Historic Oakwood is a vibrant community on the outskirts of downtown Raleigh with a 180-year history. The area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was the first North Carolina neighborhood to receive historic designation. Visitors can enjoy the neighborhood’s varied architecture and quirky charm on a self-guided walking tour by downloading a free brochure from historicoakwood.org.
The gardens in this picturesque neighborhood have a touch of wildness to them, with vines creeping over expansive wrap-around porches. Yard art is abundant. Everywhere people are out and about, couples walking their dogs, children playing on sidewalks, families stringing up Christmas lights. It’s a historic neighborhood with a progressive vibe.
“This is the oldest surviving neighborhood in Raleigh and the largest intact collection of Victorian residential buildings in the state of North Carolina,” said Matthew Brown, neighborhood historian and prominent community member. “Our oldest house was built in 1840…and our newest house is being built right now…and we have everything in between.”
The variety of Oakwood’s architectural styles reflects the change the neighborhood has seen since development began in the mid 19th century. The earliest homes were built on tree-lined dirt roads and were designed in the Italianate style, the French Second Empire style, or the more common North Carolina Victorian style.
Italianate homes were inspired by Tuscan villas and feature shallow roofs with deep eaves. Bay windows were also common.
The Second Empire style is characterized by mansard roofs, which have shallow-sloped tops with a steeper slope on the sides and dormer windows.
A common feature of the North Carolina Victorian homes was elaborate ornamentation in one of two styles. Sawnwork ornamentation was jigsaw-cut in intricate curls, adorning porch balustrades and attic vents. Chamfered ornamentation often includes raised or incised details. Many of Oakwood’s homes display both sawnwork and chamfered features. North Carolina Victorian homes are often referred to as “gingerbread,” as the ornate details hint at a resemblance to gingerbread houses.
By the 1890s, Oakwood had developed into a trendy suburb. Gaslights dotted the streets and the Queen Anne style was popular for new homes of this period. Considered avant-garde at the time, homes of this style often feature gables, bay windows, towers with witch’s hat roofs, and stained glass windows. Octagonal shapes were common for towers and bay windows, although other shapes were used as well.
Brown’s own house is of the Queen Anne style.
“It has four different kinds of bay windows,” Brown described the home, which includes a curved, a semi-octagonal, and a diagonal bay window. It also has a keyhole window with stained glass.
“My favorite feature,” said Brown, “that’s the slate roof with copper flashing. It’s beautiful.”
Later, in the early 20th century, the streets were paved with “Belgian blocks” and homes were built in the Neoclassical Revival style, symmetrical in shape and featuring Ionic, Corinthian, or Doric Greek columns.
Following World War I, Oakwood became a less popular neighborhood. New homes built during this period were of the Craftsman style, so called because the building plans were published in a magazine called The Craftsman. This style was very popular throughout the country, but especially in the South, where residents could benefit from the shade offered by the deep eaves.
Following the Second World War, the rise in popularity of the automobile led to more families moving out of cities, and a lot of wealthier residents left Oakwood. Many of the houses fell into disrepair or were divided into apartments, and in 1965 the city published a plan to demolish much of the neighborhood to make way for a highway.
But neighbors banded together to fight the plan. In 1972, the Society for the Preservation of Historic Oakwood was formed. Thanks to their concerted efforts, the historic importance of the neighborhood became nationally recognized, and plans for the highway were retracted.
“Ever since then, we’ve been fixing up the houses,” said Brown. “When I bought [my home] in 2016, it had been empty for 17 years and dilapidated, and it took me three and a half years to fix it up.”
Brown explains that the neighborhood is very diverse, but that everyone gets along.
“This pandemic has hurt us worse than most neighborhoods because we party a lot together. We have parties all year long normally…but not this year,” said Brown.
A strong sense of community was a common theme throughout the conversations I had with the residents, all of whom were keen to talk about their love for the neighborhood.
“It’s a very active community in that there’s several social events throughout the year,” said Mark Lovern, who has been in the neighborhood since 2011. “It’s great for the kids because, Halloween, they do it up big, and then the Oakwood candlelight tour in December is always really nice.”
The candlelight tour is an annual event in which visitors can purchase tickets to view the inside of select Oakwood homes that have been decked out for the holidays. Due to Covid-19, the indoor portion of the tour is canceled this year, but visitors are encouraged to enjoy outdoor decorations through a self-guided holiday walking tour anytime from Dec. 12 through 27. The neighborhood’s website, historicoakwood.org, offers more information for downloading the free guide that outlines which houses are the must-see stops.
Even without the indoor portion, there should be plenty to see from the outside during the holiday tour. Neighborhood residents are very enthusiastic about decorating for the holidays. One home, which sports a 10-foot tall T-Rex in the front yard yearround, reportedly receives 4,000 trick-or-treaters in a single year.
Be sure to fuel up before your walk by stopping in at Side Street Restaurant, a neighborhood staple owned by Mary Lu Wooten since 1979. She offers an assortment of sandwiches, soups, salads and sides as well as an impressive dessert menu. Her bread pudding topped with whipped cream is heaven on a plate. Each table is adorned with a blooming orchid or cactus.
Of course, no visit to Oakwood would be complete without a stop at the iconic Krispy Kreme, which has been in its current location since 1970. Be sure to stop by when the hot light is on for the authentic melt-in-your-mouth experience.
On your walk, don’t be afraid to stop and talk to people about the houses and the neighborhood. The residents love to talk about their community and share stories about their homes.
“We love folks visiting the neighborhood and getting to see what we cherish so much every day,” said Kiernan McGorty, who has lived in Oakwood for 11 years. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into fixing up our house, and I know other people do the same, so I think we think of these houses as part of our families; they’re like people to us.”
It’s clear that Brown has similar feelings about his home, which he lovingly cares for and has no intentions of ever leaving.
“My next house will be a pine box,” he said.