The Wilson Housing Authority has taken over management of Varita Court, a historic property that houses low-income elderly residents. The agency is also in the process of purchasing the building after it was in financial jeopardy with its current owner. The Housing Authority is slated to restore and make several improvements to the property which was constructed in 1923-24. All elderly residents will remain in their apartments. Drew Wilson | Times
Varita Court has a distinctive feature, an Art-Nouveau style stained glass frieze that hands about the front door of the historic building, constructed in 1923-24. The two women in the frame are likely Jesse B. Williams' daughters whom he named the building after when it was constructed. Drew Wilson | Times
VARITA COURT HISTORY
In 1923, Jesse B. Williams purchased the B.F. Briggs House on North Goldsboro Street and commissioned Tommy Herman, then a draftsman with the architectural firm Benton and Benton and later a prominent architect in his own right, to draw up plans for the Varita Court Apartments.
Williams, a businessman and planter, named the building after his daughter, Virginia Williams, and stepdaughter, Rita Gay Williams.
Varita Court also has a distinct stained glass feature that stretches across the front door of the building. The design features two women with flowing hair, on each side of a stylized letter “V,” who likely represent Williams’ daughters.
Williams had his own suite of rooms in the building designed for his specifications. He lived there until his death in 1936. Herman, the young architect, also incorporated a small bachelor apartment into the building, where he lived for several years.
Williams came here in the 1890s during Wilson’s first post-Civil War boom. He married Mattie (Branch) Gay, daughter of Alpheus Branch, founder of today’s Branch Banking and Trust Co., or BB&T. Mattie was also a widow of Edwin Gay, a proprietor of a local drug goods store.
Varita Court was one of the first large apartment buildings constructed in Wilson. Throughout the years, it was also a popular place to stay with visiting tobacco buyers who annually flooded Wilson, officials said.
SOURCE: National Register of Historic Places Inventory, Nomination Form and Wilson Historic Buildings Inventory synopsis.
By Olivia Neeley
Times Staff Writer
The architectural integrity of a historic landmark in downtown Wilson will be preserved in a project that will also keep elderly residents from being displaced.
The Wilson Housing Authority has come to the rescue of Varita Court, a 1920s-era apartment complex that’s home to more than 20 low- and moderate-income elderly residents.
While the housing authority has officially taken over management of Varita Court, located at 205 N. Goldsboro St., it is also in the process of finalizing the purchase of the three-story building. The housing authority is working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to purchase the building and help restore some of its former shine.
“Varita Court is an historic building in downtown Wilson that needed saving, both for the elderly residents who live there and for the community as a whole,” said Kelly Vick, Wilson Housing Authority’s president and CEO. “It is a win for Wilson that we could work out a deal to repair this historic building while keeping it as affordable housing for the people in our community who need it.”
The Tudor-style building has 24 one- and two bedroom units for residents age 62 and over who are on fixed and low incomes.
The old jewel, filled with rich, local history, is slated for a series of improvements. The first major project the housing authority will tackle includes replacing the roof and repointing all of the building’s exterior brick work to make it more waterproof, officials said.
That work is being facilitated by a $500,000 loan from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. The financing will also help with a second phase of improvements to the building that includes replacing the HVAC system and elevator, Vick said.
Housing authority maintenance crews will also work on interior repairs.
PROPERTY WAS IN JEOPARDY
Varita Court was in financial jeopardy and so were its residents, who would have had to find new housing if the Wilson Housing Authority had not stepped in. The housing authority is acquiring the property from current owner Neal Hunt of Raleigh, who purchased it in 1980, according to Wilson Times archives.
Vick said the property, which carries about $600,000 debt, had failed several HUD inspections in the past. He said the housing authority will assume the debt of Varita Court in exchange for ownership.
He said after nearly a year of crunching numbers, reaching out to various officials and working with HUD, who is helping the WHA restructure the loans, he believed it was a viable opportunity.
It will also release the current owner from any liability.
“We are excited the arrangement to preserve the Varita Court Apartments worked out so well,” said Rodger Lentz, the city’s chief planning and development officer. “Without the leadership from the Wilson Housing Authority, the Wilson community would have lost this important affordable housing project for our community’s seniors.”
Lentz said once officials became aware the apartments were in danger of becoming vacant due to issues with its current ownership, Vick took a leadership role in evaluating the feasibility of managing the property.
“We are pleased WHA could take on this property, and we look forward to continuing to work together to ensure this project is a success,” he added.
Vick said after the housing authority’s management and maintenance teams take over, they feel strongly that they can eliminate the building’s debt and get it to a point of positive cash flow.
“We were the last alternative for that building,” Vick said, adding that their No. 1 priority when looking into the option was to ensure those elderly residents weren’t displaced.
HOMAGE TO HIS DAUGHTERS
Located in the old Wilson Historic District, Varita Court was built in 1923-24 by Wilson businessman and planter Jesse B. Williams. He named the apartment building after his daughter, Virginia Williams, and stepdaughter, Rita Gay Williams.
One of the most unique features at Varita Court is an Art Nouveau-style stained glass frieze that stretches across the front door of the building. It consists of a stylized letter “V” flanked by the faces and flowing hair of two young women, who likely represent Williams’ daughters.
The intricate stained glass is filled with brown, amber and olive green hues that stand out.
REWARD FOR RESIDENTS AND DOWNTOWN
Faye Mobley of HUD’s Southeastern Region in Atlanta visited Wilson recently to tour the building and discuss with housing authority staff the challenges and opportunities presented with taking over the historic property.
Mobley said saving historic structures like Varita Court is important to communities and that HUD is committed to working with the Wilson Housing Authority to make the project a success.
Vick said Varita Court will be kept as an elderly housing unit. Those who are currently living there will remain. He said there are two vacant units right now, and officials are in the process of getting them ready for leasing.
Vick said he anticipates closing on the building in two months. After that, he said he hopes to begin the first phase of improvements within 30 days.
He said with the assumption of debt and the new capital coming in from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency, it would be more than $1.1 million investment in downtown Wilson. And Vick believes it will continue to be cherished by not only the community but by its residents as well, all the while keeping its history for many more years to come.
“We just felt the reward for downtown Wilson and the residents was worth taking the risk of any hidden damages that might be in a 100-year-old building,” Vick said.
Varita Court joins Forest Green and the C. Bruce Rose Tower as housing option for the elderly in Wilson run by the Wilson Housing Authority.
The Wilson Housing Authority currently serves 2,810 residents through both its conventional public housing programs and its partnership with private-sector housing providers through the federal Housing Choice Voucher program.
Under Vick, the housing authority has been a leader in building community-based partnerships with both the public and private sectors.