Agent Of Change

Agent Of Change

How real estate ace Melissa Greer has made a space her own

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Going by the listing alone, real estate agent Melissa Greer was “meh” about the two-bedroom brick cottage that was built in 1941 and painted white.

But she loved the street, a short, curved and somewhat hidden passage in Greensboro’s venerable Sunset Hills — nothing like the busy cut-through where she lived, just around the corner.

“I like to be a little off the radar,” says Greer, who was house shopping for herself in 2004.

Touring the place for the first time, she took her mother, a brother and a sister. That made four real estate agents in all.

Greer’s mom, the late Johnnye Greer Hunter, a well-respected local broker, had raised a passel of property-savvy children, with four of her five kids making the business their life’s work.

On that summer day, Greer, her mom, her sister, Johnnye Letterman, and her brother, Waban Carter, parked at the curb in front of the cottage, careful not to block the driveway, a real estate no-no. They stuck to the brick walkway leading up to the dark green front door. No slogging through the grass like amateurs.

Greer remembers liking the blue slate on the stoop, the replacement windows and the heavy, metal plaque of house numbers bolted into the wall by the front door.

The place was cozy, classy, solid.

The family walked in and commenced their counterclockwise tour: formal living room stretched across the front, formal dining room buttressing one end. Just behind the dining room, a small square kitchen with a step-down sun porch and a painted wooden deck beyond.

Back inside, next to the kitchen, lay a den with its own full bath, which was a little unusual but could be changed, her family pointed out.

They stuck their heads into the primary bedroom, a second full bath on the hall — this one with a funky fish design laid into the tile floor — and a second bedroom.

What did Greer, the baby of the family, think of the home?

She turned to her pack.

They liked it.

Greer paid asking price.

“I’ll negotiate for other people,” she says. “Not so much for myself.”

She wanted to be a teacher, hence the degree in English education from UNC-Chapel Hill.

But English-teaching jobs were as scarce as properly diagrammed sentences when she graduated, so she kept her job at Peppi’s Pizza Den in Chapel Hill, where she often waited on then-UNC basketball star Michael Jordan.

Greer’s next job was serving at an upscale seafood restaurant in Hilton Head, S.C. Her nocturnal life caught the attention of her mother, who suggested that Greer return to Greensboro to work in her real estate business.

“It was a strong recommendation,” Greer says, laughing at the memory.

Johnnye Greer Hunter was a force, personally and professionally.

As a young woman, Hunter dressed windows at the S.H. Kress & Co. five-and-dime store in downtown Greensboro. She was a hostess at The Lotus, one of the city’s first Chinese restaurants. She managed a local doctor’s office. She copped a real estate license in 1968.

Greer remembers learning to read by quizzing her mom with questions from a real estate textbook.

In the days before computerized listings, Hunter enlisted her children to help with removing and replacing pages in her loose-leaf listing book.

Later, when they could drive, the kids delivered paperwork and keys. They pulled and planted for-sale signs.

Hunter worked for a local agency for several years before joining two other women to form their own company, The Property Shop.

“She was one of the first women to become a leader in the real estate industry. Prior to that, most of the leaders were men,” Greer says. “I think the ’70s was a decade when that started to change.”

In 1978, Hunter branched out again, starting Johnnye Greer Hunter & Associates with her daughter, Johnnye Letterman.

Post-plate slinging, Greer’s first job with the family firm was answering phones and writing advertisements for homes.

She made minimum wage. She asked her mom for a commission-only sales job.

“I didn’t think it could be a whole lot worse,” Greer says. “It was.”

After six months, Greer had not sold a single house.

“You don’t like this, do you?” her mother asked.

“No, ma’am,” Greer answered.

Her mother diagnosed the problem and the cure: Greer had a bad attitude. She had 30 days to shape up. If she didn’t, her mom would help her find another job.

On her mother’s advice, Greer hung a mirror on her office wall. When she talked to clients, she checked the mirror to make sure she was smiling.

People can hear a smile in your voice, her mother assured her.

Thirty days passed. Greer had sold four or five homes, nearly a million dollars’ worth of real estate.

“It changed my life,” Greer says, pausing to remember the full impact of the moment. “It was enough for me to get a Honda Accord with a moon roof. She was making me drive a Pontiac Sunbird.”

It’s hard to overstate just how good Greer is at her job.

Among the 50,000-plus agents working in the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices network across the country, she has been No. 1, in terms of transactions, for the last two calendar years.

In 2022, she sold 192 homes, either as the listing agent or buyer’s agent. That averages out to more than three homes a week. Lately, the rate has been closer to five homes a week. In July, she closed the books on 19 homes.

“It was a really good month,” she says, cautious of being too content.

There are several reasons Greer kills it at work.

She learned the business from her mom and older siblings.

She puts in 12-hour days.

She employs a small support staff and hires marketing specialists.

She knows Greensboro thoroughly.

She’s also a natural empath, who finds it easy to slip into other people’s skin and understand what makes them happy. It’s a valuable skill for sales people, whether they’re pushing pizzas, prawns, palaces or patio homes.               

It doesn’t hurt that she’s an easy talker with a self-effacing sense of humor and an ability to quickly find common ground with strangers.

“That ‘U’ in conduct is coming in handy,” she says, recalling her report cards from Page High School. A so-so student, she had a lot of friends and did mostly as she was told, she says, dipping into the forbidden only if she was sure she could get away with it.

Her mother sat on her shoulder.

She still does.

“Everything I do, I want her to be proud,” Greer says. “That’s why I don’t have a tattoo, even though I’ve always kinda wanted one. She would never think that was a good idea.”

Her mom had a few maxims about real estate:

Selling homes is a service, not just a sales job, because people’s homes are their havens.

Location, location, location.

If there’s something you don’t like about a home, you can change it, but you can’t change the address (see above).

Greer’s cottage nailed the location part, being in a sought-after neighborhood just a jog from downtown, UNCG, Friendly Center and other city pulse points.

As for changes, Greer shaped the home to her liking, step by step.

She painted walls and refinished hardwoods.

She brought down the wall between the kitchen and den.

She sealed off the full bath’s access to the den and opened it to the primary bedroom on the other side.

She pulled off the old deck and replaced it with a sleek platform of composite planks fenced by black railings.

She expanded and updated the kitchen, swallowing up the sun porch to create an even greater great room, an airy teal, white and gold space where Greer and her beloved rescue dog, Macy — named for R&B singer Macy Gray — spend most of their down time.

“That’s her favorite pillow,” Greer says, pointing to the furry, white cushion in the corner of her sectional sofa. “A friend of mine took her picture sitting on that pillow and posted it, and the real Macy Gray ‘liked’ it.”

What’s Greer’s favorite Macy Gray song?

The answer is quick: “I Try.”

About eight years ago, Greer switched the lighting in the dining room, taking down the crystal chandelier that had once belonged to her mother and replacing it with a bowl-shaped fixture with gold ribs.

It was the first change she had made to the house without asking her family’s opinion.

Her sibs came to visit.

Ugh, they said in different words. Maybe because they thought the new fixture was a tad industrial. Maybe because it was not their mother’s.

Whatever the reason, Greer doubted her decision.

But she let the fixture hang.

“Now, they love it,” she says with a smile anyone could hear over the phone.

The podcast episode is called “Stranger Things in Real Estate.”

Greer is sitting at her kitchen island, kibitzing with her friend and marketing guru, Dave Wilson of Tigermoth Creative in Greensboro.

They started the podcast, Melissa Unscripted, back in 2019 to keep Greer current on social media. Already she maintained a presence on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, now known as X.

“I feel a real responsibility to stay relevant,” says Greer, who nonetheless bristles at the pressure on businesspeople to create and sustain an online brand. “I miss the days when you could do your own thing and disappear. Now that you have to do so much marketing, it’s hard to do that.”

After a cheerful introduction, Wilson asks for examples of weirdness that Greer has witnessed in more than 30 years of selling real estate.

She starts slowly. Once, she showed a home with a bedroom that contained nothing but two mannequins, both wearing clothes. Strange.

What else? Wilson nudges.

Well, once she listed a house with two large crucifixes hanging on the wall, on either side of the bed, in the primary bedroom. A mirrored disco ball hung from the ceiling.

“I said, ‘You gotta pick one. We have to pick a theme,’” she remembers with a laugh.

Wilson prods again: Have you ever walked in on anyone?

“Yes,” Greer says. “I’ve walked in on couples, I’ve walked in on kids skipping school and smoking not-cigarettes. I’ve walked in on people taking naps.”

Haunted houses? Wilson inquires.

Oh, sure, Greer says.

“There’s a website that one of my clients told me about called,” she continues. “I’ve actually paid to search things because people want to know.”

Wilson, the marketing man, embraces the curveball with arch humor: “So if we get anything out of this podcast that’s helpful for people buying, it’s”

Greer agrees by continuing full speed ahead. She’s afraid to look up her own house, she tells Wilson, but she used the fee-based service to check her childhood home because she already knew someone had died in there.

“My brother, when I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed, he’d hide under my bed,” she says. “And when my mother told me good night and the lights went out, he’d boost the mattress up and say, ‘Ooooou,’ — like a ghost — ‘is that you, George?’ That was the guy’s name. And I’d start screaming.”


The best thing about Greer’s primary bedroom?

Well, no one has died in there. It’s brand new, the latest improvement.

“It’s like a treehouse,” she says, walking into the high-ceilinged suite.

To create the restful perch, which looks into a curtain of green, she ballooned the old bedroom beyond the walk-out basement.

The lofted addition — which covers an outdoor living area below — allowed for the addition of a luxurious bathroom and substantial closet.

“I’ve never had a walk-in closet, so this is cool to me,” she says, beaming as she shows off the space.

It’s hard to believe that a woman who sells million-dollar homes regularly is tickled by such an amenity, but she insists her happiness is genuine.

“I grew up in a small house,” she says. “I always shared a room.”

The new suite, she says, makes the home’s vibe and size — now a little shy of 2,000 square feet — consistent with other upgrades.

The new view allows her to appreciate one of them. The room overlooks a “pandemic pool” with a stony waterfall that gushes skin-friendly salt water.

“It’s like swimming in a water feature,” says Greer, who likes to float with family and friends. “I call it a cocktail pool.”

She overhauled the yard after the pool was installed in 2021. John Newman Garden Design in Winston-Salem, which also built the waterfall, painted the slope with a Japanese-inspired palette of stone, pine, maple, yucca and barbered, bonsai-style azalea, along with a custom Stonehenge-like bench.

“I like the zen feel of it,” says Greer.

Gradually, she says, she has grown to feel more at home in her cottage — and in her own skin.

“There’s a part of me that’s trying to please other people, always. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, and that’s a good trait to have in a Realtor, but you develop a certain confidence in yourself so you can create what you want and know that’s a beautiful thing.”  OH

A Home Cooked Idea

A Home Cooked Idea

At Home with MACHETE’s Tal Blevins

By Cynthia Adams     Photgraphs by Amy Freeman


Tal Blevins was upfitting a sleekly professional kitchen at MACHETE, a restaurant he launched in 2019 in lower Fisher Park — soon after a redo of his home kitchen, which needed subtle and sympathetic changes.

After Blevins and his wife, Nicole Lungerhausen, moved from California to Greensboro in 2017, they found a lovely Arts and Crafts style home in Westerwood.

Loving nothing more than whipping up one communal supper after another for close friends, their swiftly renovated kitchen served as an incubator and test kitchen for pop-up suppers. The number of guests jumped from 12 to 20 to 40 diners.

Soon guests began to urge Blevins, who was born a Tar Heel, to start his own restaurant. And so, MACHETE, Greensboro’s hottest new boîte (French for a small restaurant, which sounds quirky enough for a “boundary-pushing” eatery) was born, opening to rave Yelp reviews and a James Beard nomination.

“I’d always wanted to own one,” Blevins says about restaurants. But as a young man, that wasn’t remotely the plan.

During his teen years, Blevins, a graduate of Page and UNCG, was interested in tech, sparked while working at Babbage’s, a mall computer store, where he built and repaired personal computers as a side gig. (To older customers, tech savvy kids were a marvel. “We were wizards,” Blevins says chuckling.)


