House On Wade Avenue
1:57 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

VIDEO: What's Inside This House On Wade Avenue?

House Wade Avenue Pump Station
This house, at 3215 Wade Avenue, holds a secret
Credit Eric Mennel

 Update: 1/27/14, 10:35 a.m.: Nine days after our story "What's Inside This House On Wade Avenue" premiered here, the video story has 857,751 views on YouTube (and counting). The story has broken all previous records for WUNC in terms of page and video views. Find a new interview with the star of the show, Perry Allen, construction projects administrator for the city of Raleigh, below the story.

What's Inside This House On Wade Avenue?

If you live or work in Raleigh, there's a reasonable chance you've driven by it. Maybe hundreds, or even thousands of times. And, chances are, you've never noticed anything out of the ordinary. In most ways, it's wholly unremarkable.

The house at 3215 Wade Avenue, about 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh, looks just like the rest of the houses in that neighborhood. A nice metal roof. Forest green window shutters. Doric columns line the front porch.

But there's no driveway out front. And the lights are never on. And there's no walkway to the front door.

Of course, none of those amenities are necessary, because this house is not a house at all:

(Don't read anymore if you haven't watched the video and want to be surprised.)

OK, here's the secret:

The ordinary-looking house on Wade Ave actually disguises a pump station for the city of Raleigh public utilities.

A pump station is basically a supercharger - Water comes in, the station speeds it up, and pushes the water uphill. Without these things, the city's water would run backwards. It would never get to your sink.

The city has about 20 different pump stations, but Wade Avenue's is the only one that looks like a house.

Wade Avenue Pump Station
The Pump Station Inside 3215 Wade Avenue
Credit Eric Mennel / WUNC

Why Keep It Hidden?

In the late 70s, the city decided, for various reasons, this would be the best site for the pump station. Unfortunately, pump stations are notoriously loud and ugly. There's a church in the neighborhood, and the city actually held a meeting to hear from the congregation.

Mostly out of courtesy, the city decided to help the station blend in. The house looks just like all the other houses in the neighborhood in terms of architectural style. And to deal with the noise problem, they used sound dampening materials in the construction. So while the walls of your house might be made of wood and plaster, these are made of cinder block.

Not Just Raleigh

Turns out, these things are lurking all over the place. They're in Florida, and Virginia, New York, California, Wisconsin. While no definitive list exists, it wouldn't be unreasonable to bet there's one of these "houses" or something like it in every state in the country. Some of them hide pump stations. Others hide electrical generators and the like.

Nashville, power station
Views from outside and above a disguised power facility in Nashville, TN
Credit Google Maps / Google

Perry Allen, the city employee who walked me through the house, says that this pump station never has any problems with vandalism, unlike other pump stations that are in more remote areas, undisguised. "They tend to interest people more," he told me, which is crazy because the house on Wade Avenue is clearly the most interesting.

But, just to be clear, the house is monitored remotely, and access is strictly limited to those who know who to call to get in. So don't plan on going house (or pump station) hunting this weekend.

(h/t to the Reddit feed that first pointed this out to us)

Reaction to the "House on Wade Ave" story:

We've been really surprised at how popular this story has become online. Many of you told us that you had no idea about the history of the house on Wade Ave.

Chris writes: "I remember when they were building [the house on Wade Ave] because my brothers and sisters and I used to wonder what was hidden inside. We could tell it wasn't a real house. Our guesses were much wilder than just a pump station."

Lots of you shared your own stories with us on social media. Here are some from Facebook:

Vickie: My sister once lived in new rural subdivision that was big enough to need its own fire station. They took the biggest model house and modified the garage with bigger doors. And that was the fire station until a real one was built nearby a few years later. They removed the enormous garage doors, fixed the walls, and sold it as a normal house--you cant even tell now.

Joan: I need to figure out how to share this with the city of Newark! Much nicer to look at than the huge metal blocks and pipes we get to see in our neighborhoods.

Myra: Here in the Bronx there is an entire block (Bruckner Blvd/138) that looks like an apt complex to cover huge generators for ConEd and going towards Westchester Cty a cell tower that looks like a tree.

Patricia: We have a cell phone tower in our city that looks like a tree. ATT is planning for another one by a preschool. The school and the neighbors around are trying to fight it going in. Although the property owner, a Church, wants it for the $$$ of course.

The story is getting reaction at the NPR blog, The Two-Way. Here is an interesting comment from SarahKatherine:

Many years ago ... I lived in a gated equestrian community in one of the west coast states. .... A former riding instructor of mine, then retired, told me when she moved into the neighborhood with her two mares that she'd always wanted to live where she could go to the barn in her pj's if she had to - like watching for an impending birth, or caring for a sick horse round the clock.

I noticed a great deal of construction both at the barn and near the house going on following move-in day. Then, I never saw her horses in the barn area which appeared to have been boarded up.

One day I stopped by to share some recently harvested tulip bulbs and asked her about her horses. "Come with me!" she said, and "afterward we'll have tea." We walked the short covered walkway to the enclosed garage and opened the door - there were her two horses! No concrete floor anymore, rubber mats on clay footing, deeply bedded luxurious very large stalls with windows and paddocks facing away from the street and cleverly hidden from nosy neighbors.

I tried to take this all in, it really was palatial. So stupidly I asked, but where are the cars?! Smugly, she pointed to the "boarded up" barn. And said, "see! I always wanted to live where I could run to the barn in my pj's if I had to!" And, so she did. Much, much more benign than a missile silo. Trompe l'oeil. People see what they want to see!

A week after his video went viral, we talked again with Perry Allen, construction projects administrator for the city of Raleigh. As you can imagine, he is really surprised at how many people are interested in his work.

In your wildest dreams, did you think that you'd become an internet sensation this year?

"No, I did not, that's the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I am an in-the-background type of guy."

Do you have any regrets about doing the video?

"Well --- regret? I don't like to hear myself speak. Nobody's hurt my feelings, so it's turned out it better than I thought."

How would someone hurt your feelings?

"I don't like the way I talk or sound, I sound like a redneck hick, and I can't help it. It's the way I was brought up. A lot of others in the organization can be more polished." [Allen was born in Concord, NC.]

Do you think that the video will help people understand a little more about how city water works?

"I think it will. A lot of people do not realize what it takes to get water to your faucet. Or when you flush your toilet, or wash your dishes or your clothes, what it takes to get that water cleaned, and what it takes to get it back into the environment."

What's next for you?

"Before the economy turned down, we were going as hard as we could putting water lines in the ground to keep up with the growth. When the economy slowed down, we sat down and said 'This is an opportune time to look at our existing infrastructure.' We are replacing water lines, adding water lines. A lot of the water lines were put in 50, 60, 70 ago years ago.  They won't last forever. "