The FLAT-TOP HOUSES of Southern Shores [caption id="attachment_138688" align="alignnone" width="1280"] No TV. No kidding! Hear only breakers roar or the occasional thrum of offshore trawlers. Since 1969, the Mackey
Think of these houses as dunescapes re-created in lines and blocks. Open wood soffits show structural elements from the inside out. Little lumber was used to build the outer shells, which were made from sand and sediment. These designs, borrowed from Prairie and Bauhaus styles, were cemented into a rustic mid-century vernacular by maverick builder and real estate visionary Frank Stick. A talented artist and commercial illustrator, the national parks conservationist christened Southern Shores and built his first block cottages on the oceanfront in 1947. Some folks thought he was plumb crazy — but not Peter Dunne, whose family owned and relished one of the Ocean Boulevard originals. “Arriving, driving up, opening the door — you get that wonderful cedar smell,” Dunne recalls. “You open the back door, you get the ocean smell, and you’re home.”
So named for a favorite camellia and painted in shades of its likeness, this summer home was loved and preserved by the Pipkin family for four generations. It’s crammed with mementos — a vintage life preserver, a classic M. Charles seascape, and the original house plans signed by renowned North Carolina modernist architect Edward Lowenstein. Authentic juniper paneling and cabinetry was harvested from lower Currituck County by the team of Spruill & Perry. Being at the house deepens the experience: At daybreak, expect to find deer tracks in the dunes and see gull prints where the surf licks the shore. By afternoon, balmy summer winds flow through the bedroom wing, breezing through clerestory windows and into the living spaces on their way through the screened porch and seaward.
Skyline Road crests at the site of this vintage flat-top cottage. From here, it’s entirely possible to peel back layers of old-growth native shrubs and trees and, yes, newer two-story summer homes to imagine the far view from the triple-panel window when this Frank Stick-designed cottage was built in 1953. The last owner donated the house to the Outer Banks Community Foundation in 2007. The OBCF created the Flat Top Preservation Fund, with interest accrued earmarked for maintenance and repairs, in perpetuity.
Had the value of Southern Shores’ idiomatic flat-top cottages been recognized decades ago, a national historic district, like the one preserving Nags Head Beach Cottage Row, may have succeeded. Nevertheless, one by one, some have been spared demolition. The Town of Southern Shores launched a Historic Landmark Commission in 2016. So far, six flat-tops have been placqued. That won’t stop nor’easters from barreling up the Gulf Stream or hurricanes from churning the waters, but, at 42 pounds per concrete block, the last flat-tops won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Jonathan Daniels was the first to write the phrase “Unpainted Aristocracy,” and Catherine Bishir, our state’s foremost authority on historic architecture, was the first to borrow it. Bishir herself was socially acquainted with Daniels when he was editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. He coined the phrase to describe the Old Nags Head oceanfront village, she minted it, and it stuck.
Nags Head Beach Cottage Row, a National Register Historic District, celebrates “Old Nags Head style” as its own vernacular form. As early as the 1860s, planters and merchants built homes with salvaged wood or lumber from Elizabeth City or other areas on the Albemarle. Like others conducting architectural surveys in the 1970s, Bishir interviewed many elderly people. “I remember this one couple — when they talked about Nags Head, they laughed and smiled and looked 10 or 15 years younger,” Bishir says. “I have fond memories of being there. I just think it’s a super special place.”
First-timers may wonder if the journey will ever end. As NC Highway 12 crawls north toward Corolla, consider this: Native Americans left footprints in these sands and named the area Carotank, later pronounced Currituck, meaning “land of the wild goose.” For night riders, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, completed in 1875, beams brightly from dusk until dawn. That sweeping beacon also illuminates Corolla Island — the name given to the most opulent of all of Currituck’s famed hunting clubs, known today as the Whalehead Club.
When Whalehead Club curator Jill Landen opens the door of the 43-room mansion, she sometimes catches a spectral whiff of a cigar — and smiles. Landen is motivated by the mystique surrounding Edward Collings Knight Jr. and his bride, Marie Louise Lebel, the couple who built the 21,000-square-foot home now owned by Currituck County. Yes, they were rich, yet so were the members of most Currituck hunt clubs. But Mrs. Knight was not your average lady. She was French Canadian and enjoyed shooting. So the Knights built a hunting mansion of their own, now considered to be one of the finest expressions of Art Nouveau style in the country. They likely purchased entire rooms — in vogue during the 1904 St. Louis Exposition — inspired by fluid forms found in nature. Construction began in 1922 and ended in 1925. A letter written by the couple’s contractors states: “This is going to be a puzzle … but Madame knows what she wants.”
After the last Currituck Inlet closed in 1828 and Civil War soldiers discovered Currituck Sound teeming with waterfowl, word spread. “Currituck duck” appeared on menus in the finest hotel restaurants. Private hunt clubs popped up, and yet the dark stretch of coastline still posed a challenge for mariners. Meghan Agresto, site manager of the Currituck Beach Light Station, says that Currituck Beach was a peninsula when the wicks were lit in December 1875. Six months later, the keepers’ duplex house was completed on-site. Originally framed in Baltimore, it was disassembled for transport and reconstructed by a crew of about 20 men, including German house carpenter William Horner, who signed an attic eave, “… now finishing up this jobb [sic]. May 8, 1876.” According to Agresto, whose family lived in the house for a spell, “Victorian Stick style ages very well.”