And he loved gaming. Writing about gaming was Blevins’ goal, although he flirted with other interests, including geography, urban planning and music. (He plays guitar and drums as a hobby.)

Initially, he explored all of those interests. His mentor, UNCG professor Keith Debbage, attended graduate school at the University of Georgia. Blevins followed suit, studying urban planning while playing in a band. After all, Athens gave rise to rock groups such as R.E.M., Widespread Panic, the B-52s and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Meanwhile, a contact from Babbage’s had founded a successful video gaming website. 

“GP Publications was headquartered in Greensboro in the ’90s, and then moved out to Burlingame, California,” says Blevins, who had been building quite a successful career as a freelance writer for tech and video game publications. 

The company was acquired and “rebranded as Imagine Media and then Future,” and moved just south of San Francisco, he explains. 

Blevins “eventually moved out to San Francisco to work at Imagine Media for their Imagine Games Network [] in the mid-90s at their offices in Brisbane [California.]”

Brisbane placed him “just a few miles closer to San Francisco just outside the city limits. I was the editor-in-chief of the PC games site, then I headed up the content team for many years as the VP of content at IGN Entertainment.”

San Francisco wasn’t only where he found success. He also met Nicole there while she was temping at his office, working at the front desk.   

“Nicole is also a writer,” Blevins adds, and also a gamer like him, explaining how their mutual interests dovetailed. Lungerhausen earned dual degrees in creative writing and theater from San Francisco University. For more than 10 years, she worked as a professional actor in the Bay area. She has published fantasy and science fiction, according to her website, and coaches fellow writers.

Six years ago, the pair decided it was finally time to settle down in Greensboro. Blevins says he also missed his mom and “chief influencer,” Audrey Gant.

The couple liked almost everything about their Arts and Crafts beauty, a standout on the street, and unusual in that it had a quarter acre lot, new garage and a spacious new addition at the rear. The home had the luxury of space, something hard to come by in San Francisco. The original section of the house was over a century old. The sellers, Kelley and Saralyn (who deceased in 2017) Griffith, were only the home’s second owners — Blevins and Lungerhausen became the third.  

“He [Kelley] was an English professor and woodworker,” says Blevins. “He added on the great room. We have cabinets he built here, a table, too, in the great room.” (The great room conversion became key to their pop-up suppers to come.)


Blevins purchased the home in 2017 and soon began improvements. A call went out to a Greensboro contracting firm, Frye Build + Design. 

“We got to work . . . Pam Frye tore the place apart,” says Blevins.  “We didn’t have to do a lot . . . paint and stuff in the rest of the house.”

However, the contractor gutted the kitchen to the studs. The house was beautifully maintained and modernized for a century-old property — it dates to 1920. But there were tweaks in mind, modern conveniences dictated by a love of cooking and entertaining.

The Griffiths had extended the rear of the house in 2010, also creating an oversized custom screened porch behind the kitchen, and a studio space that was later converted to a great room. Both were easily accessed from the kitchen.

“They did a great job,” Blevins says, praising the Griffiths’ renovation, pointing out the parameters of the original house and how seamlessly the new trim and detailing work matches the old. The Blevines respected the original character preserved by the Griffiths.

For the sake of functionality, a few original details had to be edited in the more recent history of the house. A former breakfast nook’s removal opened up the kitchen more during the previous renovation.

Blevins and Lungerhausen took another step, further opening a doorway between the kitchen and dining room. They added a coffered ceiling, which enhanced the original design. 

“We liked that for [the sake of] Arts and Crafts,” Blevins says.

“It was not a wreck by any means, but we had a different…” his voice trails off. 

A different wish?  A different vision, perhaps?

“Yes,” Blevins answers. At the time, he insists they “weren’t even thinking about the future supper club,” which he calls “the pop-ups.”

He adds, “My wife and I are really good home cooks — love home cooking — so the kitchen is always the heart of any house. Where people hang out. Where people talk. Where people have glasses of wine while they’re cooking too. But honestly, we wanted this open concept, too.”

In the very beginning, he says, “We came into it wanting to build a good cook’s kitchen.” Blevins and Lungerhausen reconfigured the kitchen island, allowing for practical changes. “We knew we wanted to turn it (the island),” he explains, “and utilize that window over the sink.  It allowed us to have a secondary sink for prep.”

Aided by Frye, they made subtle but significant upgrades.

“We redid all the cabinetry,” Blevins adds, even though the sellers had redone the kitchen. “It was not to our liking,” he says, pausing, and adds by way of illustration, “laminate countertops.”

They developed a punch list and sketched ideas, considering work space.  The process, he says, was “very visual. [We] drew up several plans.” 

A pantry and coffee bar already existed. The couple added the perk of a Breville coffee/espresso maker.   

Blevins points out the secondary sink on the island and how they moved the main sink beneath a sunny window. Simple changes really worked, he says. “We knew we wanted double ovens,” he says. “And we have a pizza oven outside.”

They added things they’d always wanted in a kitchen: “You know, stuff like pull-out drawers in cabinets. I always wanted a spice drawer. A space for baking sheets and cutting boards. Lazy Susans were installed. We wanted a space, like, for our cutting boards. Having cookbooks easily accessible.”   

Although the “before” real estate images of the kitchen were attractive — the couple hewed closely to the original in the resulting “after” — the focus was creating a more efficient configuration of space. 

Which turned out to be a prescient decision. While the kitchen had not yet figured into their lives in the significant way soon to unfold, the new renovation had made it more functional.

By chance, they met two talented young chefs, Lydia Greene and Kevin Cottrell, while eating at the former restaurant LaRue. Blevins loved their food and suggested experimenting with a pop-up concept here in Greensboro.

The very first pop-up supper gave “confirmation of what our gut feeling was,” explains Blevins. Supper clubs were the new underground culinary movement. And Blevins loved food and dining as much as he loved gaming.

“It began as friends and family,” he says about how his experimentation with a “pop-up” restaurant began.

That first pop up was limited to a few. “It was just 12 people at this one table, and then we expanded to both rooms,” says Blevins, nodding to the front of the house. “And then, we said, OK, we have more people. Word of mouth is spreading. Friends of friends, and we had more friends of friends of friends who wanted to get in . . . ”

The original 12 guests were seated in the kitchen and dining room.

Blevins, his wife, his mother and the chefs began doing monthly communal dinners in earnest. “Two nights with 20 people back-to-back every month. Twenty seatings. Everything was Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Swiftly, it grew to 40 bookings. “And 1–200 people requesting those seats. And when we did a pop-up, it was so unique.”

Though Blevins had always dreamed of opening and owning his own restaurant, he admits, “I would never, ever have done it, without the talent. [Now] Kevin [Cottrell] is the MACHETE head chef, and Lydia [Greene] is the chef de partie.”

Greene and Cottrell were key players in the restaurant named by Cottrell for something he has been fascinated by since he was a child: a MACHETE.

In only the space of two years, MACHETE gained a following. Success came swiftly.

And as strange as it seems for a former game reviewer and tech writer to become a restauranteur, the seed was planted when Blevins became an investor in two San Francisco restaurants that also began as pop-up kitchens. 


One such supper club/pop-up was the genesis of San Francisco eatery, Lazy Bear, which Blevins invested in. (Lazy Bear later became a brick-and-mortar site in the Mission district.) Such innovations had led to a California law change in 2014, legalizing “ghost” kitchens — also known as “cloud,” “dark,” “undercover,” or “commissary” kitchens, California parlance for restaurants that were carry-out only. 

In the absence of dining rooms and waiters, these kitchens proliferated during the pandemic lockdowns. 

As mid-2020 trends changed norms, so had the carry-out model. “Forget ghost kitchens,” Joe Guszkowski wrote in July, 2021, in Restaurant Business. “Some chefs are skirting the industry entirely to serve food out of their houses.”

Back in Greensboro, Blevins and Lungerhausen’s popular supper club, an open secret in a historic neighborhood of artists, professors and students, called to mind the speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties. 

Their chef-prepared, multi-course, eclectic dinners were largely promoted only by word-of-mouth (with a little social media boost, Blevins says). 

But unlike a speakeasy, guests brought their own bottles, and the food was the reason for eager comers.

“We could serve 20 people in there when we had the pop-up,” Blevins muses, indicating the commodious open space comprising their kitchen, dining and living rooms. Over time, the burgeoning crowd of diners expanded to the great room addition.

“The [first] pop-up happened all in this kitchen,” Blevins says. “People would come over, and we would let them roam all around the house.” Pause. Then, “Mom was the host. Audrey Gant.” He pauses again.

“She would always get the biggest applause of the night, when we would bring everybody out, because everybody loved Audrey. And she’s right over here. She passed in 2019, and I have her ashes in one of her old purses.”

Blevins unceremoniously plops the purse onto the kitchen stool beside him.

“So, this is where she would sit, and we would make gin and tonics and drinks for her,” he says, pausing once more. “And so . . . she’s still with us. And she passed, unfortunately, three months before we opened MACHETE.” But during their pop-up dinners, Audrey shared any number of pointers and ideas. “So, she lives on in that space,” he says, referring to MACHETE.

Is there a more important room to him than the kitchen? “There’s no room we would rather spend more time in,” he answers, Audrey by his side. 

“The most beautiful story is the mural on the wall [at MACHETE] . . . for the longest time, the artist was doing cactus and succulents.”

Blevins got into a bit of a battle with the muralist. He wanted something art nouveau — vines, flowers, something a little softer.  The first time his aunt came to the restaurant, she asked if they did the mural because of his mom. He asked what she meant. She explained that his mother’s favorite flower was nasturtiums, which figured into the mural. 

“I almost felt like mom was on my shoulder. A piece of serendipity that means so much.”

“That big bird of paradise that’s in the lounge [at MACHETE]?  That’s Mom’s, from her house. Mom loved a good, boozy martini and basil. That’s why we have a martini with a basil tincture called Audrey’s Little Helper.”

The MACHETE staff informally calls the lounge Audrey’s Lounge.

Audrey is not the only local legend frequenting MACHETE. “The 12 originals who came to this pop-up still populate MACHETE,” Blevins says. “Kris Fuller [owner of Crafted], Wes Wheeler [co-owner of Undercurrent]; Nikki Miller-Ka [a Winston-Salem food writer] . . . all people we knew. Interested in food.”

While Blevins and Lungerhausen eat at MACHETE a couple times a week, they also cook at home. Now the remodeled kitchen is no longer pressed into service as a test kitchen; it is a serene, monotone, pale gray and white space. And the adjoining addition located handily off of it, the great room and an apartment, now serves as an occasional Airbnb.

The couple supports local restaurants, such as Midtown 1618 or Blue Denim; they enjoy takeout at Bandito Bodega or milkshakes at Cook Out.   

A guilty pleasure Blevins openly admits to is a nostalgic meal at K & W cafeteria. 

What does he order? “Chicken pan pie if they have it. I love the country style steak. Mashed potatoes. Fried okra.” 

What might he order as his last supper on Earth?

“It would probably be what my favorite meal was when I was 5 years old. As my mom would tell it: When I was 5 years old, my favorite meal was calves’ liver, squash and spinach. My Memaw would do this great squash with onion that she would cook forever. I would go to our diner in Ramseur and order that  . . . They would say, does he really want that? My Mom would say, ‘Shut up; he doesn’t know there is a food he isn’t supposed to like.’”

Blevins pauses.  “I always enjoyed strong . . . not the right word . . . flavors . . . Nicole?” he muses. “She would probably have tomato soup and a cheese sandwich.”

The next chapter for the culinary couple is soon-to-open Yokai, an Asian-influenced, smaller eatery near MACHETE in downtown Greensboro. Naturally, they’ve already tested it with a pop-up. Game on!  OH

Renovation Transformation

A historic Dunleath house and the artist renovating it are forever changed

By Cynthia Adams 
Photographs by Amy Freeman

When artist Susan Harrell first toured the languishing Victorian in Greensboro’s historic Dunleath, she beheld a towering, purple two-story trimmed out in cream. And that purple? “The paint was coming off in ribbons,” she says ruefully. The house soon became the artist’s agony and ecstasy.

