Maryland man restores Duke-Lawrence House, one of NC’s oldest

At the end of a long gravel drive and next to a soybean field in a remote part of northeastern North Carolina, one of the oldest homes in the state is enjoying a revival.

The wisteria that enveloped the Duke Lawrence’s house has been trimmed, and workers are gradually rehabilitating the brick and clapboard building, parts of which are over 270 years old.

Windows installed in the 1980s have been replaced with mouth-blown glass from Germany that has the same waves and air pockets that the originals would have had in the 18th century. The roof’s red cedar shingles are coated with a mixture of pine tar and linseed oil that has been used since colonial times.

The oldest section of the T-shaped house is one and a half stories and was built around 1747, when North Carolina was still a British colony. The newest section, two stories clad in brick, was added a decade or two later.

At a time when most homes were one-room, this was a big house, says Reid Thomas, restoration specialist for the State Historic Preservation Office. It has six large rooms with five huge brick fireplaces, a central entrance with a spiral staircase and a kitchen in the basement.

The house was built for John Duke, most likely by enslaved laborers, Reid says. Each brick would have been handcrafted from locally dug clay, then held together using a mortar made from lime from burnt oyster shells. So many shells, Reid said, that the pile would have been taller than the two-story house.

“It was a huge amount of work,” he said, looking around the house. “It’s great that he survived. We have lost so many. Glad it’s in good hands again.

Those hands belong to Bob Tucci, who bought the out-of-town house in Rich Square last year. Tucci, 75, set out to create a ‘museum-like’ home for him and his wife, Alice, restored as close to its original look and feel as possible and filled with 18th-century furniture or reproductions faithful.

“But it has to be comfortable,” adds Tucci. “There will be a television.”

Tucci is an unlikely savior from a colonial plantation house. He works as a sales clerk at a Home Depot store in suburban Baltimore, where he and Alice live in a modest townhouse.

But Tucci always loved colonial houses and wanted to build his own. He taught high school science and in his spare time apprenticed with builders to learn the skills he would need to lay flooring, cut rafters and attach a roof.

He took the job at Home Depot 30 years ago, he said, because it allowed him to pursue his dream.

“I wanted a job that allowed me to do all these other things, and I wanted to build a house,” he said. “I wanted to build a colonial house, a small house. I wanted to do this since I was in high school.

That’s what he did, for many years, in the rural town of Grafton, New Hampshire. And he says the fate of this house made the Duke-Lawrence project possible.

Duke-Lawrence had been gutted and neglected

Tucci isn’t the first to fall in love with the Duke-Lawrence house and work to bring it back to life. (The name reflects the fact that John Duke’s daughter married John Lawrence, whose family owned the house until 1850.)

When Edward and Mildred Regan bought the house from the Murfreesboro Historic Association in 1979, it had been gutted and had no electricity, water, or indoor plumbing. The roof had been replaced with tin, and the original interior woodwork, including the stairs to the second floor, had been removed in the 1930s and installed in a Richmond, Virginia mansion that later became the Willow Oaks Country Club.

The Regans – a retired steel company engineer and school teacher – had spent 10 years restoring an old house in New Jersey and wanted a new challenge. They recreated the wood panels from NC State University archival photos and replaced the cedar shingles and missing skylights on the roof. With their support, the state successfully nominated the home for a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Subsequent owners continued the work. A Catholic priest who moved into the house in the late 1990s is credited with restoring the missing stairs.

But by the time Tucci came across Duke-Lawrence while searching online, it hadn’t been lived in for many years and was beginning to deteriorate again. Tucci paid $230,000 for the property, which included nearly nine acres of land.

“A lot of people liked the square footage and the price,” said Andy Tucker, the broker who handled the listing. “But Bob is the right person for the house.”

The Duke-Lawrence House is not widely known beyond certain circles of historians; it does not appear on Wikipedia’s list of oldest buildings in the state, although it would rank around 12th (the oldest is the Lane House in Edenton, built around 1719).

That’s because it’s always been private property and out of the public eye, says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, the nonprofit historic preservation group. But Howard said Duke-Lawrence is historically significant, which is why his group holds an easement on the house that prevents it from being demolished or significantly altered.

But the covenants don’t preclude changes that “make the house livable,” as Tucci puts it, including the modern kitchen installed by a previous owner and new wiring and air conditioning that were among his top priorities. A closet next to the kitchen now houses a washer/dryer, while two others have been converted into bathrooms, each with showers.

“Alice says, ‘Bob, I need a shower,'” he said. “Now we have two showers where there never were.”

Once the work is completed, the couple plans to visit the house often but not to live there full time.

Tucci says he expects to spend more than half a million dollars buying and improving the Duke-Lawrence home, including a vegetable garden and a small orchard with persimmons, peach, plum, apple, pear and fig trees.

Most of the money will come from an insurance settlement he received after the Cape-style Colonial home he built in New Hampshire was destroyed by fire in October 2020.

“It’s an incredible wall”

Tucci is able to carry out some of the work itself, but also relies on specialists and contractors. Cardinal Joinery of Winston-Salem created the windows using German glass and construction techniques of the time. Kurt Leahey, who oversaw prep work for Cardinal Joinery last summer, said that despite the neglect and his age, Duke-Lawrence was still in good shape.

“The house is really well built,” Leahey said. “It’s still incredibly straight and square. It was a real delight.

Tucci also tapped Reid Thomas, whose job with the state’s Office of Historic Preservation is to advise owners of historic properties on how to maintain them. Thomas said he had visited the house before, to meet the previous owners, but it had been a long time.

As they toured the house, Thomas pointed out historic details, such as the trammel that once held pots over the fire in the basement kitchen and what appear to be original hand-planed shelves in the closet with washer and dryer.

Thomas was particularly impressed with the brickwork on the exterior of the house. He pointed to the polished headers, or small glazed bricks, between the larger ones, which created a checkerboard pattern.

“It’s an amazing wall,” he said.

Thomas said much of the exterior wood cladding appeared to be original or close to it. Some of the paint was wrinkled from exposure to the sun, but Thomas advised against replacing the wood.

“I think it would be worth it if you could keep it,” he said. “It would probably outlast anything you replaced it with.”

Tucci spent around 20 years building the house in New Hampshire, working when he could and learning along the way. He knows he doesn’t have that kind of time now and hopes to complete the Duke-Lawrence House in two years, three peaks.

“If it all stops tomorrow, we had fun while we were at it,” he said. As for the house? “We’ll just hand it over to someone else.”

This story was originally published August 29, 2022 5:45 a.m.

Richard Stradling covers transport for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, as well as ferries, bicycles, scooters and simply on foot. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He was a journalist or editor for 35 years, the last 23 of them at the N&O. 919-829-4739, [email protected]

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