News Column

Mordecai Historic Park's long-awaited visitors center opens Wednesday

June 15, 2014

By Colin Campbell, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

June 15--RALEIGH -- After decades of starting tours in a cramped back entrance where staff members share space with souvenir T-shirt displays, Mordecai Historic Park will finally get a separate visitors center this week.

Housed in a 1917 home facing Wake Forest Road, the Mordecai Interpretative Center will welcome the site's 30,000 annual visitors with rotating exhibits and classroom space. Wednesday's dedication will mark a big step forward for the city-owned historic site, which sometimes gets overshadowed by the state capital attractions down the street.

"We have tons of stories to tell, many of which are not on display," said Doug Porter, who manages Mordecai (pronounced mor-duh-key). "I think people are going to be impressed with this. It's going to modernize the feel of the park."

Since it opened to the public in the 1960s, the main attraction at the historic park has been the 1785 Mordecai House, the oldest house in Raleigh that remains on its original foundation. While the house bears longtime owner Moses Mordecai's name, it was built by Joel Lane -- who's known for selling land to house the state capital.

Most of the 5,300 artifacts in the site's collection won't fit in the house or the park's other buildings, which include an 1847 chapel and the birthplace of President Andrew Johnson.

Some of them will soon have a home in the Interpretative Center's new exhibits. Proctor said the display will feature the plantation's slave life as well as the history of the families that called Mordecai home.

"The growth of this family and this farm coincided with the history of Raleigh," he said.

Plans for a visitors center have been on the drawing boards at Mordecai since 1968. Construction was delayed first by a lack of funding, then by neighborhood complaints that the design was too modern.

After a 2007 parks bond allocated $1.6 million for the project, local architects from Clearscapes designed a contemporary, window-lined building that would sit next to the house. But some residents of Oakwood and Mordecai -- some of whom are now fighting a modernist house on Euclid Street -- said that adding a modern-looking building would ruin the park's historic charm. One opponent even resigned from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission in protest.

City officials found an 11th-hour compromise: renovating the longtime two-story home of antiques dealer Art Danielson. With 5,000 square feet of space, the house is nearly twice as large as the controversial new building. Raleigh bought the property for $600,000 in 2012 and gutted the interior. It now has two large rooms on the first floor for exhibits and a gift shop as well as a 70-seat classroom space. The second floor will house staff offices and a climate-controlled artifact storage room.

The center will host more educational events, with the goal of luring back visitors who have already done the standard house tour. With two outdoor porches, the building can be rented for private events. And the city can reopen two historic outbuildings that had been serving as offices and storage: a curing barn and overseer's office that will eventually become part of the tour.

But the location isn't ideal. Most parking spaces are on the opposite side of the park, forcing tourists to cross the entire property to start their visit.

"I still don't know that this is the best solution," said Troy Burton, the city's historical resources and museums administrator.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter


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