A partial renovation had been halted before completion and it sat empty, she explains with a frown conveying the unsaid. Then in foreclosure, it was on the edge of becoming derelict. “There were squatters in the house.”

Undaunted, she jokingly dubbed it “The Purple Palace,” and made an offer. 

And so began a true May/December relationship, given Harrell was only 34 at the time. The house was almost a century older than its new owner. Yet she unreservedly loved her Purple Palace.

The interior, too, was a confusion of ambitious ideas left unfinished.

By best estimates, the house is easily 122 years old, but darned if it doesn’t look great for its age today, thanks to an artist’s touch, and no small amount of dedicated labor, creative decisions and persistence.

(Pinpointing the exact age is tricky. According to the National Register nomination, the house dates to 1905. Greensboro city planner and historian Mike Cowhig, who works with the Greensboro Historical Commission, believes the property is at least five years older.)

As a full-time artist and avid DIYer who never met a power tool she didn’t like, Harrell immediately recognized the problem causing the peeling paint and knew how to solve it. The exterior had been sprayed, she says, twisting her mouth.

Bad idea.

“The siding is cedar, and you really need to brush it on.”

She painstakingly scraped the purple off, doing much of the work herself, renting a scissor lift, given the vertiginous height of the house.

“I had experience with lifts because I have done murals.”  (Three of Harrell’s original murals, including a restoration, are in her hometown of Asheboro.)

And The Purple Palace would require all her gifts — both her artistic and construction abilities. And it would change her life.

Although the prior owners had made some big-ticket improvements, wiring and reworking plaster walls with sheetrock, they miscalculated costly things like a posh kitchen. Hence the foreclosure.

“They spent $900 on cabinet pulls,” Harrell explains, shaking her head. Yet there was no backsplash in the mostly-completed kitchen.

And considerable cash had been outlaid on maple flooring in the entry and main area, juxtaposed against rooms with original red oak. She throws up her hands. She stored and saved boards of the original oak for reuse or resale. After all, the upstairs renovation still awaits.

Harrell, who loves millwork and carpentry, replaced a lot of wood, including a rotting rear porch. Inside, she removed new columns that cut up the main rooms.

She changed the interior crazy quilt color scheme, calming and unifying spaces with quieter tones. After Harrell’s cosmetic touches, including a calmer color palate inside and out, the onetime home to squatters was no longer a laughing matter. 

Goodbye, Purple Palace. Or “Frankenhouse,” as she started calling it.


Over the span of a century, the sizable house has led many lives, including one as a child care facility. “Maybe once a duplex, too,” Harrell guesses. “It had a parking lot in the rear.” The original staircase and entrance hall had been moved, creating an open floor plan. But an artist requires wall space for artwork.

Harrell’s plan is to eventually restore many of the original walls, truer to the house’s vintage. “There was no definition for the living room,” she laments.

Her next project? Designing a period appropriate fireplace in what is now a dining area, installing gas logs. Designed for coal, she points out, the house’s many period fireplaces were “unusually small.” On a practical level, gas logs will help with heating the 3,200 square feet of space.

Her contractor brother, “who could do things out of my realm,” is now based in Blowing Rock, managing the building of high-end homes. Having helped him on projects, she had a vision for what the restoration needed. 

She has been replicating the original historic door trim, milling it herself. (It’s often impossible to find, she points out.) Harrell owns three table saws, two drill presses, planers and jigsaws, which she regularly uses. 

At last, Harrell grins, she has a shop for her many tools. “I’ve done a lot of reno work. I built a loft in Asheboro.”

Is there anything she doesn’t do?

She laughs. Harrell admits she cannot make more time in a day, in order to both create artwork and do restoration work. Meantime, Harrell’s taking a break from renovation for her art’s sake.

Her greatest passion — art — is something she discovered a bit late, while in her early 20s. On her way to becoming an interior designer at Rockingham Community College, she uncovered an affinity for drawing and painting. 

“I would go to a local public library and look at the art section,” Harrell explains. “I ended up in the Old Masters and decided to replicate them.” Her first effort was duplicating the legendary Mona Lisa. She discovered she had a good eye for color, and kept going.

“A hare-brained idea,” she admits modestly. 

“After a few (replications), my family started noticing what I was doing. My mom has always been my biggest fan and kept encouraging me.” 

All five Harrell siblings are creative. Most of them are musical.


“They all have their own weird little super power,” she says with open admiration. One brother builds high performance race car engines, netting him “multiple world records.” 

Is this why she, too, is fearlessly creative? “Maybe so,” Harrell answers.

Art resonated with her more than interior design. “In the process of getting exposed to more of the arts, that’s when I started getting more interested in it,” she explains. However, she has no art school background. “I’m 100 percent self-taught.”

Harrell shows her “Musing” series, featuring miniature reflections of Old Masters within the compositions. These were key to her being discovered and admitted to art shows. “That was pretty popular. That’s how I learned how to paint.” According to one collector, she has perfected her own technique of oil painting on an aluminum panel. (Aluminum was practical — cheaper, she explains.)

She experimented with extremes in scale, from painstakingly reproducing famous paintings in miniature, paintings within paintings, to outdoor murals. Harrell was eventually commissioned to paint a mural for an Asheboro hospice, as well as aforementioned murals downtown.


While enrolled in community college, she met art teacher Melissa Walker, who introduced her to Ed Walker, her husband and the owner of Carolina Bronze Sculpture in Asheboro. For several years, Harrell fabricated bronze sculptures there, working with fiberglass, glass and clay. She even learned to weld. Fabrication was “extremely hot and heavy” — and dangerous, she concedes.

“I worked on the bronze and casing that surround the Declaration of Independence,” Harrell says proudly. 

In 2001 when she was still a teenager, Harrell recalls Greensboro’s News and Record featuring her working on “February One,” James Barnhill’s iconic work, completed during 2001-2002. “I was welding together the bronze statue of the four students at A&T.”

The Greensboro Four sculpture resides on the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University campus. 

By 2009, Harrell moved beyond replication of Renaissance works to her first original oils. She imparted the gripping power of the very photographs she often worked from.

Harrell explains, “I was interested in the process . . . and near photo-realism. The challenge: what it takes to make something look real. But when I got interested in art, realism wasn’t cool.”

Nonetheless, she soon found opportunity. 


“When I first got into art, I got what I thought was lucky, having been invited into a group show at one of the top galleries in the country in Charleston, S.C.” She sold works as quickly as the paint dried. 

For a decade, Harrell painted furiously. She looked successful.

“Everybody thought I was doing it all, right away. I was selling right away. But (some) galleries take 50 percent commissions . . . I wasn’t able to make a living.”

Harrell burned out. Flamed out, actually, and stopped exhibiting. When her contractor brother had an accident, she worked alongside him for a couple of years, learning the finer points of renovation. The physical work was satisfying. 

“I need to sweat. We’re supposed to sweat.”

Harrell found renovation rewarding. And yet . . .

“I thought I’d given up on art. If you don’t have a gallery, what do you do? And most of my work was selling out of state. So, nobody in Greensboro knew I was here, and I hadn’t made those connections.”

In a strange way, the house she was busy saving saved her.

Harrell “decided to come back to art in a different way. This house was pivotal.” 

She uses the word “transformation.” The transformation of the property feels like kismet, Harrell explains, walking through the gardens, a pleasing blend of stone and brickwork. Brick walkways define pathways and a sunken area features benches created from enormous river stones.

The house flows to the outside with both open and screened porches. The hardscaping was there when she acquired the property, as well as a rustic studio and abundant plantings.

There are 18 gardenias on the property. When they bloom in synchronicity with the garden’s heirloom roses, she finds bliss.

“I’ve never been into flowers . . . I’d never smelled good flowers until I moved here. And now I get it,” Harrell says. “And when they bloom, it’s like a fairy tale.”

Outdoor space, Harrell says, made the early months of COVID bearable — even enjoyable.

The former Purple Palace is quietly soothing. 

Harrell’s work today includes seascapes, landscapes, still lifes and figurative paintings. She is starting a new series titled “Group Think II.”

Harrell credits recent shifts, her renewed future hopes, in part “to Nathan Wainscott.”

“She’s without question the most talented artist in the state, perhaps beyond,” opines Wainscott, a commercial artist and the owner of Inspire by Color. 

He commissioned Harrell to create a painting of the Biltmore as an anniversary gift to his wife. He treasures a picture of Harrell at her easel working on the commission, saying he marvels at her work.

Wainscott calls her paintings, “stories within stories.” As a fellow artist, he finds her gifts exceptional.

Plus, he also works with both new and restoration projects, so he knows whereof he speaks. Harrell’s historic home has its own stories to tell, but he feels that she has added “the matchless talent of her artistry.”

Harrell has battled against crazy odds during the restoration, suffering brown recluse spider bites to her ankle. Given her considerable height (she is 6 feet tall) the necrotic venom “was slowed in reaching my heart and circulation.” She later fended off Lyme disease from a tick bite — all within the past six years.

Finally, it is the resurgence of her creative powers and her art that has given her a second wind.

“Something in me never wants to give up. I felt like this about the house, too.”  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine.

Story of a House

A Wink From the Universe

For shop owner Kam Culler, it’s all about family and home

By Cassie Bustamante 
Photographs by Amy Freeman


Growth charts on door frames and bright orange permanent marker doodles on the wall might not be popular Pinterest decor, but for Kam Culler, home is all about the memories she creates there with her family.

Pointing to a shimmering gold-and-aqua tassel garland hanging in a door, she says, “Those are from our housewarming party five years ago.” Culler pivots and shows off a colorful string of pom-poms. “Those are from Charlee’s 4th birthday. We did Kidchella.”

Culler, who was just 23 when she began fixing up her midcentury 1959 split-level ranch in Old Starmount Forest, is an independent go-getter. In the last few action-packed years, she’s married the love of her life, given birth to a second child and started her own business — all while rehabbing her home. “I’ve had a lot of help from my friends and family, and my late sister-in-law,” she says. “But I want people to see a woman can do it all.”

When she first looked at homes as a single mom to then toddler Charlee in 2017, something about this house spoke to her. While Culler loves homes of that era for the charm and character they offer, this ranch style specifically symbolized to her “America’s frontier spirit and a new age and new growth of a new culture.”


Feeding not only her cosmic spirit, the house offered a little wink from the universe, a nod to let her know this was the one. The previous owners had created a poker room off of the garage that most people would want to change immediately. But the space held special meaning to her. Holding up her forearm, she cheerfully points out, “My grandfather and I play poker. My tattoo that says ‘lucky’ is for him.”

In the kitchen, the previous owners had repurposed some old plates their children had broken into a mosaic backsplash. While it wasn’t Culler’s style, she thought, “Alright, this is definitely a house for a kid.”

After seeing a multitude of houses, Culler, just 23-years-old at the time, trusted her instincts and made the decision to purchase the ranch, envisioning a future for herself and Charlee. Knowing that the house needed some work and updating, she was ready to commit because “it just felt homey.”

Shortly after moving in, an old magnolia on the property fell on the back of the house, setting a series of renovations into motion. The room that would become the playroom, for instance, flooded and required a complete overhaul, as did the upstairs bathroom off of her main bedroom.


While she hadn’t planned to update so soon, Culler hired Savas Construction to create a whimsical and feminine play space for daughter Charlee (and Wrennlee, who just joined the family in July). The room now features walls that are white on top and a soft pink on the bottom, paired with Kam’s signature colorful and cozy textiles found throughout her home. In the corner, Charlee can safely write on the wall on a wood-framed, house-shaped chalkboard.

In her own bathroom, Culler repurposed a vintage dresser, its aqua paint adding a vibrant splash of color against the black-and-white ceramic floor tile and modern white shiplap walls. Photos of a smiling Culler and Charlee taken throughout the years at Anthropologie’s mother-daughter fashion shows and dance recitals adorn the walls.

But the pièce de resistance, according to her, is the large, white basin-style bathtub. “That was the one thing,” quips Culler, who’s 6-feet tall. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to redo this, I want a bathtub that can fit my boobs and knees in’ — achieved!”

