Brooklyn Historic District
The Brooklyn Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Brooklyn Historic District, a small, compact neighborhood located two blocks south of the central business district of Smithfield, in Johnston County, possesses strong local significance as a well-preserved collection of historic, mostly residential buildings dating from circa 1870 to 1950. Much of the area that makes up the Brooklyn Historic District composed the farms of brothers Seth and Burt A. Woodall before the Civil War. The Woodall brothers, involved in cotton and mercantile brokerage and other endeavors, were Smithfield's foremost developers in the post-war era. About 1870 Seth Woodall built a vernacular Italianate I-house (Woodall-Fleming House, 415 East Davis Street) for himself that still stands in the district. Smithfield's economic fortunes improved in the 1880s when several railroads arrived in town. In the mid-1880s Seth Woodall began to subdivide his land, which began to be called Brooklyn, probably because of the brook (Spring Branch) that forms the northern boundary of the neighborhood. Hardware merchant Ethelred J. Holt built a sizeable house (Holt-Royall House, 402 E. Davis Street) in 1885 on one of the lots. In 1886 a private school, later known as the Turlington Institute, was established along South Third Street at the southwest corner of the district. In 1913 the handsome brick Smithfield Public School was built on the former site of the Institute.
The neighborhood gradually filled with residences from the 1880s to about 1950. Stylish Queen Anne architecture rose in the Brooklyn section in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the neighborhood developed. At Seth Woodall's death in 1915, his estate was sold off and subdivided, resulting in the subdivision of much of the remaining land in the area. Contractors, including Will Ragsdale and J.P. Rogers, and others purchased lots and built houses, some for speculative resale, some as custom residences. Thus dozens of Craftsman style Bungalows arose among the older Victorian houses in Brooklyn. The neighborhood continued to develop in the 1930s and 1940s as Smithfield residents built neat one-story dwellings of Colonial Revival and other revival styles on the remaining vacant lots.
One of the two intact historic neighborhoods in Smithfield, the Brooklyn Historic District qualifies for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in the area of community development. The Brooklyn Historic District qualifies for its collection of architecturally significant buildings, including the 1870s and 1880s stylish residences of important Smithfield residents, and well-preserved Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Period Revival houses of the first half of the twentieth century.
Historical Background and Community Development Context
Smithfield was established as the seat of Johnston County in 1777, but for the next one hundred years it remained only a courthouse village, with a handful of residences and businesses clustered around the courthouse. The original town, a rectangle, comprised fifteen blocks along the east edge of the Neuse River, stretching from Front Street (First Street) at the river to Fourth Street on the east, and south to Church Street. Behind Church Street, Spring Creek constituted a natural development barrier. Due to its isolation and to the small-scale nature of agriculture in the county, Smithfield remained a village throughout the first half of the 1800s.
Improvements in transportation in the 1880s and the coming of the bright leaf tobacco boom in the 1890s finally stimulated the growth of Smithfield. The North Carolina Midland Railroad, completed in 1882, was envisioned as a transcontinental line beginning in Morehead City, North Carolina, and terminating on the west coast. However, tracks had been laid only as far as the Neuse River in Smithfield (through the center of Market Street) when the venture failed in 1885. The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad then purchased the line, removed the tracks from Market Street, and in 1886 completed a north-south route from Wilson to Fayetteville, running along Smithfield's eastern periphery. Riverside Warehouse, the first tobacco warehouse in Johnston County was built in Smithfield in 1898. Other warehouses, and the first bank, the Bank of Smithfield, soon followed.
The coming of the railroad to Smithfield in the 1880s spurred the Woodall family and others to turn the economic tide in this long dormant county seat. Newspaper editor T.J. Lassiter credited Seth Woodall, father of Mrs. T.R. Hood, with breaking a barrier to the town's growth by subdividing part of his 400-acre farm just south of the town center and offering lots for sale beginning in the mid 1880s. Woodall had bought the property from A.J. Heath in 1860 soon after coming to town to set up a mercantile business at the corner of Second and Smith (later Bridge) streets. In 1870 he built a farm house at the center of the tract (415 E. Davis St.). His brother Burt A. Woodall, whose house still stands at 521 S. Third Street, also owned about 130 acres which would later be subdivided. After the Civil War three of the Woodall brothers became partners in the mercantile and cotton brokerage business. Seth was a farmer and former slave owner, mason, staunch Primitive Baptist, former state legislator and county commissioner during the war and reconstruction years, and later a town commissioner and mayor. By 1886 Seth Woodall & Company was touted as the town's oldest business.
