History of Oakwood

At the time of the Civil War, what is now Oakwood was the northeastern outskirts of the small town of Raleigh. It was woods and fields, mostly owned by the Mordecai family, and became a campground for Sherman’s Union troops in April of 1865. In the 1870s the Mordecais sold off lots for development. Some of the houses in these years were built in the Italianate style, with arched windows and bracketed cornices, or the French-inspired Second Empire style, with mansard roofs. But most houses were built in the North Carolina vernacular style, with sawnwork detail. Most were built of heart of yellow pine, with roofs of tin or wooden shingles. The streets were dirt, but lined with trees. Most people had vegetable gardens and kept livestock.

By the 1890s, Oakwood had become a fashionable suburb, with mule-drawn streetcars leading to downtown and to nearby Brookside Park, which had a pond, carousel and dance pavilion. The streets were lit with gaslights, and there were water pumps on the corners. Houses were built in the Queen Anne style, with steep slate roofs, gables and towers, turned woodwork, stained glass, and a rich palette of paint colors. The residents were a mixture of upper-middle-class to working-class folks: state officials, merchants, craftsmen, teachers, and railroad men. There were both white and black residents.

In the early 20th century, Oakwood reached its apogee, with streets paved in “Belgian blocks” of Wake County granite. Streetcars and streetlights were electrified. Small shops opened on corners throughout the neighborhood. Houses were built in the Neoclassical Revival style, with classical columns, gables shaped like Greek pediments, leaded glass windows, and elegant pastel paint colors.

After World War I, Oakwood was superseded in fashion by the Cameron Park and Hayes-Barton neighborhoods on the west and northwest sides of Raleigh. Most of Oakwood’s remaining empty lots were filled with charming but modest Craftsman-style bungalows. Many residents took in boarders to help pay the rent or mortgage.

After World War II, the automobile allowed for more far-flung suburban-style development, and Oakwood became downright unfashionable. The streetcar lines had been pulled up for scrap to help the war effort. Brookside Park closed down. Most of the wealthier families moved out and their old houses were made into apartments or rooming houses. Dilapidation set in. By 1972 this run-down neighborhood was considered of so little value that the State decided to demolish much of it to make way for the “North-South Expressway.”

But at the same time, new folks were beginning to move in and fall in love with Oakwood’s fine design and craftsmanship. They joined with some remaining old families to oppose the expressway. They formed the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood and held the first annual Candlelight Tour, to allow people to see the wonderful interiors of these homes. Oakwood was designated Raleigh’s first National Register Historic District in 1974, and its first local Historic District in 1975. Over the next several decades, the old homes were restored one-by-one to their original charm and splendor.

Now Oakwood is once again a flourishing neighborhood, and its houses are lovingly cared for. The neighborhood hosts picnics and pot-lucks throughout the year. Each December, Oakwood decks itself in holiday finery and people come from miles around to admire. The Candlelight Tour, held on the second weekend of December, opens about a dozen homes to the public. Each spring, the Oakwood Garden Club opens about a dozen neighborhood gardens to the public. Oakwood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As it is a local Historic District, any new construction or alterations to the historic houses must be approved by the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission.

[Written by Matthew Brown]