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Cary Historic District

Cary Town, Wake County, NC

The Cary Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [&dagge;]

The Cary Historic District is an intact ensemble of small-town residential and educational architecture constructed from ca.1890 to 1945. It depicts the development of the town of Cary as a railroad village and educational center. This ensemble includes both modest examples of typical residential styles built during this period throughout small-town Wake County and North Carolina, as well as distinctive buildings unique to Cary, such as the impressive Queen Anne Captain Harrison P. Guess House and the Neoclassical Revival former Cary High School building. The 1939 high school building, along with a number of nearby residences that housed the school's faculty and students, symbolizes the prominent role of education in the town's history. Founded in 1907 as the first public high school in Wake County, Cary High School was also one of the first public high schools in North Carolina and served as a model for other schools across the state. The period of significance for the Cary Historic District begins around 1890, corresponding with the approximate date of construction of the oldest building in the district, and extends through 1945, which marked the beginning of the town's tremendous post-war suburban development.

Historical Background

The town of Cary has its roots in an eighteenth-century crossroads inn known as Bradford's Ordinary (Murray, 103; Byrd and Miller, 2). The inn, which was located near the Old Raleigh to Hillsborough Road (present-day NC 54), was owned first by John Bradford, and later by the Yates family (Byrd and Miller, 2-3). In 1854, Allison Francis (Frank) and Catherine (Kate) Page purchased 300 acres, including the old inn, from the Yates family (Byrd and Miller, 17).

The North Carolina Rail Road, the state's second railroad, was chartered in 1849 to link the cities of Goldsboro and Charlotte through Raleigh, Hillsborough, Greensboro, and Salisbury. To avoid rough terrain along what would be the most direct passage, the railroad was routed through the Cary area with its relatively level topography, roughly following the Raleigh to Hillsborough Road (present-day NC 54). The railroad was constructed through the area in 1856, with a "turnout" near the Page property where trains traveling in both directions could pass each other. That same year a post office was established at "Cary" with A.F. Page its first post master (Byrd and Miller, 20). Allison Francis (Frank) Page, a devoted advocate of temperance, is believed to have named the post office, and later the town, after Samuel Fenton Cary, a renowned temperance advocate from Ohio who later visited Raleigh (Lally, 329).

Although passenger service from Cary on the North Carolina Rail Road began as early as 1867, the first official depot was built the following year when the Chatham Railroad (now Seaboard Air Line) was constructed through Cary on its way south from Raleigh to the Chatham County coalfields (Byrd and Miller, 21). The two intersecting railroads shared the depot. The Pages, who were in the lumber and general merchandise business, greatly profited from their location adjacent to these railroads. In the late 1860s, the family built a fine hotel in the Second Empire style near the depot to accommodate railroad passengers later known as the Page-Walker Hotel (National Register, 1979). The Pages also laid out streets and sold one-acre lots for a new town. The town of Cary, officially described as "'one-half mile in each direction of the four walls of the Chatham Railroad warehouse,"' was chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1871 (Byrd and Miller, 22, 24 ). At the time of Cary's incorporation, there were 150 residents; by 1880 the town boasted a population of 316. During these years, in addition to the hotel, the village supported several saw- and gristmills, a sash-and-blind factory, at least three general merchandise stores and two churches, Methodist and Baptist (Murray, 651).

In the late nineteenth century, Cary's residents built houses, both simple and ornate, on the newly laid out streets, most prominent of which was South Academy Street. The Esther Ivey House (Raven House), a traditional I-house at 302 S. Academy Street, and the James Jones House at 324 S. Academy Street, a richly detailed Queen Anne cottage, date from this period. Although originally built in the mid-nineteenth century, most likely as a two-story farmhouse, the Captain Harrison P. Guess House (215 S. Academy Street) was expanded and elaborately remodeled in the Queen Anne style around the turn of the twentieth century.

