The Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House (ca. 1935)
517 Hooper Lane
Chapel Hill, NC
Often the homes that come to mind when I look back on a career spent marketing historic properties with North Carolina Estates, Inc., are those with particularly memorable owners. That doesn’t mean that the house is not historically and architecturally significant but that there is a little corner of my heart that remembers a special person. Among those special people is Alice Welsh, with whom I worked to market the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House on lovely Hooper Lane. Alice, a petite woman with pretty “Alice Blue Gown” looks, served on the Chapel Hill Town Board of Aldermen between 1970-1975. It was a time of expansion for Chapel Hill’s Downtown, and a North Carolina-based bank proposed to build a multi-storied building on East Franklin Street. The scale of the proposed building was completely out of proportion to the existing streetscape and would have looked quite out of place. However, aesthetic sensibilities were not so finely honed in those days and there were many leading citizens that were in favor of the building as planned. But when feisty Alice Welsh called a press conference and stood in front of the proposed site and floated a helium balloon up to the proposed height, everyone present recognized that the building as planned would not be compatible with the scale of venerable East Franklin Street. I didn’t know Alice then but many years later in 2004 she contacted me to work with her to sell her charming circa 1935 Colonial Revival home on a small lot on one of the most pleasant streets in the Chapel Hill Historic District.
Like all old houses the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House had a few quirks (a neighbor’s connection to the town sewer ran under her driveway), but Alice had done a great job of sensitively expanding the original structure with a spacious master bedroom-bath addition. She surrounded the home with stonewalls and flowering shrubs and the interior was done with the help of a very fine designer who was her friend. The enclosed loggia that connected the original structure with the new master bedroom became a garden room with French doors opening to a nicely situated brick patio. Many a dinner party was enjoyed in that space with French doors flung wide and tinkling laughter spilling out into the night.
The history of the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House hearkened back to owner Dr. A. B. Roberson and his wife Cornelia and their five children. The Roberson family occupied a large house on a large lot on East Franklin Street. In 1932, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Roberson subdivided the back portion of the property into three lots facing Hooper Lane. She sold two of the lots but retained one for her middle daughter Bessie, wife of Charles T. Woolen, the comptroller of the University of North Carolina. Mrs. Roberson built a house on her daughter’s lot and for many years rented it to provide the family with additional income. When Bessie Woolen’s daughter Betsy and her husband Archer Roberts retired to Chapel Hill in 1967, they moved into the house Betsy’s grandmother had built. Betsy was widowed in 1971 but remained in the house until her death in 1983. * This portion of the house’s history was compiled by Chapel Hill historian and retired professor of Geography, Doug Eyre.
Alice Welsh lost her husband retired psychology professor George Welsh in 1990 after moving into the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House. Friends of the Welshes established the Dr. George and Alice Welsh Term Professorship in 1992. In 2006, Alice established the Millie Barranger Distinguished Professorship in Dramatic Art in recognition of her friend former dramatic art department chair and producing director of Playmakers Repertory Theatre. Alice continued to live and entertain in the Woolen-Roberts-Welsh House until she moved to The Cedars, a retirement community in the Meadowmont community of Chapel Hill.
©Diane Lea, North Carolina Historic Homes Broker and Consultant