BLOWING ROCK — More than a million dollars — $60,000 to $80,000 annually in recent years — has been raised by St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church with its Tour of Homes special event, now in its 63rd year, to make community funded contributions to various special needs in the area. Thanks to modern Internet technology and the innovative minds of the church planning committee, the event survived the pandemic and lives on even in uncertain times.
The Virtual Tour of Homes launches July 23 and will showcase four Blowing Rock homes selected by the planning committee of the church — and thanks to the generous largesse and cooperation of the homeowners.
Loy McGill, chair of the planning committee explained that the group began its work early in the spring still facing a lot of uncertainty about COVID-19 and its impact in the High Country and beyond.
“Given current information from public health officials and the need to plan in the weeks ahead, we determined that the 2021 summer Tour will be virtual, showcasing the beautiful homes of Otis and Jean Sawyer, Jeff Roberts, Richard and Polly Gambill, and Lee Rocamora and John Thompson,” said McGill.
As a real estate broker in Winston-Salem, McGill brings firsthand knowledge about what makes a residence special, but each member of her committee brings a unique skillset and perspective to the task of raising money for the community, including their overcoming the challenges the pandemic limitations presented and the group’s use of technology in furthering the mission.
“These four Blowing Rock homes have a variety of interior designs, art and antiques, and each have spectacular views that the homeowners are generously sharing on the virtual tour,” said McGill. “Their united commitment to bettering the community through the Tour initiative is inspiring. In addition to the Virtual Tour of Homes, the public will have an opportunity to participate in an Online Auction. Both will be online beginning July 23, 2021, and the online auction will be live until noon August 6. The Tour will be available for viewing through year-end.”
McGill summed up the impact of the 2021 homes being featured when she said, “Living with art is a lifestyle. These homeowners have mastered it with ease.”
St. Mary of the Hills descriptions of each home:
Custom designed for Jean and Otis Sawyer by Sketchline Architecture, Gretel’s Haus was built by 4 Forty Four Builders on a beautifully wooded site. There are many thoughtful design elements throughout, beginning on the home’s exterior that has a Bavarian ski lodge aesthetic. The woodwork on the gable are multiple S’s for Sawyer. Leaf cut-outs on the wooden banisters and gates were designed and executed to represent the trees on the estate. Why the name Gretel’s Haus? Gretel is the Sawyer’s beautiful dog!
The living room is the heart of the home and welcomes family and visitors alike. Mr. Sawyer is in the furniture business, and comfortable and perfectly suited pieces from companies that he represents are mixed with family heirlooms throughout the house. Collected pieces from their travels and special treasures are also front and center, inviting a story. A floating fireplace separates the living room from the dining room where a period console and lovely oil painting anchor the dining area. The deck, with ample space for relaxing and taking in the views, can be entered from the living areas.
The light and airy primary bedroom can be entered directly from the living area and also has access to the deck. The bedroom has a vaulted ceiling with an exposed Bavarian style painted beam. It is a very comfortable sanctuary and invites lingering over a cup of coffee and a good book. The primary bathroom has very special tile work in the walk-in shower and dual custom vanities.
The home is designed so that the homeowners can spend most of their time living on one level. A lovely additional bedroom and bath also provide guest privacy and all the amenities on the first floor. 4 Forty Four Interiors provided interior design assistance to the homeowners to assure that all needs were met.
A gourmet kitchen with Bosch appliances, features a soffit design and has a stained, knotty alder shiplap. Cabinetry houses a special collection of Southern pottery including wedding pottery from the homeowner’s parents, and Edgar Pearce watercolors are of the New Jersey shore near an area where Mr. Sawyer grew up. Significant art work anchors every room. There is every thought to detail in this home. Even the floor leading to the well-appointed laundry room is brick-laid, and a barn door is used to give the space some extra pizzazz.
Upstairs, the grandchildren have their own special suite. At the top of the stairs, a large antique English voting box sets the stage for a very special room. Antique twin beds are dressed in bed linens designed by Ed Springs. Best of all, the room has a secret! Behind the built-in bookcases there is a room that is accessed by raising a lever hidden in a book. What a treat for the grandchildren – and to adults who find their way into the hidden room filled with toys and stuffed animals!