Construction was already underway on the playroom and bathroom when Culler decided to have her kitchen countertops replaced. But, “funny story again,” it turned out not to be as simple as that. Shelving and cabinetry were removed from the walls for measuring, revealing that the walls beneath were not lined with drywall.

While she hadn’t planned to update so soon, Culler hired Savas Construction to create a whimsical and feminine play space for daughter Charlee (and Wrennlee, who just joined the family in July). The room now features walls that are white on top and a soft pink on the bottom, paired with Kam’s signature colorful and cozy textiles found throughout her home. In the corner, Charlee can safely write on the wall on a wood-framed, house-shaped chalkboard.

In her own bathroom, Culler repurposed a vintage dresser, its aqua paint adding a vibrant splash of color against the black-and-white ceramic floor tile and modern white shiplap walls. Photos of a smiling Culler and Charlee taken throughout the years at Anthropologie’s mother-daughter fashion shows and dance recitals adorn the walls.

But the pièce de resistance, according to her, is the large, white basin-style bathtub. “That was the one thing,” quips Culler, who’s 6-feet tall. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to redo this, I want a bathtub that can fit my boobs and knees in’ — achieved!”

Construction was already underway on the playroom and bathroom when Culler decided to have her kitchen countertops replaced. But, “funny story again,” it turned out not to be as simple as that. Shelving and cabinetry were removed from the walls for measuring, revealing that the walls beneath were not lined with drywall.


“It was brick, wood, and the cabinets were literally superglued, so there was no saving them.”

Today, the galley kitchen features modern dark green-gray cabinets with black cup pulls, a charcoal-grouted white subway tile backsplash, smooth white quartz countertops, white Café appliances with copper accents and open shelving consisting of 2-inch walnut slabs. It is as striking as it is functional.

Of course, it’s not shelves that make the kitchen for Culler, but what’s on them. Over the years, Charlee has spent many birthdays at Mad Splatter, creating something new to commemorate each family milestone. While plants and everyday dishes occupy much of the shelves’ real estate, Charlee’s works of art hold the esteemed position on the top shelf.

Recently, Culler rearranged the open shelving to accommodate the color-blindness of her newest family member, her husband Kyle. He came into her life in the middle of 2020 when he pulled into her driveway, “delivering plants — imagine that!” Looking around Culler’s lush house, it’s not hard to imagine at all.

When the COVID pandemic struck in March of 2020, Culler was a 26-year-old single mom. Now she’s a married mother of two girls, Charlee and newborn Wrennlee.


The couple married at Cadillac Service Garage in a bohemian-inspired setting designed by Culler in October 2021. Two weeks later, she signed the lease on what would become The Borough Market & Bar. Just one month later, she discovered she was pregnant again.

Kyle didn’t bring much baggage, just several journals from years of service as a missionary. “He’s lived in a thousand places,” Culler points out, adding that all of those years of living minimally have served him well in his transition into this house. He has one wardrobe in the bedroom to himself and a small collection of what Culler calls “tiny little man hats,” as compared to her own wide-brimmed assortment.

She wasn’t about to let the busy-ness of life alter her dreams to have a shop of her own. “Yes, I’m a mom and then I do this,” she adds, referring to owning her business. As a mother to two girls, Culler wants to illustrate that anything is possible when a woman leans into her dreams and leans on her people.

The Borough Market & Bar was created to cultivate a stronger sense of community and would not be possible without her own supportive community. “I would not be where I am without my family,” muses Culler.

Sadly, her 23-year-old sister-in-law, Caroline, passed away in May. She was also pregnant with a girl and due shortly after Culler, who had made the decision to hire her because “we knew, or thought, she was here to stay.” Caroline had been at The Borough from the beginning, opening boxes and putting out merchandise. “I had a lot of help from her,” Culler sighs, tears forming in her eyes.

A dresser in Culler’s living room, the space where she spends most of her time, holds a treasured illustration of the two young women that a friend gave her for her birthday shortly after Caroline’s passing.

Culler’s grandfather, Jerry Hardy, has also played an integral part in the creation of The Borough Market & Bar. “He’s my person,” declares Culler. “Pop is who really helped the vision come to life after COVID.”

That vision is centered on a sense of home and community. Culler was inspired by a visit to London’s Borough Market as an Elon undergrad, studying abroad, appreciating its communal vibes. Armed with over 10 years of working in retail for Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Lululemon, she was able to make the dream a reality.

Her own Battleground Avenue establishment is divided into two spaces: a lounge and bar area that invites customers to relax over a cup of coffee or signature cocktail, and a boutique filled with eclectic goods from female-owned small businesses.

After a long period of many people using their kitchens as home offices, Culler wanted to offer a relaxed alternative. “They get to have their sacred space of home back, but go somewhere pretty and inspiring to work.”


The bar specializes in bourbon beverages, which is no accident since it’s Culler’s preferred spirit, a true reflection of who she is — a woman who honors her family’s past.

“Bourbon is like the story of my life. The longer it’s aged, the more craftsmanship goes into it,” she says. “It tastes better. It can open up your senses.”

This fall, she will partner with several neighborhood businesses to offer “Whiskey Around the World” pairing dinners at The Borough Market & Bar.

Her boutique is a commercial tribute to Greensboro creatives, featuring murals from local artists, Marley Soden and Jenna Rice, plus large paintings from Angie the Rose. The boutique also includes smaller pieces of art from Thea DeLoreto and Amber Taylor Creative, plus plants from Tiny Plant Market.

Looking for a sense of quality and heritage, Culler curates products for the shop just as she would for her home. She loves pieces she knows can be passed down through generations, much like the sideboard that once belonged to her grandparents.

“Smell and light sensory is a big thing with me,” Culler explains, pointing out why her home sanctuary is a space filled with twinkling lights, earthy hues of rust and pink, luscious green plants, family mementos, stray toys and nubby pillows, sofa and rugs. It’s here that she decompresses with a hot cup of coffee and her prayer journal after a long day down on Battleground Avenue.


Glancing around her transformed living room, she muses, “I really wanted to be that hippie, herb mom, but I’m probably more like Amazon, Target and Starbucks.”

However one chooses to describe her, like her home and business, Culler is an American original — an independent woman with a style all her own.

Pausing to reflect on the full life she and Kyle have embarked on, Culler sees their Starmount Forest ranch filled with “princesses and fairies, dance recitals and gymnastics, leotards and make up and sparkles and hair.” Even Kyle, who’s bald, gets in on the action, studying YouTube videos on braiding so that he can be “the ultimate girl dad.”

As if on cue, Charlee materializes in the hallway, dressed head-to-toe in her latest dance recital costume, a lavender top with sequins and tulle ruffles paired with shiny teal lamé tights that emulate the look of Disney’s Little Mermaid. In this sparkling and magical moment, it’s easy to see that in this house, dreams are not only created, but brought to life.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is the managing editor of O.Henry magazine and a frequent shopper of Greensboro establishments — especially when there’s a coffee bar inside.

Lavender Field of Dreams

Follow your nose to Red Feather Ranch

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman


“Sweat is nearly as wonderful as the smell of lavender,” claims Dianne Reganess, who presides over Red Feather Ranch, a 24-acre property on Ritter’s Farm Road.

“I love hard work.”

Clad in hard-working clothes, T-shirts and jeans, Dianne proves the point, steering a Polaris Ranger utility vehicle — with ample space for flower buckets — inspecting orderly rows. She eyes a second planting of 400 organically-grown lavender plants in green formation. (Current number of lavender plants? Almost 1,000.)

Dianne’s blue-gray eyes approximate the colors of the Sweet Melissa Lilac, Grosso, Grosso Blue, Riverina Thomas and Provence varietals she finds best suited and most productive in her USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, 7-B.

Although she is a member of the United States Lavender Growers Association, managing a farm and cut flowers business, Dianne once wore a snappy Air Force uniform, which she eventually exchanged for business suits when later joining the financial world.  At First Union Securities, where she met husband Jonathan, a financial manager, she worked as a cage operator, responsible for placing orders for stocks and the ticker tape that would print out.

“A complicated job,” she says. “I also was the cashier, documenting checks coming in and going out. Compliance manager . . . etc.”

In time, Dianne joined an estimated 40,000 women in farming and agri-businesses throughout the North Carolina Piedmont. 

Growing lavender is a challenging endeavor, she says: “You have to trick it, and make it think it’s somewhere it’s not.” Jonathan helps when his work allows. But all of the maintenance and work of growing a fickle herb and an expanding variety of flowers, are her own. 

Daily labors she does joyfully.


“I built every bed out there by myself. I did all the irrigation by myself.  It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding,” Dianne says. 

She jumps back into the small vehicle, proudly pointing out the new “high tunnel” — grower lingo for a large commercial greenhouse.

As with all farmers, the day starts early. At 7 a.m. during growing season, Dianne has completed picking and harvesting, plus hitting the office mid-morning to deal with online orders. “By 1 p.m., most of the work is done. Flowers don’t like heat.”

With Dianne working mostly alone, apart from an occasional volunteer, the one-woman, great lavender experiment has blossomed into a visually stunning, yet all-consuming, endeavor. 

And it couldn’t be more ironic, she jokes.

“I’m a terrible gardener,” Dianne confides darkly. “I cannot grow a thing for my house. But flower farming is so very different.” The mindset is different, she says, and the strategy is different.

The running joke in her family, she shares, is “do not give Dianne a houseplant. She’ll kill it.” 

“So here I am, with all this going — all out there,” she says, waving toward the fields. At this point, she giggles.

Some of her family still cannot believe she created this field of lavender dreams. Her mother, an avid gardener, always knew she had it in her.

“My mom said, ‘Welcome to the other side! You’re finally recognizing what we always knew was there!’” 


“All this” commenced in 2016, a year after Dianne and Jonathan found a long-pursued farm listed on Zillow, promptly scheduling a look-see.  “And I came over the top of the hill, and I said, ‘This is it!’ I just knew, seeing the land, that pond, the house. This was it!

Here was ample room for an outsized dream Dianne had been nursing.  As for the name? Red Feather Ranch was carved in stone at the gated entrance.

“I kind of took it as a sign since my favorite bird is the cardinal. When we pulled onto the property that very first time and I saw that, I thought to myself — that’s kind of neat!” says Dianne.

The partially-wooded 24 acres included a barn, outbuildings, a spring-fed pond, creek and a white pine, custom log home at the center.  Redolent of the Ponderosa on the Western Bonanza, it would have been the deal maker for many, but Dianne was equally star struck by the land itself.

“All woods. Creek. Great for our three children,” Dianne says. Her eldest, Samantha, was 19 at the time.

Daughter Mackenzie, now 15, was 9; son Alex, 17, was 11.

“I would have never thought [we would buy a] log home, though we loved a rustic look,” she says. The house would serve their needs well. 

“It’s a spacious house. There were [then] five of us here. Plus, three dogs. Three cats.” 

It was a farm in theory. However, six years ago, there were no fields. No commercial greenhouse either.

At the time, Samantha, now in Asheville, worked with American Conservation Experience on habitat restoration. Her knowledge concerning invasive species removal, planting and more proved a strong resource as the farm developed. 

Dianne’s mother, who had relocated to the Triad from the West Coast “is an amazing gardener. Grew up in California. She can grow anything.”

But not so for Dianne, whose abilities held few hints of what was to come. 

“I went into the Air Force straight out of high school. My father was in the military.” 

Posted abroad for nine years, she trained as a graphic artist, creating images and visuals used in briefings for military brass. “To Generals,” she clarifies. “It was classified information. Top secret.”

Stationed near the southwest border of France, her final years were in Ramstein, Germany, near stunning fields. 

“When I was in Europe, you would be driving along and pass rows and rows of lavender and sunflowers — it was the simplicity of it really that was so breathtaking. No frilly houses or structures . . . just the plants,”

Dianne left the military at age 27. Reentering civilian life, she met Jonathan while both worked at First Union Securities.

In 2003, they wed at the home of friends Andrew and Hilary Clement, a fortuitous sign given the Clements now own the Finch House, a Thomasville wedding venue. “Maybe we were practice,” jokes Dianne. (See the February 2021 issue of O. Henry magazine’s “Labor of Love.”)

They honeymooned north of Edinburgh, Scotland, “where my family originally is from,” she says. Jonathan’s family’s Swiss.

