Featured photo: Two historic shotgun houses located in Happy Hill, Winston-Salem’s oldest Black neighborhood, have been sold to Triad Cultural Arts after a sale approved by city council on April 17. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Two historic shotgun houses located in Happy Hill, Winston-Salem’s oldest Black neighborhood, have been sold to Triad Cultural Arts after a sale approved by city council on Monday. Both houses were sold for a total of $1 and will be rehabilitated by the nonprofit, community-based, cultural arts organization.

Recommended by the finance committee on April 11, the sale of the houses to TCA is a step toward not only preserving the structures themselves, but their history, according to the organization.

TCA has been pursuing the acquisition of the shotgun houses since 2017 in order to protect and preserve them, but obstacles such as zoning and other prospective buyers stood in the way until recently.

Last fall, a nearby property, nine acres also owned by the city, was nearly sold to the Arts Based School, a charter elementary school. However the council voted to approve the school’s request to withdraw their offer on Oct. 17.

At the time, the Happy Hill Neighborhood Organization and housing rights activists with Housing Justice Now opposed the proposed sale to the Arts Based School in favor of using that land to build more affordable housing for the community.

The school publicly withdrew their interest from the tract of land in a Sept. 23 joint statement with Happy Hill Neighborhood Association that reads, “The Arts Based School stands in unity with the Happy Hill Neighborhood Association’s plans to develop more affordable housing units for families.” An Oct. 13 social media post from Housing Justice Now agreed, “It’s simple: We want land that was promised for housing to be used for housing. And we want the two historic shotgun houses preserved as a cultural heritage site.” 

The shotgun house sale to TCA was originally approved during a Nov. 14 city council meeting, however it returned to council for reapproval on Monday because the organization had made revisions to their intended project scope.

After being approved on Dec. 5 by council, the half-acre site that includes the two shotgun houses was rezoned to accommodate public and institutional uses such as a museum and heritage site. The land was previously intended for predominantly single-family residences.

The property is located in the East Ward on the south side of Humphrey Street, west of Free Street.

A video posted to social media on Dec. 5 by Happy Hill Neighborhood Association featured TCA director Cheryl Harry, along with the caption: “It finally happened.”

In the video, Harry expressed her joy at the decision and thanked the project’s supporters saying, “We’re going to make something beautiful happen.”

What will the project look like?

According to the cultural arts organization’s website about the project, the adaptive reuse of the shotgun houses will serve as a public monument to the legacy of the people who worked to make a life for their families, pre and post emancipation. The website says that they will be revitalized through artifacts, photographs, videos, and interactive programming. Additionally, the grounds will serve as an outside exhibit space with interpretive panels and kiosks.

In an interview with TCB, Harry is dedicated to restoring the legacy of these homes.

“Even though we’re restoring the building, it’s more about restoring the legacy of the men and women who lived there trying to make a better life for them and their families,” Harry said, adding that they’re calling it the “legacy site.”

Facing the site from the street, the house to the right — 716 Humphrey Street — will be rehabilitated into a city-approved facility capable of accommodating programs for the benefit of the public and various community activities and programming. Harry said that the house would be restored to the early 1900s.

The other home — 726 Humphrey Street — will be deconstructed methodically according to Harry. According to city documents, materials will be thoughtfully salvaged and will be reused as part of the new construction of a city-approved multi-use center for office space, various community activities, programming and rentals. The center will also include a welcome area to purchase tickets and souvenirs.

What’s a shotgun house? 

Shotgun houses are narrow and rectangular with living spaces like a kitchen, living room, and bedrooms arranged behind each other. The houses typically did not include indoor plumbing and were built one room wide and 3-4 rooms deep.

Shotgun houses were built in rural and urban areas, and were often the most common type of dwelling in black neighborhoods.

The shotgun houses sold to TCA were built in the early 1900s, homes of black working-class families in Happy Hill, and many shotgun houses built around this time were eventually demolished during urban renewal decades later.

Shotgun houses are also in Charlotte. In 2020, West Side Community Land Trust acquired two houses to preserve and renovate.

During a finance committee meeting on Nov. 7, the structural integrity of the shotgun houses was brought up by councilmember Robert C. Clark. Assistant City Manager Aaron King replied that this matter had been discussed by the city with TCA The cultural arts organization had brought on a structural engineer in order to “understand and get their arms around the full extent of the improvements needed.” King added that TCA knows “full well what’s in front of them as far as upfits of those buildings.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that the Arts Based School was going to buy the neighborhood with the shotgun houses. In fact, they were going to buy a different plot of land. The correction has been made, TCB regrets the error.

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