Landscaping by The Mustard Seed frames the fairy-tale home and begs you for a return visit. Combined with a lovely view, this welcoming home, filled with warmth, is a very special place.
Maison Dans Les NaugesMaison Dans Les Nauges, or House in the Clouds, is the home of Polly and Richard Gambill. First built in the sixties, it was described then by The Charlotte Observer as “a little French townhouse with a mansard roof…a little jewel” It has been totally remodeled and is now a large, comfortable mountain home with spacious deck affording spectacular views, making it the perfect full-time home for the Gambills. The French influence has been maintained and beautiful gardens have been newly created.
In the entry, art welcomes family and friends: glass by Fruin, steel art by David Russell Smith and metal floral-framed designs by Tommy Mitchell. The living room is a welcoming space and is the heart of the house. It is a comfortable lounging area with beautiful Southern art. Bass Lake is featured in an oil painting Summer Serenity by F. Baggett, lending a peaceful ambiance to the room. An eclectic collection of glass and clay art abounds in the room and on the shelves, including glass by Goldhagen, a Terry Lewis signature dogwood vase, and the homeowner’s collection of goats by ceramic artists.
On the dining room buffet, Longboat to Valhalla by an Asheville glass artist, and the painting Ever Changing by artist Brenda M. Councill take center stage. The table is ready for a night to remember, with a showstopper ceramic centerpiece made by Jenny Sherburn. The beautiful and spacious deck can be entered off the living and dining areas and has seating, dining and an area for relaxing in the jacuzzi.
Upstairs, the primary bedroom showcases David Eichelberger’s, Wall Tray Set, and other art pieces that are particularly special. There is a private balcony off the bedroom to enjoy a morning coffee or evening cocktail. The en-suite bathroom and spacious dressing room are every person’s dream. Additional second floor bedrooms offer luxurious amenities.
The downstairs guest apartment has wonderful extended living space and a kitchen. Framed world and United States maps pinpoint the sites and dates where the Gambills have travelled. The one billion-year-old rock on which the home was built is also exposed for viewing.
It may be a “House in the Clouds” but on a clear day you can even see the skyline of Charlotte! The views are truly magnificent!
The Jeff Roberts’ HouseLast year Jeff Roberts and his wife Casey Bastion were gutting, remodeling and updating their mid-seventies house to make an open floor plan that made living with their art seamless. Jeff continued the plans after Casey’s death, and the house that is now a home is a testament to their life together.
In addition to the contemporary art, notable features on the first floor include the steel fireplace surround. Above the fireplace Tim Turner’s Bird’s 53 grabs your attention. Cabinets flank the fireplace and a number of pieces purchased from artists at Art in the Park in Blowing Rock are displayed, along with Rick Beck’s Screw, and Sam McDowell’s Ambrosia Maple Burl that lends an organic element.
All spaces benefit from a touch of Oriental furnishings and the living room console is a handsome decorative element between the living space and the relaxed dining area. The dining room painting is by Jim Chapman. Joshwa painted the beguiling portrait of a Maltese maiden that hangs on a short wall separating the dining room from the gourmet kitchen. Accomplished chefs, the homeowners furnished the kitchen with Wolf and KitchenAid appliances to make cooking easy and fun.
The primary bedroom features art, antiques, and “newtiques” – round furniture complementary with the contemporary vibe. Additional bedrooms remind that comfort is luxury.
Heading downstairs, the gently curving staircase shows the creativity of Roberts who fashioned the pedestal, and the legs for the downstairs table. The cozy den has a comfortable sitting area in front of the fireplace. There are numerous paintings by Sam Ezell, Julian Davis’ Back Alley takes everyone back to urban roots, and The Polka Dot Cat by Norma Murphy is a fun riff on Manet. A study dedicated to baseball memorabilia, is jammed full of baseballs, gloves, signed pictures and baseball bats from Hall of Famers. It is an amazing experience to be in that room!
Additional bedrooms and baths round out the lovely downstairs.
From the living, dining and primary bedroom areas you can enjoy the view and enter the decks. The views of Elk Knob, Snake Mountain, Cone Manor, the Parkway, and Wilkesboro are inviting and spectacular!