In 1882 the Woodalls established a newspaper, the Smithfield Herald. The next goal was to have a more reputable school to improve educational opportunities of local children and, at the same time, attract new families who would insure the town's growth and prosperity. While efforts to raise taxes for a public graded school failed in 1885, local leaders still did not give up on the idea. A local newspaper correspondent reported "the spirit of improvement...continues in Smithfield, notwithstanding the defeat of the Graded School....Mr. Seth Woodall has built several new residences, and has a fine residence now nearing completion, which will be for sale...." The same writer related a month later, "A plan is on foot to secure cooperation on the part of property owners, and bring all the vacant lots in Smithfield and some of the farm lands around and near town, into market and offer inducements to capitalist[s] and strangers to settle here."
The neighborhood of Brooklyn and its counterpart north of the town center, known as the North Smithfield neighborhood [see North Smithfield Historic District], represent not only Smithfield's first economic boom, when railroads and tobacco stimulated growth beyond the village stage, but also the oldest intact residential areas in Smithfield. Since the 1880s when Brooklyn and North Smithfield's lots were subdivided and houses began to be built, the buildings within Smithfield's original boundaries have gradually been almost completely demolished. An antebellum Masonic Lodge and dwelling are the oldest buildings standing in Smithfield. Since an 1889 fire destroyed the commercial area, most of the town center has been rebuilt. As new families moved to Smithfield in the late nineteenth century, they built houses in Brooklyn and North Smithfield. The building boom around the turn of the century brought several building contractors to town. W.J. Stephenson, a Primitive Baptist minister and builder, built several houses for resale. He also built his residence at 415 South Fifth Street. Other contractors included Smithfield native J.H. Woodall (son of Seth) and newcomers George W.F. Barbour, Jesse Daughtry, J.R. Bailey, and D.S. Barnes.
The earliest known reference to Brooklyn as a distinctive residential area was in 1887 when druggist and later bank president T.R. Hood (son-in-law of Seth Woodall) announced plans to build his handsome residence (415 South Fourth Street) "in the Brooklyn section." The name most likely derived from Spring Branch, a brook feeding into the Neuse River that has been considered the neighborhood's northern boundary since the 1880s.
Confederate veteran, hardware merchant, and local politician Ethelred J. Holt was one of the first to join the Woodalls in populating Brooklyn, purchasing a lot and building a house in late 1885 ( 402 E. Davis St.). In 1887 Holt was instrumental in getting the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware, to locate a powder magazine at the site of a tannery on Spring Branch. In 1902 F.H. Parrish bought the 3/4-acre lot from the Eugene DuPont heirs and put up a two-story brick steam laundry building, the only commercial structure in Brooklyn (312 S. 4th St.).
In 1886 Trinity College graduate John L. Davis (Burt Woodall's son-in-law) and Ira T. Turlington (the Woodalls' nephew), a UNC alumnus and newly appointed Johnston County school superintendent, joined forces and began Smithfield Collegiate Institute. Both professors soon built houses on either side of E.J. Holt in the late 1880s (310 and 406 E. Davis St.). In 1891 Turlington relocated the school to the present site of Smithfield Elementary School (500 block of South Third Street). Renamed Turlington Institute, Mr. Turlington operated it for twenty years before it became a public graded school in 1911. The north section of the current structure was built in 1913 to replace the 1891 building. By the turn of the century Turlington had established itself as one of the premier college preparatory schools in the state, at one time having "a larger number of boys at the University [of North Carolina] than any other preparatory school in the state." Albert Coates, founder of the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill, was among its many outstanding graduates. Rena Bingham Lassiter, long-time editor of the Smithfield Herald, was another product of the Institute. Born in 1886, she recalled the Seth Woodall home "when it was surrounded by cotton fields with scuppernong grape vines numerous enough to be almost a vineyard." Two grape arbors remain at 415 E. Davis Street and 415 S. 5th Street. She also remembered when most homes had "white paling fences" enclosing both front and back yards in order to keep out the hogs and cows which had free range in town until just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. "In front of these homes on each side of the street were ditches, in some places as deep as eight or ten feet. Bridges were necessary at every house, the upkeep of which was quite an item."