Where the Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic, there’s an island. Men have bought and sold it, changing its name from Smith Island to Palmetto Island. Yet to seafarers, the dune on the western end of the cape has long been Bald Head. The rising dune was a prominent headland, says maritime historian and award-winning author Kevin Duffus. Margaret Swan Hood, daughter of Capt. Charles Norton Swan, keeper of the Cape Fear Lighthouse from 1903 to 1933, recalled in an interview, “You’d go out and look way out there, and you couldn’t see a thing … and if you looked long and hard enough, you might see three little sticks. And then if you waited, you might see a ship come over the horizon.” When he stands on the station house porch now, Duffus muses. “I certainly would have loved to be one of Captain Charlie’s children,” he says. “Sounds like an idyllic time.”
Captain Charlie was 12 when he first laid eyes on Bald Head Island. His father was a lightkeeper and had been assigned to the lightship at Frying Pan Shoals. Young Charlie rowed to the nearby island and befriended the surfmen. Construction on the Cape Fear Lighthouse began in 1901, when the Lighthouse Service commissioned a dock on the island’s riverfront. Building supplies were shipped to the site and offloaded onto flat cars pulled by mules along a three-mile tram line — the now-paved Federal Road. As the beacon neared completion, three identical houses were built for Captain Charlie, his sentries, and their families.
The dates may be subject to interpretation, but the facts remain — Beaufort’s streets are among the oldest on the North Carolina coast. Patricia Suggs, executive director of Beaufort Historic Site, explains that the town was laid out in 1713 with permission from the Lords Proprietors. “Beaufort was a little bitty village … only way to get here was by water,” she says. For more than a century, the remote hamlet with a deep-water harbor remained intact. New England sea captains returning from the Caribbean Islands laid over here before continuing on to Northern destinations. Some swear that Beaufort was Blackbeard’s hideaway. Legend and lore aside, the architecture is inspired by Colonial styles imported from the West Indies. When the Civil War broke out, Suggs says, “it was quickly taken over by the Union. That’s what saved Beaufort — they didn’t burn it down.”
The first time they visited the Jacob Henry House, Shari and Steve Redhage of Tarboro nearly fell through the rotting floorboards. Nevertheless, they bought the 1771 property, observing its 250th anniversary this year. Shari can count on one hand how many owners have lived here: five. “One of the last families to own it before we bought it in 2014 held it for more than 125 years,” she says. The house at 229 Front Street sat dormant for at least a decade before the Redhage rescue, replication, and final restoration. In the process, Steve, a structural engineer, uncovered guttered corner posts: “The four corners are one solid timber,” he says. Rising from the lowest floor joist to the tallest attic beam, “all timbers are hand-hewn, all heart pine — old-growth, original yellow pine from eastern North Carolina.” Trim was matched and replaced using original techniques. Shari laughs, “The joke is, we took it apart and took it to Tarboro and brought it back to Beaufort.”
“Hammocks” — or “hummocks” — refer to marsh islands like the ones that make up the Beaufort archipelago buffering Taylor Creek from Onslow Bay and the open Atlantic. Some think this storied home is the White House, a dead reckoning that appeared on early nautical charts dating to the 1730s, warning mariners of Beaufort Inlet. The original house may have operated as an “ordinary” — a roadhouse of sorts — where groggy seafarers were fed and laid their heads before rowing back to their ships anchored offshore. The West Indian influence is evident. The two-stage roof is steeply pitched at the apex, then flattens to provide a wide, overhanging cover over double-stacked porches. Third-floor dormer windows, when opened, move hot air outdoors, where it belongs. Shiplap siding harkens to the town’s earliest recorded history, which suggests that ship carpenters may have built this home and others like it.
Ask Betty Cloutier if Blackbeard slept at the Hammock House, and she’s ready to stir tea. “What we believe is [that it’s] true. We were told about Blackbeard and the ghost.” Betty herself has felt the presence of spirits a few times since she and her husband, Gilles, purchased the circa-1709 home in 1994. “I’ve been an ardent preservationist all my life,” she says. And Gilles? “This house needs us,” he said — and so the Chapel Hill couple employed a local artisan to repair it. Mortise-and-tenon joinery was revealed during the restoration. “The house was not built with nails,” Betty says. “Nails were used as tacks. This house was put together with pegs.” Thirty-third in a long line of owners, the Cloutiers feel connected to their coastal cottage. “There was something that felt very organic,” Betty says. “I’ve made it a fun place … the rest is history.”
Counting down the centuries, the 1790 Nelson House anchors the 200 block of Front Street in Old Town Beaufort. A 19th-century trellis marking the garden entrance is festooned with climbing sweetheart roses that burst into bloom each May, beckoning passersby to peer into the lush grounds in spring and summer. Inside, the winding staircase is unique to the home’s period. Three baskets of vintage bottles have been passed from one homeowner to the next. And an antique walking wheel — in the Sutton family since 1958 and now a fixture in Jerri Sutton’s sitting room — once allowed women to walk to and fro while spinning yarns.