While the railroad and the businesses that it spawned put Cary on the map, it was education that eventually kept it there. While laying out the town of Cary, Frank and Kate Page set aside one of their lots for a school. Cary Academy was founded in 1870, and a two-story, four-room building was built on top of a small hill at the end of S. Academy Street. A private boarding school, Cary Academy was incorporated as Cary High School in 1896, owned by as many as twenty-three stockholders. Under the leadership of principal E.L. Middleton, the school became a highly respected institution throughout the state (Byrd and Miller, 55). In 1900, the school had five teachers who taught 248 students (Byrd and Miller, 61), many of whom boarded in local homes, such as the Pasmore House (307 S. Academy Street) and the James Jones House (324 S. Academy Street). In the early twentieth century, the old school building was enlarged to provide dormitory rooms and additional classrooms.

In 1907, under the leadership of Governor Charles B. Aycock, the General Assembly passed into law a bill creating a system of public high schools in North Carolina. Almost immediately thereafter, the stockholders of Cary High School offered the campus for sale to the Wake County Board of Education. On April 3, 1907, just eight days after the legislation was passed, the offer was accepted and paid for with both county and state funds. Cary High School became the first public high school in Wake County and, given the speed with which it was acquired and opened, was likely the first state-assisted public high school in North Carolina under the new state law (Byrd and Miller, 62).

Under Marcus Baxter Dry, who served as principal from 1908 to 1942, Cary High School became a model for public high schools in the state due to its strong academics and innovative programming. During the 1910s and 1920s, the school offered, along with its academic subjects, vocational agriculture, home economics, and teacher training (Byrd and Miller, 63-64). In 1913, local bond funds and state funds paid for a modern brick main building. This building was in turn replaced in 1939 by a new, two-story, brick main building. Designed and constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the Neoclassical Revival style, the building cost an impressive $132,000 to build. It served as the town's high school until 1960 and has been used as Cary Elementary School since that time.

With its close proximity to Raleigh and the capital city's booming post-World War I economy, Cary essentially developed into a bedroom community for the capital city by the 1920s (Byrd and Miller, 75). A rural sociological study of Wake County conducted in the 1920s classified Cary as a "retired farmer village" (Zimmerman and Taylor). The town, then with a population of 645, supported two general stores, two doctors, one bank, one drugstore, one clothing store, and one cotton buyer (Lally, 329). Many Cary residents routinely traveled to Raleigh for professional goods and services, as well as entertainment and cultural events. Automobiles and good roads facilitated travel between the capital city and Cary. The Central Highway, one of the first paved roads in the state, was constructed between the two municipalities by 1920 (Byrd and Miller, 75). Within a few years, Cary was also connected by paved roads to Durham and Apex (Byrd and Miller, 79). In the two decades that followed, Cary became a convenient home for commuters to Raleigh, particularly employees of North Carolina State University and state government workers. These residents built relatively modest homes in the Craftsman and period revival styles, such as those found on S. Academy Street, Dry Avenue, and South Harrison Avenue in the district, as well as elsewhere in town.

Cary's population growth was relatively slow and steady until after World War II when several factors transformed it from a sleepy small town to a major suburban community, and ultimately to an independent economic center. Raleigh's fast-paced post-World War II development sparked the initial growth, as soldiers returning from war settled with their families in areas convenient to the capital city and the jobs it offered. A 1947 article on the town in The State notes that: "There has been an unusually large amount of residential building in the town of late.... (Q)uite a number of college teachers live here and have built recently. This also applies to college students. There's a community near the outskirts of town which is known as Veterans Hill. Thus far, thirteen new homes have been built in this section. You have to be a veteran in order to purchase a lot and build your house" (Goerch in The State, 20). An advertisement in the same publication touts Cary as "'The biggest little town in the South' To Live...To Locate...To Build." The ad features a picture of the period cottages along West Park Street (including 116 and 120 W. Park Street) with the caption: "Cary is a town with an unusually large number of attractive and comfortable homes. The above are typical of the type of residences which you will find here."