The home of Drs. Lee Rocamora and John Thompson was designed by Fryday and Doyne of Charlotte, NC, to blend into the neighborhood, and sighted to take advantage of the expansive view of Grandfather and the John’s River Gorge. It was also designed to mitigate exposure to sun and wind. Rocamora and Thompson are collectors: the spacious house was designed to showcase the stunning art. Most of the artists in their vast collection are North Carolina painters, including Blowing Rock artist Philip Moose. The focus of the decorative arts includes Penland artists.
From the moment one enters the home the attention to detail is apparent. The vaulted ceiling and walls are all white oak, as are all doors and cabinets throughout the home, to provide an organic continuity of space. The first impression is that the home is something extraordinary; spectacular art welcomes in the foyer. Then, in the living room, a fireplace table by Nakashima and lamps by ceramic artist Tom Suomalainen reinforce that the home is a collector’s paradise. The see-through stacked stone fireplace is framed on both sides by lighted glass shelves filled with notable glass and ceramics by renown artists. On the living room mantle is a collection by ceramic artist Michael Sherrill. The main floor living area features paintings including those by Gatewood and Payne, Moose, and Kahn. A collaborative glass sculpture on the sofa coffee table is by glass artists Kate Vogel and John Littleton. In the dining room a Bruton pyramid table and Norman Cherner chairs hold center court. Cordova’s The Guardian overlooks the dining area from the mantle. Pablo Soto created the dining room glass chandelier.
The kitchen was designed by Beth Merrell of Donlon Merrell, Charlotte and fashioned with a combi steam oven, and 2 dishwashers for easy clean up. The Subzero refrigerator and freezer seamlessly blend into the white oak quarter sawn cabinetry designed by NC Crystal Cabinets. All in all, the kitchen sets the scene for culinary success for the enthusiastic cooks, as does the adjacent butler’s pantry that has more than ample storage for anything you could ever need. Burled walnut counter chairs by artist Wyatt Severs allow for casual in-kitchen dining or a casual cup of coffee while watching the ever changing weather.
The primary bedroom has a direct view of Grandfather. A table by ceramic artist Herb Cohen, previously from Blowing Rock, directs the gaze to the window. A wall-sized frieze-like painting called Sand Castle by Summer Wheat is of women doing daily tasks — the same as men would perform. Giraffe bedside table lamps by ceramic artist Jane Peiser anchor bedside tables. The generous en-suite dressing room and bathroom have many custom features.
Grayson Gordon hand-forged a Weldon fabrication staircase bannister leading to the downstairs where one is immediately captivated by a Heather Allen quilt. Wendell Castle made a handsome table in the downstairs entry.
A floating fireplace and cozy den seating area welcome all to enjoy the beauty of the tree-tops and gentle vista of the mountains. Stunning art competes for the visitor’s attention. A stacked stone wall includes lighted niches with extraordinary ceramic and glass art. There is also a bar with ice maker and a warming drawer to make downstairs entertaining effortless.
In the study, Emily Wilson’s birds notably hold court. A cabinet contains significant glass pieces, that represent the beginning of the homeowner’s collection. Handsome hand-crafted chairs by Michael Brown, a hand drawn birthday card from Eric Carle, and Bird and Fish by Daniel Essig, are just some of the collectible items. The office also has a series of Mykonos paintings by McKnight.
There are two comfortable guest bedrooms in the downstairs – both furnished thoughtfully and showcasing important art and ceramics. The mountain views from the rooms are soothing. In addition, en-suite bathrooms provide lovely amenities for guests. Who would want to leave?
BLOWING ROCK — With a nod to the Cinemascope world in which we live, artist Waitsel Smith produces all of his paintings using a 1:2 or 2:1 aspect ratio. His visually stunning imagery is on display — and he is available to talk about it — this week at Edgewood Cottage as part of the ongoing Artists in Residence series produced by Blowing Rock Historical Society.
It is not surprising that a former creative director in advertising would create stark imagery that might well be used in promotional campaigns if not in fine art. The impact is sometimes surprising.