For years, Dianne flashed back to striking fields of color. She imagined herself growing sunflowers, a notion Jonathan endorsed.

Dianne eventually left the financial world, where Jonathan remained, and refocused upon their growing family and . . . growing plants.  The family lived in Summerfield while seeking a small farm.

Then, the aforementioned Zillow listing appeared.

Driving over the rise the day she first approached the house, “I had a vision of sunflowers,” she says. 

The expansive log home seemed perfect. It was everything the family hoped for, but Dianne was even more excited by what lay outside. 

Arable land!

Early on, they tilled the front section in preparation for Dianne’s venture.  “I was planning to have sunflowers.”

Then, reality. “I planted about 4,000 seeds by hand. Maybe, maybe, 50 of them grew. I was so disheartened!” The land, accustomed to growing something else, won out. The grass, she says, “completely took over my sunflowers. I have a picture of one scrawny little row.” Dianne sighs.

“I went in very green, knowing little,” she puns. That first failure caused her to “dive deep.”

“It forced me to educate myself on how to make it work. What did I need to do that I didn’t do? I was up at night studying. I love a good challenge. And I was going to make it work.”

Dianne persisted. “The second year, a little more successful.  The third year, a lot more successful.” 

Sunflowers were simply not quite enough. “But what else could we do?”

Dianne had more hands-in-the-dirt dreams.

Jonathan followed his bliss, too, leaving his corporate job and starting a wealth management business last April. 

She pondered the next agro steps. With some prodding from Jonathan, she realized lavender was the right complement. 

“Of course,” Dianne laughs. “I had talked about sunflowers and lavenders in France.”

Here, too, was another learning curve. Rather than plunging in without exploring risks, she did research. “Time. Money. How realistic? Is it going to grow in this area?” Growing conditions in the Triad’s microclimate, 7-B, are tricky. The air is more turbulent; therefore, storms are more violent. 

In 2016, she took an entire year off to figure out the best supplier and grower before Red Feather Ranch launched as a commercial grower.

Suppliers are crucial.

“A lot of varietals are patented,” she explains. This prevents commercial growers from propagating their own plants.

She attended a lavender grower’s conference in Charleston, S.C., to better educate herself. “I was asking questions. Took notes and listened. I came back thinking, ‘We can do it. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’ Because lavender is a very tricky plant. In the French Provence area where it grows well, they get 14 inches of rain a year. We get 44 plus.”

How not to drown lavender? 

She learned the answer. “You have to have it raised. Drainage is key.”

Dianne experimented with a mix of dirt and pea gravel, having met a Virginia grower who only used pea gravel and no dirt. Then she grew braver. “I last planted them only in pea gravel.” 

Paydirt! She finally “figured out the drainage thing.”

“The more you neglect it the better it is. The plant life of lavender is about 15 years. Get them out of a pot,” she advises, and give them room. “At full maturity it can get about five feet from side to side!”

Dianne learned what growing practices “are good for lavender.” As a cool weather plant, she knows to set stock in October. 

Lavender varietals differed by camphor content, Dianne explains.

“Lavender has the compound in it that is called camphor,” she adds. “That camphor chemical makes you kind of go oof . . . it’s really in your face. The other lilac plants that they use for culinary have a much lower chemical compound.”

Sweet Melissa Lilac and Provence lavenders are for culinary use. For infusions, teas and baking, she employs these, even adding a teaspoon of lavender buds into muffin batter or beverages. “I make lavender lemonade and cocktails! I’m old school.”

It’s savory, too. Whenever cooks use herbs de Provence, “there’s lavender in there,” she points out.

Sunset is her favorite time.  She and Jonathan can enjoy bird-watching. Or take in bumblebees, drunk from the soporific lavender, nodding off on the stalks. Felines, too. The family cat, Chanel, curled up to nap inside a lavender wreath as Dianne was crafting it.

She still loves sunflowers, where the goldfinches feast away on the drooping heads. 

And the butterflies! They thrill Dianne. “I don’t spray,” she says, adding, “lady bugs eat the aphids on my sweet peas.”

There is something beyond what nurtures plants. There are benefits for humans, too.

In fact, she wishes more people would come out, breathe the intoxicating and relaxing smell of lavender, and enjoy the rejuvenating air, while walking the picturesque farm.

“People can come here. People need to get back out in nature. Take off your mask and breathe some fresh air! Walk the rows even if you don’t buy anything.” 

Sometimes people come solely for photo opportunities, she says. Dianne is a shutterbug, who enjoys snapping pictures of each unfolding season, posting online at

After lavender peaks, other blooms follow, including, of course, sunflowers, a perennial favorite. Sunflowers have a longer season, growing thru October. 

Red Feather Ranch offers subscription options, a community supported agriculture program, and cut-flower delivery throughout Greensboro. The farm sells lavender through mid-July, and sunflowers June–October, adding a new program called U- Pick. 

After the growing season ends, Dianne harvests the dried lavender and stitches up sachets and other projects for both home and kitchen. 

She makes linen spray, body mist, lip balm, sugar scrub — all from organic, dried lavender.

Farming is relentless, as anyone who ever wielded a hoe knows. It’s an all-the-time lifestyle choice, but it happens to agree with Dianne, who determinedly battles weather and wildlife. 

“All is well here… hot, hot, hot, but well,” the exasperated farmer writes in June. “Deer ate ALL my sunflowers.  Makes me so mad!”

Still, the work seems to dial the clock back. Dianne swears it rejuvenates her. An unhurried manner and easy laugh underlie this. All of which — especially a lack of vanity — proves her point. 

Sweat of the brow is a point of pride. 

A feather in her cap.

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Fast Facts about Lavender from Dianne Reganess:

Fact: Zone 7-B is a microclimate. “What works in Raleigh won’t necessarily work here. We’re in a zone where the air can be more turbulent. It is definitely humid. Severe storms.” (

Fact: It’s illegal to propagate lavender varietals, which are patented, without a license. It took Dianne a year to find the right commercial grower. Like roses, many lavender varietals are patented. “I cannot take a clipping and grow my own plants without breaking the law. So, I go back to the same woman grower. I know the plants I get from her. They are healthy and survive, and this is key.”

Fact: “It takes the lavender plants three years to reach maturity.” 

Fact: “Lavender is organic. No chemicals are needed. Also, deer and rabbit don’t bother it.” Also, she warns against potting soils or bark mulch, which hold excess moisture, causing disease.

Fact: Dianne recommends Munstead, Provence and Sweet Melissa, lavenders more commonly found at “big box” stores.  OH

Billy and Lynne Lee’s Collaboration

A Fisher Park fixer-upper serves as a canvas to a world-renowned sculptor and his creative wife

By Cynthia Adams

Photographs by Amy Freeman

Certain houses, even sadly neglected ones, possess a transcendent something or other. 

And some people can sense when a house possesses good bones and can be coaxed back from an insidious decline to a miraculous resurrection.

Billy and Lynn Lee are like that, visionaries who are equal parts artist and restorationist. Billy is a renowned sculptor and UNCG professor emeritus of art, while Lynne is a former textile designer. Together, this formidable duo possess the eye and the dogged tenacity to take on the seven deadly sins of ailing houses — dropped ceilings, peeling walls and moldering floors just for starters — plus issues beyond the visible.

Having spent years in Britain immersed in art and architecture, the Lees acquired a weakness for ailing houses, particularly charming older ones.


Across town from the Lee’s former home, a languishing Fisher Park bungalow awaited restoration. House rehab, even CPR. Having suffered a serious drubbing from neglect, it somehow, despite all, conveyed possibilities.

The red brick house with, of course, an inviting front porch sat close to the street, one defined by the district’s signature granite curbing.

Yet the bungalow’s best qualities were hidden. For most potential buyers in 1994, the listing sent off-putting distress signals. (I know, having seen the house while house hunting that year.) Not for Lynne.

“I like the feeling of the house,” Lynne says. “From the outside, it looks like a modest, unassuming house. People walk by and don’t even notice it. Inside, it’s a surprise. The rooms are lovely, big.”

Nonetheless, it was besieged with a host of challenges, but none beyond the Lees’ combined talents.


Inside were layers of paint, unsightly sprayed ceilings and the remnants of its student rental past. Clunky dead bolt locks defaced interior doors, and some of the original interior French doors had been removed. Like a lot of bungalows, it had only two bedrooms, one full-sized bathroom in need of repair and another half bath — stranded all the way out on the back porch. The kitchen was woefully dreary and, like everything else, needed attention.

Yet when Lynne was shown the house by her real estate agent, she picked up on something ineffable.

She loved the location. Even as an avid gardener, Lynne was not put off by the tiny front garden, nor by the rear garden, lacking privacy, which had a ramshackle garage and old iron swing. And yet . . . this was a place she could love.

The bungalow was everything their former house was not.

It had possibilities and history.

According to the National Register nomination and city directories, the house was originally built between 1920–24.  Additionally, records shared by Mike Cowhig, a neighbor of the Lees who works in historic preservation, indicate the original occupant was Harry Marks, a merchant who owned the Fashion Hat Store and O.Henry Shirt Company. (In 1939, Marks got into hot water, facing the Federal Trade Commission over accusations his shirts were not preshrunk as advertised.)

Great history. “Great house!” Cowhig adds. 

Also, the nomination noted that bungalows were the most popular and prevalent house style in Fisher Park, where 145 were built. The half-mile-square district also featured 60 foursquares, the next most popular style — but bungalows dominated.

The Lees were ready to ditch their home — “A new build. A small house,” according to Lynn — and go.

That “new” home, convenient to daughter Chloe’s school, was too new. 

Worse, the deck had revealed a disconcerting problem — rot! The Lees were disillusioned that such a new house was sprouting old house problems. 

With Chloe soon to finish school, there was no reason not to look elsewhere, preferably in established neighborhoods.

Lynne recalls beginning their search in earnest. “Our real estate agent took us to four or five houses that day.”

Finally, their agent showed Lynne the bungalow. “When she showed me this house, I said, ‘This is it!’  I knew that, even though it was in a horrible state,” she says.

When she later returned with Billy, he agreed with her assessment.   

They saw the same underlying potential: a good interior layout, good light and good bones, in an ideal location.

Where anyone else might have bolted, seeing only problems, they felt a pull. This house needed them.

Billy and Lynne Lee.

Born on opposite sides of the world, they both arrived as undergraduate art students at Birmingham College of Art and Design in Great Britain with ambitions to excel in the arts. Billy was from Uitenhage, South Africa, while Lynne was born in the U.K.

Billy completed graduate school at the Royal College of Art in London.

“We got married in London before we came over,” says Lynne with a still perceptible, plummy British accent. Billy earned a prestigious Kennedy scholarship to MIT, bringing the couple to the United States.

The Lees formed a creative and artful lifelong partnership. When Billy joined the art faculty at UNCG, they got to know the Gate City.

“Chloe was a little girl, age 7, when we came here to Greensboro,” says Lynne. “We used to go to Fisher Park, taking a picnic, and she would play in a stream.” The fixer-upper was within walking distance of that stream.

“We bought in 1994.  Moved in September,” she says. Damage control began.

“We moved in, redoing downstairs first.” Chloe, now a teen, had the upstairs floor.

Lynne recalls redoing the full bathroom as an early project: “There were only one-and-a-half baths,” she recalls. “It was awful!”

Give-and-take ensued. Initially, Lynne wanted to paint over the exterior red brick, but Billy disagreed. Lynne disliked the living room fireplace, but removal would have cost thousands. So, they whitewashed it.

Stonemason Andrew Leopold Schlosser probably did the stonework, Lynne confides.  (And, yes, that was the great-grandfather of O.Henry’s former contributing editor Jim Schlosser.)

Whereas Lynne originally wanted it banished, she’s now glad it stayed.  “There were other things we needed.  And I like it now.”

She enumerates stages of renovation. “We started work on it, putting in four new ceilings downstairs because somebody had done that textured stuff,” says Lynne, cringing. 

“We replaced all the ceiling moldings. We did it all ourselves.”


“We wanted to make changes but in keeping with the original house,” says Lynne. Once you start major changes such as knocking out multiple walls, she says, it’s easy to “lose the original feeling of the house. And that’s a shame.”