The development of Research Triangle Park along the nearby Wake/Durham county border in the late 1950s and early 1960s brought tremendous additional growth to Cary, as did the growth of Raleigh-Durham Airport, also located nearby. As the farm fields around the town were quickly transformed into subdivisions and shopping centers to house and serve the town's new residents, the town began annexing nearby subdivisions and rural areas. In 1945, the town's original boundaries of 1871 were still intact, including 640 acres. By its 100-year anniversary in 1971, the town encompassed over 4,100 acres, spreading over 6.4 square miles (Byrd and Miller, 110). Cary's population tripled from just over 1,000 residents in 1940 to over 3,000 in 1960 — and continued to more than double with each passing decade (Byrd and Miller, 185). In 2000, over 96,000 people called Cary home (Town of Cary Planning Department), most living and shopping in large-scale developments such as Kildaire Farms, MacGregor Downs, Lochmere, and Preston. Local historians Tom Byrd and Jerry Miller note that over eighty percent of Cary has been built since 1971 (Byrd and Miller, 133).

Amazingly, despite all of this phenomenal growth, the intersection of Chatham and Academy streets still serves as the heart of Cary. The town's current governmental offices were constructed in the 1970s on land owned by Frank and Kate Page. Although only a few original commercial buildings survive along Chatham Street, the downtown business district still serves old and new residents alike with a drugstore, post office, gas station, several restaurants, and specialty businesses. The Baptist and Methodist churches continue to occupy their original locations along S. Academy Street with enlarged buildings to serve growing congregations. The homes along S. Academy and S. Harrison in the Cary Historic District were built and occupied by the town's earliest citizens, business people, and educators. Although increasingly commercial in use, S. Academy Street still retains its residential nature, as do adjoining streets. Early Cary landmarks, such as the Captain Harrison P. Guess House at 215 S. Academy Street and the Esther Ivey House (Raven House) at 302 S. Academy Street, stand among newer buildings, such as the Cary Public Library at 310 S. Academy Street. The 1939 former high school building anchors the Cary Historic District and still reigns over downtown.


Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Byrd, Thomas, and Jerry Miller. Around and About Cary. Second edition. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1994.

Cary Area Centennial Corporation. Cary's 100th Anniversary. Raleigh: The Graphic Press, Inc., 1971.

Cary News. Special section commemorating the town's history and the newspaper's 25th anniversary, August 3, 1988.

Cary: A Walking Tour of Historic Sites, 1987, 1994.

Dry, M.B. "Forty Years a Principal," in 1635-1935: Three Hundred Years of American High Schools. Issued by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Publication no.184 (Feb. 1935), 18-21.

Dry, M.B. "History of Education at Cary." 1936. Reprinted in Cary News, May 5, 1971.

Goerch, Carl. "Cary is Going Places," in The State. September 27, 1947.

Hill, Mrs. Louis, interview. Conducted by Kelly Lally Molloy, March 13, 2000.

Lally, Kelly A. The Historic Architecture of Wake County, North Carolina. Wake County Government, 1994.

Lally, Kelly A. and Todd Johnson. "Historic and Architectural Resources of Wake County, North Carolina (ca.1770-1941). National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1993. Survey and Planning Branch, Historic Preservation Section, Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh.

Murray, Elizabeth Reid. Wake: Capital County of North Carolina. Volume I. Raleigh: Capital County Publishing Company, 1983.

Murray, Elizabeth Reid. File on the Town of Cary.

Survey and Planning Branch files on Cary, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Town of Cary Planning Department.

Zimmerman, Carle C., and Carl C. Taylor. Rural Organization: A Study of Primary Groups in Wake County, N.C., North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No.245, Aug. 1922.

‡ Kelly Lally Molloy, consultant for the Town of Cary, Cary Historic District, Wake County, NC, nomination documenty, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Academy Street South • Dry Avenue • Faculty Avenue • Harrison Avenue South • Park Street West