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WUNC reports from Greensboro about Guilford County and surrounding area.

Historic Home With Possible Ties To Underground Railroad Facing Demolition

Raul and Sandra Torres of High Point wanted to give themselves a retirement gift back in December 2019, so they purchased the Mendenhall-Blair House, a rustic, 200-year old farmhouse, for $460,000.

But soon after they bought it, they realized a shopping development was coming in next door. So they made plans to tear it down — the application they filed states the demolition is based on "planned redevelopment of the property" — and sell the lot.

The Torres's did not return WUNC's request for comment.

Their plan has been met with significant opposition from local preservationists.

"If it's torn down, it would be devastating to the community," said High Point Preservation Society President Benjamin Briggs. "I'm going to do everything that I can to try to figure out a plan to save the house; we just can't afford to lose it. Once it's gone, these narratives and stories go away and they're forgotten."

Elihu Mendenhall and his first wife Anna — prominent Quakers in the area — built the house just before the Civil War. They reportedly offered their house as a safe haven for slaves on their road to freedom, offering them a secret room above the kitchen. The Mendenhalls also set up a school to teach the children of freed slaves after slavery was abolished.

Seventeenofficial sites throughout North Carolina have ties to the Underground Railroad, and Governor Roy Cooper declared this month "International Underground Railroad Month."

The High Point Preservation Society designated the Mendenhall-Blair House a historic landmark in 1993, but that designation doesn't offer the same protection that comes with being a national historic landmark. 

"Shopping centers and High Point are almost ubiquitous as they are in almost all communities North Carolina," Briggs said. "But great Quaker homes with foundations that touch back to abolition, before the Civil War, are extremely rare in North Carolina."  

Under North Carolina law, the Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission was able to delay demolition, but they can't deny it outright.

"It's going to take people who were willing to stand up for this and maybe even to help in finding an alternative buyer for the property that will do the right thing and make sure that it's there for future generations to learn," Briggs said. 

Naomi P. Brown joined WUNC in January 2017.
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