Scraping, planing, priming, even plugging holes left by the many dead bolts, a vestige of the rental years. 


“The woodwork in this house had about 12 layers of paint on it.  We did it room-by-room.” 

“Billy even took out the window frames and planed them down to restore them.” Every cabinet and feature in the course of renovation was the duo’s design and handiwork. 

They kept the footprint. Originally, “the kitchen was formerly a pantry, small dining nook and a small kitchen.”  It didn’t make sense, says Lynne, to have three separate, very small places.

“Billy couldn’t work during school time,” says Lynne. He worked during summers when he had a block of time. “So, we did the kitchen in two parts,” says Lynne.

“The first year, we knocked the wall down. The second year, we redid the other half of the kitchen.”

Billy built new kitchen cabinets that extend to the ceiling. He poured concrete countertops, which emulated stone.  Despite really liking them, “Eventually, though, they broke down — perhaps because they required sealing.” They replaced them with quartz.

She would sketch out her ideas, and Billy would execute them. As a sculptor, he was adept at creating and building structures, including custom cabinets in the dining room.

“We redid the utility room, raising the porch roof,” Lynne says.  A downstairs half bath beyond the kitchen received a makeover. 

They never regretted buying their little bungalow, even as the projects expanded and demanded Billy’s summers and free time.  Step by step, the Lees redid everything themselves, “except the electrical wiring and plumbing.”

Was there a moment when they thought, We can’t do this?

“No. I don’t think so. Never,” says Lynne firmly.  Their home and garden became their canvas.

And there was enough affection and excitement to see it through. 

As time allowed, they planned an en suite bath for Chloe’s upstairs’ aerie, which ran the width of the house. 

They had taken care to orient the bed and canopy on the slanting ceiling in such a way that light could still flood the room. Building a standard wall and door for the new bath might block incoming light, which Lynne considered to be the space’s best feature. 

“Billy sandblasted the glass in the door to allow for light,” Lynne says.

They “already had a clawfoot tub we had found in Raleigh,” says Lynne, who sometimes goes upstairs to read, now that Chloe is married and living in the Triangle.

The radiant home of two artists, its magic has been completely revealed.

The interiors, replete with custom built-ins, cabinetry, radiator covers and even original crystal door knobs, are like an art installation. 

Unable to resist them when Lynne goes to the grocery, there are always fresh-cut white flowers out, lilies or roses, in creamware or crystal.

Then there are the garden’s outdoor rooms. Billy created a unifying structure of elevations, pathways and beds. A decade later, he added impressive hardscaping: fencing, trellises, arbors, a pergola and table, even steel tuteurs for the roses, all made by Billy’s two hands. 


The plantings mean a constant blooming palate, from roses and tree peonies in spring giving way to plumbago, hydrangea and annuals in the summer. Lynne masses plantings of bearded irises, garden phlox and lilies. Potted citrus trees — which winter indoors — grow lush outside over summer.

In 2004, their garden was featured in Garden Homes and Outdoor Living. “By placing tall plants and structures strategically, it became a three-dimensional space — like a home without a ceiling,” the writer enthused. “Billy’s forte is structure with the garden; Lynne is the planter.”

For all her gardening devotion, Lynne isn’t a purist. She doesn’t care about the Latin names for flowers. Instead, she cares about the flowers’ colors, favoring whites and pastels, scent and blooming season. (“Nothing lasts long here,” she says ruefully.)

The Lees have “before” pictures, before the present-day vision was realized, when the back garden was neither private nor lovely. 

In time, Billy placed three of his own sculptures outdoors, where they can enjoy them while having coffee or drinks. Greensboro’s Public Art Endowment’s first work is his Guardian II, a large sculpture at 201 South Eugene St., donated by Jane and Richard Levy. One of his pieces was recently acquired by Bill Sherrill for his art collection at Red Oak Brewery.

With an international following, Billy recently published a book of his works, entitled simply Billy Lee. Trevor Richardson, director of Herter Art Gallery at the University of Amherst, brings Billy’s astonishing body of work into focus, commenting that, “Billy Lee’s work could be said to be part of our experience . . . His tenacious way of dealing with it through his art offers — at the very least — a profound source of encouragement to us all.””

Now the house and garden to which Lynne and Billy Lee have given so much of their time and effort is reciprocating. When peonies bloomed in May, Lynne frequently found Billy in the garden with his camera. He was shooting the peonies for their figurative qualities, she explained. And they will inspire new work: sculpture he is considering. OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry Magazine.

Anchors Aweigh!

Frank Slate Brooks and Brad Newton are always ready to set sail for adventure  from the comfort of their nautical-themed home in historic Lindley Park

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by John Koob Gessner

Frank Slate Brooks and Brad Newton have chosen to cruise through life, moored but not anchored to their spectacular Lindley Park home, a retro-pop sanctuary where elegance and eccentricity collide.

Frank was raised in High Point, Brad in Burlington. They’ll have been a couple for 23 years this August. “We found out a couple of years into our relationship that our grandparents had been best friends,” Frank tells me. “We don’t know if we met each other as kids or not, but it was meant to be somehow.”

If their names sound familiar, it may be due to a blizzard of publicity that erupted in 2014 after they became the first gay couple to marry in Guilford County. “I didn’t realize that the media might be there,” Frank recalls. With that in mind, their first thought was — would their parents be OK with this being public? “My father is very conservative,” Frank says. “My mother had already passed and my dad was out at River Landing. Someone had left him a copy of the newspaper next to his bed and wrote ‘Congratulations’ on it. I walked in and Dad said, ‘So what have you been up to?’ He was all good.”

And so was the community at large. “We really thought there would be some kind of backlash or something nasty but it was the opposite,” Brad says. “At the baseball stadium the Saturday after, there was a chili cookout thing going on and people of all ages were coming up to us giving us hugs, it was just great.” Frank Slate Brooks, now with Tyler Redhead & McAlister Real Estate, has sold well over 100 homes in and around Lindley Park since 2006. “In 2001, I started out flipping homes with my then partner [interior designer] Laurie Lanier,” Frank tells me. “She staged a house for me and it sold in less than half a day. We did about 12 houses here in Lindley Park before we priced ourselves out of the market because when we started, Lindley Park was not what it is today. Everything that we sold raised the prices for all the properties around them.”

After his experience flipping houses, Frank realized he needed to get his real estate license, “I really think we [Stephanie and I] were responsible for the renaissance of Lindley Park.”

Graced with tree-lined streets, eclectic architecture and neighborhood schools, Lindley Park was ripe for a revival once people began moving in from the suburbs. It was originally the site of an amusement park designed by the Greensboro Electric Company in 1902 to generate interest in the city’s new trolley line. That 3-mile trolley ride down Spring Garden from the center of town took around an hour and a half. (You could walk in half the time, but the muddy terrain wasn’t exactly pedestrian-friendly.)

Named for J. Van Lindley, whose 1,130-acre nursery and Pomona Terra Cotta Company were situated nearby, the 26-acre park opened on the Fourth of July. The pavilion featured refreshment booths, a Fairyland Casino for dancing and bowling alleys. Nearby was a manmade lake for swimming and boating in the summer, ice skating in the winter, along with a miniature railroad and a 1,000-seat theater for touring vaudeville acts, as well as some sort of local monkey act. The park’s 20 x 25–foot bathhouse still stands behind the residence at 2812 Masonic Drive.

Frank and Brad’s two-story, Colonial Revival–style home on Northridge Street was built during the first wave of swank homes developed for the Lindley Park neighborhood in 1922 after the amusement park had closed. Its construction is somewhat unusual, consisting of a brick exterior with 16 inches of insulation between the walls, the majority being more brick that keep rooms naturally warm in winter and cool in the summer. “They knew how to build houses back then,” Brad says.

At the start of the 1920s, the heart of Lindley Park was the corner of Walker and Elam and it remains so today. The first collection of unrelated businesses outside downtown was most likely Sunset Hills Shopping Center, established around 1925 on the northeast and northwest corners of the intersection, with two shops and a service station where Sticks and Stones is today. The retail area expanded in the 1930s to include a Piggly Wiggly in the space Suds & Duds currently occupies.

The Pickwick Soda Shop (now Walker’s) opened around 1943, at some point in the 1960s becoming The Pickwick bar and grill where, in the evening, newspaper folks downed Blatz on tap with college students that included Jim Clark, future Director of UNCG’s MFA Creative Writing Program. Sealing its street cred as a hippie hangout in the ’60s and ’70s, The Allman Brothers played there. As the district became more bohemian with the expansion of UNCG in the 1980s, large portions of Lindley Park began to go to seed.

In 1999, Frank had been living on Mayflower Drive for around seven years when, as he recalls, “My parents said, ‘You need to get a bigger house because we’re giving you a lot of furniture’ and I thought, ‘OK . . .’” Visiting a friend who lived on Northridge Street, “We were out on her deck,” Frank remembers. “And she said, ‘These people next door are getting ready to transfer and they’re selling their home,’ and I said, ‘What house?’ We had been over there many times and never noticed this house.”

That may be because the manse is somewhat hidden behind a canopy of shade trees even older than the home itself. Frank ventured over, knocked on the door, “A woman named Mary lived here,” he says. “She showed me the house and the backyard and I said, ‘Sold!’”

A few minutes later, “Frank called me at work,” Brad recalls. “He said ‘I found a house, we’re signing the papers tonight’ and I said, ‘Whoa, slow down.’ I’ve not even seen this house! I came over after work and kinda did the same thing: ‘Sold!’”

Frank describes the surroundings in 1999, “The Filling Station [restaurant] was still a filling station with stacks of rusty cars in front of it.” Fishbones on the corner, he says “was part of The Blind Tiger next door; they closed that off and it just sat there. Now it’s the reverse.”

“Bestway was owned by two old men,” Brad remarks. “After they sold it, it became very much like a glorified Stop & Rob, not at all what it is now. There was very little activity at the corner of Walker and Elam, I think Wild Magnolia closed right as we were moving in.”

Since then, they’ve been furnishing their home in 20th-century whimsy, a Technicolor dreamscape. For instance, in an otherwise sedate living room, a Chain Drive Irish Mail push/pull pedal cart from the 1960s adorns one corner. In the breakfast room, a papier-mâché monkey mask by Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante hangs above a pristine 1952 Seeburg Select-O-Matic 100 jukebox. “We had it restored,” Frank says. Surprisingly, filling it full of hit records was easy, he adds. “I had a listing where the owner had left hundreds of 45s behind so we switch it out all the time.” They even found a place online that prints those distinctive crimson-striped labels for the jukebox’s song selections.

Brad is a big Don Knotts fan, so a poster from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken holds a prominent spot in the kitchen, as does a collection of pins acquired by Frank’s father from the many countries he’d traveled to. It continues to grow with the couple’s own additions. “This kitchen has seen so many transformations,” Frank says. “We recently did the countertops, the upper cabinets are from Preservation Greensboro.” Just off the kitchen is another equally impressive collection: of model ships he assembled as a teenager.

But what really makes their home one-of-a-kind is an unmistakable nautical theme. Both Frank and Brad (or “Frankenbrad” as their friends fondly refer to them) share a fascination with ocean liners and enjoy luxuriating on transatlantic cruises aboard vessels like the SS Norway and RMS Queen Mary 2. Part of the allure? “I love the ability to unpack once and have everything taken care of,” Frank says. “In a lot of ways, we’re very old-fashioned,” Brad explains. “On cruise ships you still have to dress for dinner, I do enjoy that. On the Queen Mary 2, they will stop people from entering the dining room in a T-shirt and shorts.”

A Carnival Cruise won’t float their boat. “We prefer the old-school, luxury Cunard ships and Celebrity Cruises,” Frank insists. “They always have lectures and more interesting things to do than your Caribbean cruises. The spa . . . high tea is very nice, the British ships are big on trivia contests. And the disco is fun for maybe one night.”

