Isabelle Bowen Henderson House and Gardens
at 213 Oberlin Road
Home of Russ Stephenson and Ellen Longino
Isabelle Bowen Henderson was my great-aunt. When she passed away in 1969, she left the property to my grandmother, Phyllis Riley, who gave it to me when she moved to Georgia to live with my mother. Between the mid-1970s and now, Ellen and I have lived in each of the three residences on the grounds. Over the years, we’ve reconstructed two of the three outbuildings and fully renovated the other outbuilding and the three dwellings, including an addition to the main house.
The secluded 1.2 acre enclave of dwellings, outbuildings and gardens at 213 Oberlin Road are the physical record of Isabelle’s life and work (May 23, 1899 – May 19, 1969). She was the eldest of six daughters of North Carolina State College Treasurer A. F. Bowen, whose home stood at the end of Ferndell Lane. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Isabelle worked in Massachusetts where she (and the rest of the nation) became enthralled by Rockefeller’s reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg.
Isabelle returned to Raleigh in 1937 and set about designing her own Williamsburg enclave at 213 Oberlin Road, adjacent to the Bowen homestead. Drawing on her mother’s love of gardening and her own Arts & Crafts art education, Isabelle synthesized Colonial architectural forms with English garden designs and American folk craft traditions. The National Register of Historic Places describes her work as “a composition of a resited turn-of-the-century house and auxiliary buildings constructed primarily in the 1930’s, integrated into a landscape of display and working gardens, and disposed around a large shaded brick terrace from which bricked and bordered walks lead outward to the gardens. The arrangement of buildings, fences, walks, and plant materials creates a calculated informality while maintaining a palpable hierarchy of evocative spaces, views, and processions”.
In 1938 her front garden was first opened to the public and the same year, a full page article in the News & Observer was devoted to her growing prominence as a portrait painter. Ben Forest Williams, the first curator of the N. C. Museum of Art has estimated that she produced over one thousand portraits throughout the Eastern United States. Her works are included in the permanent collection of the N. C. Museum of Art and in the State Supreme Court Building in Raleigh.
In 1942 Isabelle’s front room was featured in House and Garden Magazine. The fireplace wall features her reproduction of a 1770 map of the Carolina Colonies. The flanking bookcases include the Bowen and Henderson libraries, and craft pottery from her Jugtown collection. Isabelle supported the revitalization of Jugtown Pottery and led efforts to assemble the first Jugtown Pottery collection presented to the State of North Carolina.
In 1951, Isabelle Henderson won the National Horticultural Award, the highest award given by the National Council of State Garden Clubs, for her “permanent and creative contribution to horticulture”. Henderson hybridized and maintained 600 varieties of Iris and 527 varieties of Hemerocallis, and wrote articles for many horticultural publications, including The Garden Journal of the New York Botanical Garden . She traded letters and plants with National Book Award winner Lewis Mumford and internationally renowned Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Her home and gardens were visited by Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Isabelle left the property to her sister, Phyllis Riley at a time when cities across the nation were constructing expressways through older neighborhoods to accommodate the rising tide of suburban commuters. In 1972 the City of Raleigh proposed the North-South Expressway through the middle of Oakwood. Citizens defeated the project in 1974. At about the same time, the Pullen heirs sued the City to stop a similar north-south, five-lane arterial, proposed to widen Oberlin Road from Glenwood Avenue to Western Boulevard through Pullen Park. Just north of Pullen Park, the City unsuccessfully condemned the Henderson House and Gardens twice over the next five years in hopes of resurrecting the west side arterial. Fast forward 40 years and the historic neighborhoods of Oakwood, Cameron Park and University Park are thriving. Oberlin Road is not a suburban 5-lane arterial dominated by gas stations, parking lots and fast food drive-throughs. Instead, the human-scaled network of tree-lined streets around Cameron Village define an authentic, walkable urbanism that makes it one of the most desirable places to live in Raleigh.
In conjunction with being named April’s Home of the Month by the University Park Homeowners Association, Ellen and I are excited to hold an Open House of my great-aunt Isabelle Bowen Henderson’s home and gardens. Please join us on Sunday, April 19th from 1pm until 5pm to explore and enjoy a unique and historic Raleigh landmark in University Park.
Note: parking on-site is reserved for guests with limited mobility. Other guests are encouraged to walk or bike to the property, or to park across Oberlin Road on Park Drive.
Site maps and additional historical photos are here: https://localwiki.org/raleigh/Isabelle_Bowen_Henderson_House_%26_Gardens
All photos: David Strevel