future of the threatened Mordecai House, which was acquired by the city in June of that year and turned over to the Commission to develop and supervise as a historic park. Again, the Historic Sites Commission had accomplished a pioneering preservation feat in North Carolina: the acquisition and restoration of a historic property by a municipality for the express purpose of preventing its demolition had never before occurred in North Carolina.
From 1967 to 1969, the Commission worked with the City Council to develop a plan for Mordecai Square and to submit a grant application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the restoration of Mordecai House. In May 1970, the city was awarded $29,750 which, along with funds raised locally, was used to restore the house. In April 1972 it was opened to the public. It was noted at the time that the Mordecai House had been in the possession of the descendants of its builder for 182 years until it was acquired by the City of Raleigh for the pleasure and enrichment of present and future generations.
To acquire the original Mordecai family furnishings and artifacts for the restored house, the Commission formed the Mordecai Square Historical Society, Inc. (now Capital Area Preservation, Inc.) in March 1972. The formation of the society was important for a number of reasons: municipalities cannot acquire and maintain antiques and artifacts; an organization was needed to provide volunteer docents and a means of broad citizen participation for the park; and a public-private partnership was needed to realize the potential of Mordecai Historic Park as an educational and preservation planning center for the city. As the park continued to develop, the scope of activities for both organizations broadened. The city's first historic sites as recommended by the Commission were designated by the City Council in 1969.
State government reorganization in 1973 engendered the reorganization of the Historic Sites Commission into the Raleigh Historic Properties and Districts Commission. The actions of the old Historic Sites Commission were ratified and the responsibilities of the new body were expanded again. Further changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s lead to two separate commissions, the Raleigh Historic Properties Commission and the Raleigh Historic Development Commission. In 1976, the city designated its first local historic overlay district, Oakwood. This was followed the next year by two more districts.
In January 1988, the City of Raleigh was designated a Certified Local Government, allowing the city to participate directly in the federal historic preservation program. In January 1993, the most recent reorganization of the city's historic preservation program took place. All powers and duties allowed under state enabling legislation (revised in 1989 and 1991) were consolidated into one commission, renamed the Raleigh Historic Development Commission. The 1993 ordinance revisions included the first application in the state of powers authorized by the general assembly in 1989 to prevent demolition by neglect of locally-designated historic resources.
The first comprehensive architectural survey of the city was completed in 1978 and updated and greatly expanded between 1988 and 1992. This latter effort included the pioneering African American Studies Project that combined oral history and architectural survey to more fully identify and document Raleigh's eight traditionally black communities. The survey also took note of the city's national role in the Modern architectural movement through the North Carolina State School of Design, and several "recent past" properties were listed in the National Register and as local landmarks. The city's first historic preservation plan was completed in 1991 under the guidance of the Commission, when its mission statement was adopted: to serve as City Council's official historic preservation advisory body to identify, preserve, protect and educate the public about Raleigh's historic resources.
Today, the Raleigh Historic Development Commission administers ordinances involving five locally designated historic districts and more than 125 Raleigh Historic Landmarks. There are over 20 National Register historic districts and more than 80 individual listings in the city, including three National Historic Landmarks.
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