“Frank made friends with the actress Celia Imrie (of the Bridget Jones movies) on our first Queen Mary crossing,” Brad says. “We were invited to a gay wedding on board, officiated by the Captain, and she was involved in that.” Even choppy waters won’t spoil the good times for these two. “We got chased by Hurricane Mitch last year on the [Celebrity Cruise ship] Mercury,” Frank tells me. “We dodged it the first time but then it reformed in the Atlantic and they were calling it ‘Son of a Mitch.’ The waves got so bad, everyone was tossed and thrown everywhere so all drinks were free for a day or two. We have our sea legs so it didn’t bother us; we thought it was fun.”

At an early age, Frank became infatuated with America’s Flagship, the SS United States. Now he’s North Carolina co-chairman of the SS United States Conservancy, an attempt to repurpose what was once the most elegant ship on the high seas, attracting U.S. Presidents and Hollywood stars alike from the moment of her maiden voyage in 1952. A full 100 feet longer than the RMS Titanic, the SS United States still holds the record as the fastest ocean liner to cross the Atlantic. The ship was retired in 1969.

All around the home are mementos and sumptuous details salvaged from the SS United States: ashtrays, aluminum cabin keys, towels, travel posters, its “Swimming Pool” sign in the mudroom above the back door, even blankets on the beds bear the ship’s insignia.

In the dining room are several chairs, a table lamp, and fine china place settings that also originated from the ocean liner; a scale model of the ship serves as the formal table’s centerpiece. Nearby, a grandfather clock from the 1800s chimes the hour while, mounted on another wall, is a metal sculpture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns by Felix de Weldon who famously sculpted the Iwo Jima Memorial. “It’s bolted to the wall,” Brad says. “It’s very heavy. If it ever falls off, it’ll end up in our basement.”

Recently, FrankenBrad hosted a kick-off party here for Preservation Greensboro’s tour of Lindley Park homes. “We had a great turnout,” Brad says. “Our house was going to be on the tour, but we were out of town.”

Brad, who’s worked in marketing for Replacements, Ltd. for the past 23 years, has a love for Hollywood movies, as evidenced by the dramatic framed three-sheet posters for such cult classics as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Stanley Kramer’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., both of them three times larger than your typical one-sheet movie poster. “They didn’t make a whole lot of three-sheets,” Brad notes. “In fact, they are always numbered.” Pointing to an etching in the bottom left hand corner of the 5,000 Fingers poster, he says, “There were only a total of 53 of these made and this is No. 8.” A poster for Roman Polanski’s 1965 thriller Repulsion is mounted above their bed because, as Brad says, “Everyone wants to see a psychotic Catherine Deneuve whenever they walk into the bedroom, right?”

If this home reminds one of Stately Wayne Manor it shouldn’t be surprising that, just like the ’66 Batman TV show, in the den next to a red rotary telephone is a bust of William Shakespeare. Pulling back The Bard’s head reveals a switch that triggers a bookcase to slide to one side, exposing the Batpole leading down to the Batcave (sliding bookcase, Batpole and Batcave not included).

Another fitting nostalgic touch? Their screened porch, which hasn’t been glassed-in as so many are nowadays. There’s something quaint about a screened porch, especially this one with four 1950s era barbershop waiting room chairs to lounge on. Very Mayberry.

Entering their backyard, dominated by a 60-foot long pool, is a bit like walking onto the deck of a cruise ship, but considerably greener. “These silver planters are from the First Class Dining Room in the SS United States,” Frank says. A wall of nautical flags, nearly an exact replica of the one situated at the end of that fabled ocean liner’s indoor pool, spells out, ‘Come on in the water’s fine!’ The outdoor shower and deck chairs also originate from the United States.

As we relaxed on the terrace, accompanied by a symphony of chirping birds, I half expected Admiral Halsey to come floating down from the sky.

“There was a time when we were talking about buying a beach house,” Brad explains. “We thought about the upkeep, the insurance, worrying every time a storm came through, so we decided we’d turn our house into a vacation property. We love to get up on Saturday mornings, put on our bathing suits [“Or not,” Frank interjects] and it’s like we’re on vacation in our own neighborhood.”

It’s safe to say the couple’s three dogs — Rex, a 6-year-old black Lab; Dios, a 9-year old golden retriever; and Ripley, a 2-year old English Cream — enjoy the pool almost as much their owners do. Frank laughs, “When we go on vacation we have a dog sitter who is always like, ‘Oh yeah!’”

Chip Callaway did the landscaping, lining the fence line with magnolias and upright skip laurel. “Chip told us, ’The first year they sleep,’” Frank explains. “‘The second year they creep and the third year they leap.’ And that’s where we are now, the leaping stage.” A pull-down motion picture screen along an exterior wall of the garage allows for cozy movie nights. No wonder they have no intention of moving or even one day downsizing. “We’re here to stay,” Frank insists. “We love it here.”

Sold!  OH

Billy Ingram is a former Hollywood movie poster artist who now enjoys exploring Greensboro’s rich history.

The House & Garden of Earthly Delights

Lee and Bill Britt’s Japanese-inspired retreat echoes with the cycles of life

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Daffodils are in bloom but snowflakes dance in the air on the chilly mid-March afternoon Lee Britt greets a visitor at her front door facing Green Valley Road.

“It’s always like this in March, isn’t it?” Britt says with a musical laugh. “It’s like we are between seasons!”

Discreetly hidden from street view behind two longleaf pines and a trio of magnificent Cryptomeria (Japanese cedars), the charming mid-century, bungalow-style wood and stone house the Britts built in 1968 from plans Lee clipped from the News and Record’s lifestyle pages, is the result of a half century of thoughtful living and Lee Britt’s evolving fascination with — and spiritual connection to — Asian culture.

This becomes even more apparent in the tidy foyer of the house, where slate underfoot, a silk wall hanging from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the handiwork of Seagrove master potter Ben Owen III, among others, make the entry feel a bit like stepping into a Kyoto teahouse — complete with a view of the garden. The hues are earth-toned, muted and invitingly intimate. Light seems to stream from several sources; straight ahead an elegant Asian-style window frames a vignette of Britt’s spectacular backyard, inviting the eye up a meandering pebble and stone pathway that symbolizes a tranquil stream. It winds to the rear of the property to a focal point, an earthen red torii gate commonly found at the entrances to Shinto shrines in Japan.

The effect is remarkable: a spacious sense of life flowing into nature, a sudden feeling of peace and unity one feels even before seeing the rest of a modestly sized house that seems much larger than its 2,200 square feet. When her visitor comments on this fact, she smiles and confirms, “That’s nice to know. I’ve had people say that before — especially my garden club, which likes to hold meetings here.”

Britt breaks the spell “That [window] was originally supposed to be a large circular window like you find throughout the Far East. But when our builder was doing the big renovation here in 2006, he drew a peace symbol in the circle I’d placed on the wall, causing me to think that might be a little too pretentious.”

In the next breath, she is quick to point out that both the house and garden, with their unmistakable references to Eastern simplicity and style, are not specifically Japanese. “I prefer to think of [them] as Asian, featuring elements that are common to many Japanese gardens and houses — my interpretation of them, at least. It’s been a fun evolution for me, to see it all come together and change over time.”

At the time Bill and Lee Britt purchased the last lot available on Green Valley Road and began building in 1968, most of the houses around the Britts in Starmount Forest — still newlyweds — were traditional brick affairs with classic Southern details. 

“But I wanted something different, something very contemporary, clean and simple,” she explains. “At that time I really didn’t know much about Asian design principles of home and garden. I just knew what I liked,” Lee explains. “They more I learned about the importance and care the Japanese put into sense of home and place, and certainly their gardens, the more I was drawn to their concepts. I’m really self-taught. Nature is all about evolution, isn’t it?”

For the Britts, this process began in earnest when they expanded their garage into a sunroom in the early 1980s. “We had two teenager girls and needed the room for them to have their friends over. Teenage boys have large feet,” she says with her ever-ready laugh. “They needed somewhere to place their feet.”

About that same time, Lee joined the Tar Heel Garden Club, the Guilford County Horticultural Society and Greensboro Beautiful, volunteering for projects that enabled her to absorb knowledge and ideas from local gardening icons like Irene McIver, Jeannette Windham and Dr. Graham Ray.

“Jeannette and Mrs. McIver knew everything about gardening. They were really the first of many mentors I’ve had in Greensboro. I knew so little, to begin with. But I was fortunate to have the opportunity to listen and learn directly from them,” Lee says. “That’s where it all really took off for me — the desire to create my own house and garden in Asian style. That’s what gardeners do. They share plants and knowledge and learn from each other, and each other’s gardens.”

It was during this period that Bill Britt, who ran the Gate City’s sports programs for Parks and Recreation for 33 years, collaborated with McIver, Windham and others to create the Greensboro Arboretum and Bicentennial Garden, ultimately overseeing the creation of three major public gardens that came to define Greensboro’s love affair with the natural world. Lee Britt had a hand in creating the city’s fourth public garden — Gateway — following Bill’s retirement.

Something of a Greensboro icon for transforming the city’s various sports programs into a national model, Bill Britt joined Parks and Recreation straight out of NC State in 1959. At that time Greensboro boasted 66 youth teams in four sports. By the time he retired in 1992, there were more than 1,200 teams representing 11 different sports. Among his many notable accomplishments, Britt played a major role in creating the Spencer Love Tennis Complex and the golf courses at Bryan Park.

He also served on the national board of directors of Pony League Baseball, a post that carried him to Japan to represent the organization in 2004, allowing Lee — newly elected chair of Greensboro Beautiful — to tag along and explore some of the finest pubic and sacred gardens of Tokyo and Kyoto, the country’s fabled garden city.

“One of the pluses of spending my married life sitting on bleachers,” she says half in jest, “is that wherever we went to see games, I was able to see gardens and meet gardeners. We did this all over America. The trip to Japan, however, was very special, really the culmination of things I’d been learning and picking up on my own study of Japanese culture and gardens for years. I picked up lots of ideas and inspiration.”

“I don’t think she missed a garden,” Bill chips in with a chuckle.

“That’s true,” Lee allows. “But it’s the peaceful quality and strong connection to nature that I find so appealing in their traditional houses and gardens. If it’s authentic, that sort of thing just comes to you. It’s all about natural elements found in nature — stone, water, trees and shrubs.” She catches herself and smiles. “I love tree bark.”

As she says this, music with an unmistakable Asian influence filters gently through the Britts’ great room. An invitingly calm and open space done in soothing tones of muted browns and grays, it is the result of a significant house renovation the Britt’s undertook upon their return from Japan.

In 2006, father-son builders Bob and Scott Richardson incorporated Lee’s ideas into reality by flipping the traditional living spaces, removing a major wall and creating the great room that “flowed” beautifully into the kitchen and small dining area overlooking the garden.

Where their sunroom and former garage formerly existed, the great room took shape with oversized windows overlooking the back garden. Anchoring the south end of the room, a wall of custom-built birch cabinetry by local craftsman Pete Williams, stained a rich burgundy red, provided shelves for displaying books, artwork, pottery and other Asian treasures the Britts have collected from their many journeys.

Tucked discreetly around a corner, meanwhile, sits perhaps the only laundry room in the Triad that features an Asian shoji screen door. “We actually found that at Home Depot,” Lee explains with her beguiling laugh.

Simplicity and practicality also shaped their expanded dining room, a beautiful gathering place done in the same soothing tones of earth and sky, with a formidable Hurtado table, handcrafted in Spain, as a centerpiece, and Henredon buffet with Asian screens. At the south end of the room is a reading nook with a cozy leather chair.

“Our family is rather large and everyone comes at Thanksgiving, at least 30 people,” Lee explains. “The larger dining room really solved a problem for us.”

Three basic design principals anchor the foundation of traditional Japanese gardens. The first has to do with intimacy with nature, a connection that copies rather than creates something new. Or as famed Japanese garden designer Shiro Nakane once told Architectural Digest, his goal is “not to make a new nature but to make a copy of existing, desirable nature.”

Since most Japanese gardens are traditionally contained in smaller spaces, the landscape becomes a living metaphor for the world beyond, its natural elements scaled to reflect this symbolism. Streams replicate rivers, rocks stand in for mountain ranges, and winding gravel pathways are roads through a peaceful world in miniature.