“That painting over there,” Smith says in pointing across the room to the painting of a woman, back turned with loosely braided blonde hair falling against a mostly bare back while facing down a lane to a farmhouse, “evokes all sorts of emotions in women. The thoughts, hopes, fears, joys, despair ... they just well up inside of women in ways that I never dreamed of when I painted it. And it pours out of them as they share how it speaks to them. It has really caught me off guard a few times.”
Smith often starts with the human image he wants in his picture and then develops the background. Maybe it is a sailor he saw at church, or something he saw on the Internet that inspires him.
“I don’t go around hunting for scenes like a lot of plein air artists do,” said the painter who maintains a studio and gallery in Lenoir. “I have started to do a little bit of plein air painting, and after speaking with (fellow exhibitor) Earl Davis, I am going to start meeting weekly with a group of plein air artists he belongs to.”
For a man who studied film, music, and writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for a few years before being told he didn’t have enough credits to graduate in a major, today Smith seems laser focused.
“Upon hearing that, I suddenly decided it was to time settle on a course for my life. And I settled on art. I enrolled at East Carolina University because it has a great art program and majored in painting and graphic design,” Smith said.
Smith also has an Associates degree in Furniture Design from Catawba Valley Community College.
From 1988 to 1994, Smith worked with The Lane Company in Conover as a senior furniture designer.
“New England and upstate New York, really most of the East Coast, are great places to go through attics and barns to find antiques. I used to travel with Lane executives and pick through places, finding old furniture. When we found things we liked, they would buy them, and then I would design rattan furniture around those old styles,” said Smith.
While he enjoyed the furniture business, he still had art, painting, and creativity on his mind.
“In 1985, I launched an advertising firm, Creative Sharks, in Atlanta. We had a diverse client list that included Crescent Hills Water, Rice Architect, Perimeter Church, and Red Bull, among others,” said Smith. “My history teacher in college said of my painting back then that I had advertising images in my artwork. I said, ‘cool.’ It is that creativity in storytelling with images that I credit for a lot of what I do today.”
Smith says that he likes nature and landscapes, but he also likes people. Pointing to the face of a bespectacled man who could be an archaeologist standing in front of Egyptian pyramids while holding a small marble type ball with the world embossed on its surface, he talks about his craft.
“On the Internet, I saw the sort of face I wanted and in another image, an outstretched arm with a hint of a well-developed bicep,” said Smith. “He’s holding the world in his hands. Maybe he is Jesus Christ.”
If there is a spirituality in Smith’s work, it is a pretty good bet that it is intentional, consciously or even subconsciously.
“I am single, and always have been. My grandmother once asked me why I didn’t have someone in my life and I said I had all these things that I loved, like painting, design, and all. She understood that I didn’t really have time for someone or that I might make that someone else crazy. Today, I love Jesus. He is foremost in my life.”
In his younger years, among Smith’s passions was rugby and certainly that was the inspiration for his drawing of a rugby maul.
Despite his affinity for sports (at Chapel Hill he played soccer and lacrosse, before turning to rugby at East Carolina), it seems like in recent years he has made a sport of winning awards for his paintings. Just since 2015, he has earned nine awards for seven different paintings.
It may have been 18 years in the making, but he recently completed writing his first novel, Rembrandt’s Gardener, and has started work on a second.
“I started Rembrandt’s Gardener as a book about my grandmother and her wonderful house and garden. Then it evolved as a coming-of-age story about me struggling to become a man in the 1960s. Finally, it became a book about my grandmother’s gardener, Lance, who reminds me of Christ in one of Rembrandt’s paintings, ‘Christ as a gardener appears to Mary Magdalene.’ There is a connection between Lance, who claims to be descended from one of King Arthur’s knights, and Christ, and that connection becomes a major theme in the book. There is a lot about knighthood and chivalry, as well as a mysterious door at the end of grandmother’s English rose garden,” said Smith.
Apparently, it has been a rich life for this creative man. Visitors to Edgewood Cottage can get to know him and delight in his work daily, through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Edgewood Cottage is at the intersection of Main Street and Ginny Stevens Lane, next door to the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum in Blowing Rock.
