In the late 1970s, the City of Raleigh tried to tear down and pave over the house and English-style gardens where for decades Isabelle Bowen Henderson raised daylilies, irises and roses near the N.C. State University bell tower.
A few years later, the city tried again.
Both times it wanted to replace a shaded, two-lane section of Oberlin Road with a five-lane thoroughfare that would run through Henderson’s property and line up neatly with Pullen Road, near the bell tower. As with most projects of this kind, the goal was to move more cars faster.
By then, Henderson had died and left the property to her sister, Phyllis Riley, who successfully fought off the city with the help of attorney Brian Howell. Riley also worked to get the 1.2-acre home and gardens added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
Riley left the property to her grandson, Russ Stephenson, and his wife, Ellen Longino, in 1991. The couple set about restoring the home, outbuildings and gardens that Henderson started creating in the late 1930s.
On April 3, Stephenson and Longino will open their home and gardens to the public. The event will benefit the Raleigh Garden Club, which will provide guides and collect $5 at the gate.
It’s a chance to see an urban oasis, hidden by fences and greenery, that thousands pass unknowingly on Oberlin Road every day. Stephenson, a former member of the City Council, says inviting the public in is a way of showing respect for his great aunt’s creation and for his grandmother for keeping the city from destroying it.
“It’s an incredible story,” he said. “And people are amazed when they come here, and they say, ‘I never knew that this place was here.’“
The house and gardens began with a two-room home built by former slaves on Oberlin Road in about 1870 and expanded around 1900. In 1937, Henderson’s father, N.C. State College treasurer A.F. Bowen, bought the building and moved and reoriented it so it faced the back door of his home on Ferndell Lane.
Henderson moved home to Raleigh that year to begin work as a portrait artist. She had become fascinated with John D. Rockefeller’s recreation of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and set out to make her own small version around the little house her father had bought.
She created a formal Elizabethan herb garden with beds arranged in geometric shapes in brick. She built a clapboard herb potting shed with an enormous brick fireplace at one end, inspired by the summer kitchens at Colonial Williamsburg. The giant fireplace served no practical purpose.
“According to my grandmother, that thing has never seen a fire,” Stephenson says.
Henderson’s bluebells bloom every year
The main garden behind the house served different purposes, depending on Henderson’s interests. During World War II, it was a large Victory garden, full of vegetables. At various times in the 1950s, she had 600 varieties of irises planted there and more than 500 types of daylilies. By the mid-60s, it was all in roses.
A lot of what Henderson planted has survived, more than 50 years after she died in 1969. These include her camellias and the Spanish hyacinths or bluebells that will soon be in full bloom in the English perennial garden in front of the house.
Visitors also will see Henderson’s studio, with its soaring ceiling and abundant natural light, and the room where she painted a 1770 map of the Carolina colonies on the wall over the fireplace (the map pre-dates Raleigh, and shows nothing between “Tarrburgh” and “Hillsborough.”) The mural was featured in House and Garden Magazine in 1942 and again, along with the rest of the property, in Preservation Magazine in 2018.
While Henderson’s house and gardens look much like they did 80 years ago, the city is ever changing around them.
Over the back fence, the large homes on Maiden Lane, long rented to college students and fraternities, were recently replaced by three-story apartment buildings. And next door, just beyond the perennial garden, N.C. State University has replaced an old warehouse building with a gravel parking lot. Stephenson doesn’t know what the university’s long-term plans are, but he hopes it’s not a tall building that would shade the gardens.
And that points to another reason that Stephenson and Longino periodically open their home to the public.
“Part of what I’m doing is to keep people aware of the value of what’s here and the amazing story,” Stephenson said. “It’s all about raising that awareness so people will have an appreciation and respect and not have the city or other development people do things that will attempt to destroy it in the future.”
The open house at 213 Oberlin Road will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 3. Parking will be available in that gravel lot next door. For more information, go to www.raleigh-garden-club.org/garden-tours.