A depression in the early 1890s, followed by the racial and political upheaval of the Populist and Fusionist movements, interrupted the town's economic progress. By 1898, however, Smithfield was once again poised to move forward. Warehouses were built for marketing bright leaf tobacco, a crop heralded as the economic salvation of eastern North Carolina. Among the early tobacconists were brothers Dunham and Addie Boyette of Wilson County, who bought homes in Brooklyn (the Hunter Ellington House at 416 East Woodall Street and John L. Davis House at 310 East Davis Street). The county's first bank also opened in 1898. By 1900 a brick yard, lumber planing mill (Brooklyn Manufacturing Company), and a long-awaited cotton factory (Smithfield Cotton Mill) were in operation. Downtown commercial growth accompanying this industrial development at the turn of the century gave rise to new homes for residents such as clothing merchant N.B. Grantham (402 S. 4th St.), livery stable owner and carriage dealer Hunter Ellington (410 and 416 Woodall Street), jeweler T.C. Jordan (411 S. 5th Street), merchant/cotton mill president W.M. Sanders (404 S. 3rd Street), merchant/cotton ginner Willis H. Austin (subsequent owner of the Sanders house), grocer A.A. Peedin (413 S. 3rd Street), bank cashier and physician Thel Hooks ( 403 S. 4th Street), and lumber dealer Ernest O. Aycock (401 S. 4th Street).
Around the turn of the new century, the town government began taking steps to foster growth. A movement began in 1900 to extend the town's corporate limits, and public water pumps were installed at scattered locations. The only surviving pump is located at the N.B. Grantham house site at 402 S. 4th Street. According to Grantham's daughter Rose Patterson, Mr. Grantham installed the pump at his own expense so he could have one closer to his house. Another improvement, promoted by the town's women and religious leaders and made possible by state enabling legislation, was closing some eight saloons located within one block of the courthouse and opening a town-operated dispensary. The passing of a special tax to convert the private Turlington Institute into a public graded school in 1905 was a major boon to the town's growth.
In 1915 a public auction was held to dispose of the Seth Woodall house and the undeveloped portions of the Woodall estate. The major north-south streets in Brooklyn — Third, Fourth and Fifth streets — are continuations of the original town streets running in this direction. Brooklyn's east-west streets — Woodall and Davis streets — are named for the earliest residents, the Woodall brothers and John L. Davis. It was at this time that the entire 500 block of S. 5th Street and portions of the 400 blocks of E. Davis and E. Lee streets, as well as three blocks of S. 6th and S. 7th streets were sold off and soon developed. Some 100 lots brought from $105 to $365 each. Contractor Will Ragsdale soon followed some of his kinsmen in the tobacco market to town and purchased several lots, where he began building one-story cottages and bungalows for resale. One of these (501 S. 5th Street) was his family's residence briefly in the early 1920s. Dr. G.A. McLemore bought it in 1923 and moved to town so his children could attend high school. The Ragsdales made their permanent home across the street at 416 E. Davis Street. Civil engineer E.P. Lore was another Woodall lot purchaser who soon built a home for his family (505 S. 5th Street) and a rental house next door (503 S. 5th Street). Commercial builder J.P. Rogers bought the lot beside the Seth Woodall House and put up a brick bungalow for his family in the mid 1920s ( 409 E. Davis Street). Deputy sheriff S.R. Brady built a spacious Craftsman Bungalow for his family at 514 S. 5th Street about 1922.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, many owners of larger dwellings in Brooklyn have rented rooms to newlyweds, teachers, and business and professional people. From 1936 to 1976, Mrs. R.S. Fleming ran the district's only boarding house in the former Seth Woodall home. Renters and homeowners ate at Mrs. Fleming's, where three meals a day (except Sunday supper) were provided seven days a week. About 80 to 100 would show up for Sunday lunch, making "Miz Flemin's" a focal point of the town.
Throughout the twentieth century, Smithfield continued to thrive as a county seat, tobacco market, and cotton mill town, and Brooklyn experienced steady growth, despite post-World War II population declines in the county's rural areas. The town grew from a small hamlet of about 800 in 1900 to a bustling town of 2,000 in 1920, increasing to over 5,500 by 1950. Current population is estimated at 12,000.
In the 1960s and 1970s Brooklyn was rejuvenated when several new homes were built on vacant lots and restoration and renovation projects were undertaken on the former homes of E.J. Holt, Dr. Hooks, T.R. Hood, and E.O. Aycock. From its beginning, it has been a tightly knit, predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood. Community gatherings are held at Christmas and July 4th — a tradition since the 1970s. Currently, as downtown Smithfield experiences revitalization, the established, convenient residential area of Brooklyn is becoming even more popular.
The Brooklyn Historic District and the North Smithfield Historic District are the oldest intact residential developments in Smithfield. With the exception of several isolated pre-1875 dwellings in each district, large-scale dwelling construction began in the mid-1880s with Italianate and Queen Anne style houses. In Brooklyn, the contrast between the circa 1870 vernacular farmhouse of developer Seth Woodall and the 1880s Italianate and Gothic style townhouses built on newly-subdivided lots mirrors the economic evolution of the town itself, from sleepy agricultural market to an up-and-coming railroad town. The Woodall Farmhouse, built in the I-House form, symbolizes rural vernacular architecture of the later nineteenth century. T.R. Hood's Italianate house and John L. Davis's Gothic cottage, both of 1889, reflect the same awareness of popular architectural trends as stylish urban dwellings being built in such nearby towns as Raleigh, Rocky Mount, or Goldsboro at this time. Since the southern portion of North Smithfield functioned as the town center during the town's early years, this district reflects, from its earliest buildings, urban architectural traditions.
Brooklyn Historic District's later phases of architecture, the Queen Anne of the first decade of the 1900s, the Neoclassical Revival and Craftsman styles of the 1910s and 1920s, and the interest in Colonial Revival, as well as the so-called "period revivals" of Elizabethan and Tudor architecture, all paralleled the popularity of these styles in North Smithfield. The Neoclassical Revival style of the early twentieth century is represented more fully in North Smithfield than in Brooklyn, because developers of the nearby Smithfield Cotton Mill, as well as lawyers, built their spacious dwellings along Hancock and N. Second Streets. During the 1930s to the 1950s, North Smithfield's housing more closely paralleled that of Brooklyn. Both neighborhoods developed with Bungalows, Period Cottages, Colonial Revival houses, and Ranch houses during these decades.
Brooklyn and North Smithfield Districts' greatest distinction from residential historic districts such as Villa Place Historic District (National Register 1999) and Edgemont Historic District (National Register 1999), in Rocky Mount, is that they represent growth of the town outward from its early core, rather than planned subdivisions with names and plat maps. Smithfield neighborhoods evolved slowly from the 1880s to the 1940s, while the Rocky Mount suburbs, subdivided in the first decade of the century, were largely complete by World War II. Brooklyn reflects a much longer evolution and greater variety of housing types and styles than do Villa Place or Edgemont.
Annual Report, Johnston County Public Schools, 1908-1909.
Clayton Bud newspaper, Clayton, May 20 and June 17, 1885.
North Carolina Yearbook & Business Directory. Raleigh: News and Observer, 1902, 1903, 1906.
Patterson, Rose Grantham. Interview by Todd Johnston, Smithfield, July 1998.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps: 1901, 1915, 1924. On file at the Johnston County Room, Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield.
Shoemaker, Mary McCahan. An Inventory of Historic Architecture in the Town of Smithfield Town of Smithfield and the N.C. Division of Archives and History, 1977.
Smithfield Herald newspaper, Smithfield, 1886-1955. Harvest Edition, 1950; Bicentennial Supplement, 1977.
Smithfield Schools Annual Report, 1917-1918. Durham: Seeman Printers, 1918.
Vertical files, Johnston County Room, Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield.
† M. Ruth Little, Michelle Kullen and Todd Jonson, Longleaf Historic Resoruces and Johnston County Public Library, Brooklyn Historic District, Johnston County, NC, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.