BLOWING ROCK — Blowing Rock has the assets — and challenges — that 99.9 percent of the towns and cities in North American wish they had, said Roger Brooks of Destination Development Association and Roger Brooks International. He told a nearly full town hall audience that Blowing Rock does not have an over-tourism problem, but severe shortages in parking and wayfinding.
In the July 15 presentation of his observations and suggestions after a three-week assessment, Brooks was candid in laying out the numbers for the biggest problem area, parking. And he did that not just for identifying the problem, but how to fix it as well.
The problem is clear, Brooks said in spelling out a parking shortage of at least 600 publicly available spaces and possibly as many as 1,500. Looking primarily at the almost 90 businesses downtown that rely on public parking — retail shops, restaurants, and real estate offices – Brooks counted 428 public parking spaces in the downtown area. Those businesses, which are all open at approximately the same times, are conservatively estimated to have 413 employees, almost all driving their own cars. So after those businesses’ employees find a place to park, that leaves just 15 spaces for everybody else that might want to be downtown.
Much of the traffic and congestion issues, he suggested, are due to far too many people driving around looking for a place to park — at the same time.
It is important to note that Brooks’ numbers do not include town government employees (administrative, public works, parks and recreation), the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce (staff and visitors), the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority (staff and visitors), Blowing Rock School, the Community Library, banks, or churches, some of which have their own parking but most of whom also add to parking demand.
Brooks’ suggested solution is for the town to add a large remote parking structure (capable of parking 400-600 cars) as soon as possible and introduce a daily shuttle with a frequency of at least every 15 minutes. In addition, he said, the town should adopt paid parking in the downtown area using one of the newer digital payment, monitoring and collection technologies. He provided several names of vendors and their solutions. At least some of them can be compensated on the basis of a percentage of revenue.
Central to Brooks’ view is a belief that the downtown Blowing Rock experience for visitors and people conducting business downtown is worth paying for parking. He suggested that if employees are willing to risk an $8 or $10 ticket to park downtown, a visitor or someone doing business downtown would surely be willing to spend $2 per hour for the convenience. And, he said, paid parking downtown would incentive employees to use a remote parking structure that would be less expensive and, maybe as a perk, that their employers might pay for.
To build a 600 space parking structure, wherever it is located, Brooks estimated would cost a little more than $16 million. He suggests that a federal transportation grant of $5 million is probably available, reducing the net cost of the structure to the town to about $11 million.
Brooks estimated debt service (principal and interest) on the roughly $11 million at 2 percent interest over 20 years would be slightly less than $700,000 annually and that the cost of a trolley or shuttle would run in the neighborhood of $300,000. But Brooks also laid out what he termed conservative estimates for net revenue streams based on discounted occupancy rates and fees:
Given these numbers, less the debt service, Brooks estimates that the town would realize more than $800,000 in what he terms “net annual reserve” or profit. He maintains that any reserve generated should not go into the town’s general fund, but into a separate fund to either address future parking problems. Alternatively, all or a portion of the reserve funds could be used to accelerate debt repayment.
He laid out other revenue potential ideas, such as selling businesses what he labeled as “parking condos.” In addition, sections or floors of the parking structure might be subject to sponsorship sales. “People tend to remember that they parked on the Walmart or McDonald’s level more so than a color or number,” he said.
The financing, he suggested, might be achieved through the sale of municipal general obligation bonds or municipal revenue bonds tied to the parking revenue.
Brooks spent a considerable amount of time describing the details of a digital technology partnership for setting up the parking spots, enforcement, and the like. Ultimately, he outlined three choices for implementing paid parking downtown: traditional coin operated meters, pay by smartphone, or use a kiosk and customers pay by cash or credit card.
In addition to parking, Brooks also stressed the need to implement a professional wayfinding system, as well as to make downtown more pedestrian friendly. He suggested that traffic calming methods such as a gateway concept pointing to downtown at Valley Boulevard and Sunset Drive and decorative or distinctive crosswalks on Main Street, Sunset Drive, and Valley Boulevard would be great helps in slowing down traffic and making the intersections more pedestrian friendly.
He emphasized that visitors’ GPS-based navigation systems are not a substitute for a good wayfinding system.