Finally, quite often one finds Asian gardens enclosed by fences or conifer surrounds, becoming sanctuaries meant to inspire one to step away from the hubbub of daily life, a spiritual retreat that is never complete and forever changing, a reflection of nature itself.

These are some the ideas Lee Britt had in mind when she began her garden and half a lifetime ago, eventually growing it into a cozy paradise that is Asian in influence that is hers alone.

On a walking tour as the snowflakes still dance, she relates intimate stories of how her garden took shape — how the twin longleaf giants out front have somehow survived years of winter storms, reciting both the Latin and common names of mugo pines, Japanese hollies, yews, camellias and ground covers that are just awakening to Carolina spring.

At the top of her driveway, where a trio of large cherry trees, pink azaleas and hostas are about to rise and burst into bloom, a small iron Eastern symbol stands guard.

“What does that mean?” asks her visitor.

“I believe it simply means good luck.”

On the nearby deck stands a collection of garden gnomes, a congregation of tiny figurines that represent a beautiful story of remembrance and continuity in this peaceful household.

In 2011, the Britt’s son-in-law, Will Caviness, a Greensboro firefighter, collapsed and died while running in the Chicago Marathon on behalf of the International Association of Fire Fighters Burn Foundation that helps burn victims.

“It was devastating. Will was such a vibrant young man, seemingly in the peak of good health,” Lee relates, smiling at the gnomes. “He loved to tease me by placing gnomes in my garden where I’d find them in the oddest places. Once, while we were attending the Christmas Eve services, he put an illuminated Santa on our roof. That was Will. Such a wonderful guy.”

The city of Greensboro, she adds, as the garden tour continues, “wrapped their arms around our daughter Jenny and their children, Jack and Caroline, who continue this tradition today. They love to show up when we’re not here and hide these gnomes in the garden. It’s such a lovely way to remember their father.” At a young age, their third grandchild, Elizabeth, announced that someday she planned to buy this house and garden of earthly delights.

Following the pebble and stone “stream” that winds serenely around and through her Asian garden, the story of life and death and rebirth flows on. One learns about the large sweet gum that a storm toppled onto a 40-year-old wax myrtle, requiring the garden keeper to change out shade plants for sun-loving perennials; about the benches and stone borders she built herself; the old fashioned “Pink Perfection” japonica she took from her mother’s garden on a tobacco farm in Creedmoor, and so forth. Every planting has its own life story, including the twin crab apple trees, the false yews and a large summer perennial bed that will achieve its glory in mid summer.

“You’ll have to come in June to see it because it has everything — phlox, salvias, rosemary, sedums. . .” she pauses and laughs again. “Goodness, everything. It’s always changing. Come see.”

And at the end of the day, that is the beauty of the house and garden that the family Britt has made, a personal sanctuary from the madding world beyond the trees, a loving balance between east and west, sunrise and sunset, death and rebirth and endless new beginnings in the natural world that is their home.  OH

The peace of Jim Dodson’s own Asian-inspired garden has been disrupted by the rapacious Star of Bethlehem that has overrun his garden beds.

Story of a House

Towering Success

A noble transformation for The Castle

By Maria Johnson     photographs by Amy Freeman & Mekenzie Loli


book about a murder at 27 Flagship Cove threw a scare into prospective buyers Chris and Scott Shoener when they Googled the address in late 2014.

A couple of clicks later, they learned that the book — which was titled 27 Flagship Cove and carried a photo of the Greensboro home on its cover, banishing any doubt about the location — was a work of fiction. The Shoeners and their kids, Olivia, Davis and Hannah, breathed a sigh of relief, and the 8,000-square foot home on the shore of Lake Jeanette got a green light again.

The brick-and-stone structure had several features that Chris and Scott were looking for — open floor plan, garage space for at least three cars, proximity to the kids’ school — and a hard-to-describe quality that spoke to them.

“We knew it when we saw it,” says Scott.

“It was unique,” says Chris. “The kids called it The Castle.”

The name came from the copper-topped stone turret on the front of the house, which the kids liked. They were also fond of the home’s large bedrooms, the rec-friendly daylight basement — which includes a home theater and opens onto a pool and patio — and the lakefront location.


“Olivia loves to paddleboard, and we have a kayak, too,” says Chris. “The ability to launch from the backyard was huge.”

The Shoeners (pronounced SHAY-ners) looked at more than a dozen homes before settling on The Castle. They gave their children a lot of say in the decision. It was a difficult time to uproot Davis and Olivia, who were in high school in Franklin, Tennessee, at the time.  Hannah was a freshman at Auburn University.

“It’s been an adjustment, but the kids have done a great job,” says Chris, an executive with clothing maker VF Corporation.

The Flagship home is the family’s sixth. They’ve moved five times to follow Chris’s career with VF; this is the third time they’ve relocated to Greensboro. The first time, in 1991, they lived near The Cardinal development. The second time, in 1998, they lived in Oak Ridge, northwest of town.

When they were transferred to Greensboro again, the Shoeners knew what to expect.

“There wasn’t much resistance,” says Chris. “It’s a nice place to live and raise your family.”

In Franklin, which is near Nashville, the family lived in a 4,000-square-foot home. They weren’t looking to double their living space with the move to Greensboro, but by the time they checked off their must-haves, they ended up with a whopper.

Chris had always enjoyed decorating the family’s homes herself, but she and Scott were ready for new furniture, and they wanted the decorating to be finished sooner rather than later, so Chris called in reinforcement.

“I knew I’d labor over every little detail, so I decide it was time trust someone,” she says.

She perused the portfolios of local interior designers who were linked to the website She found many of their styles too traditional for her taste. Then she saw the work of Lisa Sherry Intérieurs of High Point.

Despite the continental tilt of her business’s name, Sherry decorates with a casual, modern spirit. Relying on blacks, whites, grays and beiges to ground her rooms, Sherry spices her interiors with clean-lined furniture, flecks of color and lots of texture and whimsy.

“I describe it as classic modern,” she says. “The bones are classic, but we twist it so the overall feel is updated. Within the classic modern, I’m all about organics. I love neutrals and textures.”


The biggest challenge inside the Shoeners’ home was to balance the “seriousness of the architecture,” says Sherry.

“Before, it was so sophisticated . . . we wanted to bring it down a little bit, take the formality out of it and make it livable. We wanted you to feel like you could walk in and put your feet up.”

She has completed two rounds of design at the Shoeners’ home.

Her first pass targeted what you see when you walk in: a two-story foyer backed by an equally tall formal living room and flanked by a dining room and powder room.

When the Shoeners bought The Castle — it last belonged to North Carolina commercial real estate mogul Jeff Schwarz, who died in 2015 — the home had an opulent Old World feeling, owing partly to marble galore. Floors, columns, a living room fireplace and a spiral staircase were hewn from the buff-colored stone. Dark walls, curtains and scrollwork fixtures added to the weighty vibe.

The Shoeners wanted to lighten up. With Sherry’s help, they went with soft bluish-gray walls in the foyer and dining room. The dining room is remarkable for its layered, beaded drum-shade chandelier — think of an upside down wedding cake.


“I love the texture,” says Sherry. “It has almost a macramé feel to it.”

Another eye-grabber is a blown-up photo of the plaza outside the Louvre Museum in Paris. The photographer was Sherry’s husband, Ron Royals, a well-known furniture photographer with a booming art-photo business.

The circular dining table by Jonathan Charles Furniture is ingenious. When you rotate the tabletop, it “explodes” into four pie-shaped wedges and exposes an “X” of leaves between the wedges. The squared-off dining room chairs, by Verellen Home Collection in High Point, are covered in white linen.

A few feet away, a rectangular farmhouse table anchors the foyer with a crop of interesting textures and shapes. Among them are a rust-colored horse-head sculpture, a faux topiary, feathers, green glass bottle, a stone and chrome pieces and a chunk of coral.

The sightseeing continues by the circular staircase.

A bust of a goat, affectionately called Pedro, rests on a pedestal. Pedro wears an assortment of hats and a couple of feathers. He never fails to make visitors smile.

“We didn’t want to be so serious,” says Chris. “We had prom pictures here, and they all took turns with the goat.”

The living room behind the foyer feels library-ish with its marble fireplace, frame-and-panel wooden walls and coffered ceiling. Again, Sherry helped to visually and viscerally lighten the room. She brought in whitewashed driftwood for high niches on both sides of the fireplace. On the floor, she placed a couple of white chenille swiveling tub chairs and a modern, custom-made tête-à-tête, a small gray sofa that mandates conversation by seating two people face-to-face. The Shoeners’ two Siberian huskies love to loll on the shaggy Moroccan vintage wool accent rug that lies over a larger sea grass rug.

“Because it’s already vintage, you can’t hurt it,” says Sherry.

The Shoeners already owned a few of the room’s pieces: a clock-gear sculpture on the mantel; a baby grand piano; and a 12-by-5-foot mirror that leans against the wall next to the piano.

“As big as this house is, that’s the only place that fits,” says Chris.

The mirror’s reflection, along with the light from two stories of windows overlooking the lake, leavens the room.

“You’re inside, but you feel like you can touch the outside,” says Scott.

The powder room around the corner was modernized with large black-and-white print wallpaper, bone-like brass sconces with elongated Edison-style bulbs, and a dark-rimmed porthole mirror over the floating vanity.

The Shoeners say they would never have put those elements together by themselves, but they’re happy with the result.

“Lisa pushed us into things that we didn’t think we wanted,” says Scott.

More nudging happened in the walkout basement, in Sherry’s second round of decorating. The basement wore a coat of dark khaki paint. The Shoeners’ first impulse was to lighten the walls, but Sherry convinced them to go darker, with slate gray walls and ceiling.

Her thinking: Forget trying to lighten a room that doesn’t get much natural light. Instead, embrace the darkness and go for a moody, luxurious feeling.

The result is a cool, dark man cave that accentuates the shine from can lights in the ceiling and from sunlight that filters through the windows and bounces off of the shiny cork and tile floors.

Sherry urged the Shoeners to paint the woodwork around the stone-and-granite bar, but the couple stood firm, and Sherry admitted later they were right. Perhaps they plied her with their Yuengling on tap, a nod to Scott’s birthplace of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, where the brewer is based.

With a pool table that accommodates a table tennis top; a foosball table; an old-school video arcade machine and a fireplace, the Shoeners’ basement probably contains more entertainment than all of the bars in Pottsville put together.

Son Davis’s friends love the games and plentiful supply of Gatorade and soda. They also give thumbs-up to the theater room. Most home theaters try to look like, well, theaters with deluxe oversized seats.

“I’m not a fan of brown leather, which is what you usually see in home theaters,” says Sherry. “Not gonna do it.”

The Shoeners went with her suggestion: blocky, denim sofas and chairs, which make the room looks more like a den than a knock-off theater. Sherry finished the room with gray linen walls, tawny faux fur throws, wood block tables and a black-white-and-gray carpet with a jagged, stain-hiding pattern.

“It’s like a cross between a movie-theater carpet and an EKG,” jokes Scott.

The Shoeners updated all of the home’s audio and visual components, along with lighting and security, with the help of Advanced Tech Systems Inc. of Greensboro.

Sherry’s signature was softer in daughter Olivia’s room, also a part of the second design phase. Standouts include a campaign-style iron canopy bed; a birdcage-style chandelier; a mod black desk lamp and drum shade with matching molded “S”-shape chair; and clear acrylic bedside lamps.


The three-sided window seat was already there. Sherry worked with Olivia to choose pink, white and black prints for custom seat cushions and pillows.

“We wanted it to be youthful, but not too kiddy and not too seamy,” says Sherry.

Olivia’s guitars decorate one wall. Some of her favorite images are stuck to the walls with outlines of easily removed washi tape.

“That was a really fun, inexpensive way to hang art,” says Sherry. “We just printed out things she liked. By taping them to the wall, she can add or subtract easily along the way.”

Next up for overhaul: the Shoeners’ kitchen, master bedroom and bath. The family looks forward to Phase Three. So does Sherry.

“What I loved is that they were really open to me pushing their boundaries a little bit and trusting me to do what I felt was best for the space,” Sherry says. “They were open to new ideas. That trust level is important, and it makes for the best clients.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry.