The old house has been sitting on the corner of Nixonton and Salem Church Road in Weeksville for as long as anyone can remember. These days only a shell of its historical past survives. But it is a shell that has revealed a very storied past that harkens back to the days when North Carolina was a wild British colony, it turns out.
The Greek Revival façade seems to be falling apart and the house barely looks like it’s worth saving. Turns out, however, that it’s well worth saving and Harvey Harrison is the man for the job.
The Woodley House, as it’s known these days, sits tucked away behind a small grove of trees, across the road from the Weeksville Grocery. It had been in the Berry family since 1964, according to Marjorie Berry, before Harrison purchased it.
Berry says her family purchased the house from Scott and Halstead, produce dealers, at an auction. The house came with a tract of land the farming family had decided to add to their inventory of fields.
The house was habitable back then. It was used as a rental up through the 1990s.
The old house was thought to date back to the 1820s. That would make it historical enough, putting it in the much-lauded antebellum architectural period. The Greek Revival façade told that much of the story.
But when Harrison decided to purchase the house with an eye on restoration, a little research began to peel back the proverbial onion layers. Harrison quickly discovered that the house could be dated back, at least, to 1745.
“The property goes back to 1694,” says Harrison. “The property goes back to Nathaniel Betts.” Betts is credited with being the first settler in North Carolina and possessed a great deal of land grants in the region.
The property would have been in his name, but it would be the following century before a house was erected on the site.
According to Harrison’s research, when the Lords Proprietors were given sway over the region by the British crown, Henry Pendleton was granted land that included the site. Pendleton in turn granted the land to his son-in-law Thomas Woodley, in 1712.
Woodley, says Harrison, built the first part of the house in at least 1745.
“It could be older,” he says. “The hardware suggests it could be older.”
The house was listed as a 1820s plantation house by former Museum of the Albemarle curator and architectural historian Tom Butchko. When Butchko was inventorying historic houses in Pasquotank County, the residents of the house at the time would not let him inside. He was only able to date the house based on the façade.
Harrison says had Butchko been able to go inside, he would have likely noticed that the back room suggested something older than early 19th century.
“It looks like that period,” says Harrison of the house’s presumed 19th century pedigree. “You couldn’t fault (Butchko) for that.”
So if Butchko had seen the back room of the house, he would likely have identified it as an 18th century house. It was a two-room house with a half story space upstairs, not unlike the Jackson House.
The house would be added onto over the years. The Greek Revival façade would have been added sometime during the early 19th century.
Harrison holds a degree in public history and museum studies from Elizabeth City State University. He’s worked on restoration projects, including as an intern under Russ Steele, the man who restored the Jackson House for Museum of the Albemarle.
Harrison’s plan is to restore the house to its historical roots, and live in it. It’s a bold plan, however.
The porch of the old house has fallen in and the clapboard siding is faded and in need of repair. The brickwork outside is mostly intact, but it’s been painted over and that could be problematic.
Inside the house, termites have ravaged the original floors on the bottom level and the wiring that would have provided modern convenience needs to be replaced.
Of course modern convenience will be something Harrison considers, however he’s more interested in bringing the house back to its historic glory. And he does have a great deal to work with; woodworkers who constructed the house were skilled craftsmen and much of their original framing is intact.
The house has good bones. You can see that especially in the beams and rafters. On the third floor of the house, the original wood-pegged rafters are exposed and it’s easy to see the skill that went into the construction.
The staircases are intact as well, revealing the possibility that master carpenter Gilbert Leigh, the man who built the famed Cupola House in Edenton, may have had a hand in its construction.
“There could be records that turn up but there’s no real definitive way other than compare the work in both houses,” says Reid Thomas, preservation specialist with the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, of Leigh’s possible involvement in the house.
Thomas says he’s excited about the house and the discovery of its age. He agrees that while it will not be the oldest house in North Carolina, it certainly ranks up there as one of the oldest houses.
“And it’s on its original site, too,” says Harrison. “And that’s pretty rare.”
Harrison, through researching the deeds, found a map detailing the house and the surrounding area. The map dates back to the 18th century. He looked up the current aerial image of the house on Google Earth, overlaid the 18th century map on the current photograph and they line up perfectly.
Reid says discovering this house is significant simply because it was not known about and had been sitting in plain sight. He will be looking at the old structure and he says there is a possibility that it could eventually be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the qualifiers for that listing would be that the house maintains its historical character. Harrison says he’s going to see to it that the house does just that.
Harrison says he will restore the bottom level of the house back to its 18th century period. He will use authentic period tools and techniques to put the house back together.
He says while the house will not be perpetually open to the public, he does want the bottom level to be available for some tours and special events. He says the upper levels of the house will be restored and made into his private residence.
The property also once included nine slave houses, a carriage house, a warehouse, a summer kitchen, a smokehouse, a dairy, a well and a privy (outhouse). He knows the locations of the buildings and would like to eventually erect a couple of replicas on the property.
But first the house; it has to be inhabitable by February and Harrison says he will make it happen.