Brooks also encouraged the town to find a good “selfie spot.” He acknowledged that town hall, with the vibrant and colorful flowerbeds, may make it the most photographed town hall in the U.S., but he also thought that the postcard-type sign on the back of the old firestation at the intersection of Park Avenue and Wallingford Street is poorly located, that it should be the background for a selfie spot at, say, the front steps of Memorial Park.
Before re-emphasizing how lucky Blowing Rock residents are to live in a small town whose population is around 1,300 year-round and 5,000 to 6,000 seasonally, and because of the elevation is some 10 degrees cooler in the summer than the lower elevation locales down the mountain, Brooks offered a timeline for his work from July to the final presentation of his findings in November.
In closing, he cited a quotation that he had found at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, citing the book, “In Cloudland, Mayview Park,” Blowing Rock, 1920:
“...nowhere in America are there such conditions of Scenery, of Climate, of Alluring Views, of Creature Comfort, of Outdoor Sports; of all the real pleasures that make life worthwhile.”
BLOWING ROCK — Getting town services to pay for themselves on a stand alone basis so they are not subsidized by revenue from property taxes and sales taxes is the mission, but when it comes to water and sewer it may take the Town of Blowing Rock some time to catch up.
One of the things that town manager Shane Fox and his staff recognized upon his being hired in May of 2019 was a disconnect in the town’s billing for water and sewer vs. the operating expenses for providing the service, as well as needed capital spending for water plant upgrades and water and sewer line replacement.
“Somewhat ironically, it was COVID-19 that allowed us to do a more comprehensive study of our residential and commercial usage, the revenue being produced on a more granular level, and what our capital needs are,” said Fox. “What we found was that the usage of water was actually declining from year to year as people responsibly installed appliances, faucets and sinks, and bathroom facilities that are more efficient. At the same time, though, the infrastructure to supply that water was costing more from ongoing operations, including current repairs to the system to maintain the service. Then you have the looming capital needs for replacing lines and making significant capital improvements to the water plant. Water and sewer revenue should be paying for all of that, not drawing so much from property tax and sales tax revenue going into the general fund.”
So part of the changes implemented July 1 are to get the water service to be more self sufficient. Another objective was for it to be fairer vs. the water being consumed.
“What we found was that 70 percent of our users are not coming close to the 5,000 gallon minimum usage threshold. A 3,000 gallon breakpoint made more sense. It didn’t seem fair for the 1,500 gallon user or even 3,000 gallon user to be paying the same amount of money as someone using almost twice as much or more water.”
Fox said that there are two distinct groups of water users in Blowing Rock. First there are the residential and retail store users, then there are the restaurants and lodging users.
“Collectively, the residents and retail shops use the most water,” said Fox, “but individually, the restaurants and lodging businesses are our largest customers. Both groups use significantly more in the summer and fall than in the winter and early spring.”
Even with the changes in billing and the relatively small increases to the rates, Fox pointed out that Blowing Rock remains well behind its peers in its rates.
“Any time we consider changing rates for services, it is important to make sure we are not out of line with our peers, and especially our neighboring peers. We went to $51.70 bi-monthly for 3,000 gallons of water and $51.70 bi-monthly for sewer. Beech Mountain, by comparison, is $41 monthly for 3,000 gallons, so $82 each month for water and $82 each month for sewer. So when you look at it from that perspective, we are providing the same service at almost a 37 percent discount to our neighboring municipality.”
Blowing Rock’s changes don’t come without some concerns. Blowing Rock resident Greg King stressed that with these changes it becomes even more important for the meters to be read regularly and accurately.
“I don’t disagree with the premise for the rate changes, but lowering the minimum from 5,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons means it is just that much more important to get accurate readings and to do it as close as possible over the same intervals,” said King. “If we were only charged for the water being used, this would all go away. But we are not. We are required to pay for a minimum and are allocated a certain amount of water per billing cycle. But if our usage is greater than that allocation, then we pay a premium. I understand that, and it makes sense, but fine-tuning the average usage by lowering the allocation number means that you have to also be more precise in reading meters accurately, and at regular intervals. By introducing this kind of granularity, those meters have to be read each and every billing cycle.”