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Their Lot in Life

How Jim and Barbara North composed the hillside symphony called Wood Notes

By Maria Johnson 

Photographs by Amy Freeman

Long before they built their home on a wooded slope that nuzzles up to a small lake in Oak Ridge, Jim and Barbara North got a lot out of their lot.

The Greensboro couple and their children spent many merry hours on the site, visiting friends Bob and Reba Benbow at the Benbows’ rustic getaway home during the 1970s.

“For us, it was a special thing to drive out to Oak Ridge,” says Jim.

The Norths bought two chunks of their friends’ land in the early ’80s. The Norths’ kids, Scott and Cherie, were in college by that time, but Jim and Barbara still felt a connection to the place, and more importantly, they had a vision for the next stage of their life.

The almost-empty nesters would build a new nest on the incline that was blanketed by hardwoods and pines. Residential development had just started in Oak Ridge, now a popular bedroom community thick with brick manses.

“This was out in the country when we came,” Barbara remembers. “There was nothing out here.”

The couple hired renowned local architect Joel Funderburk to draw up their dream. Funderburk’s hallmark was to set a lumber-clad home, paneled with picture windows, on a slope without cutting and filling to create planes of lawn. The esthetic jibed with the Norths’ wishes.

“We wanted it to be as natural as possible,” says Jim. “I wanted to get away from mowing grass.”

Funderburk, who now lives at Well-Spring retirement community, perched the home on the hillside, situating it between the street and the twinkling water below. Inside, the layout is basically two V-shaped wings fused at the middle, where the entrance sits. The front of the home is at ground level. The back is propped up, like a beach house, on wooden pilings set in concrete.

From this perch, the Norths would look through a lattice of branches to see the same scenes as other creatures living on the slope.

The orange confetti of leaves fluttering to earth in the fall.

The gauzy mist of morning rising from the water.

The mote-filled shafts of daylight filtering through tree trunks.

They would hear the same sounds, too — the hollow hoots of barred owls, the watery slaps of beaver tails, the chatty yips of scruffy coyotes, the ringing chants of shiny frogs.

The Norths called their home Wood Notes.

In 1994, they moved from their base, a bungalow in the Lawndale Homes neighborhood, and set about feathering their 2,400-square-foot nest with a highly personal palette of polished antiques, unvarnished folk art and nature-focused fine art they’d collected, along with lush pockets of faux-floral arrangements stemming from Jim’s creative hand.

Outside, they kept it simple, accentuating the native landscape by adding more shade-loving plants — hellebores, rhododendron, yew, mahonia, Japanese maples and ferns.

Considering the home’s exuberant interior and its minimalist wrapper, you might call the whole package a modernist cottage, which seems like a contradiction, but it’s not.

The place reflects the couple’s shared understanding of what was, what is, and what can be. They have a long history — bracketed by more than six decades of marriage — of growing together.

They met in 1961. Jim, a native of St. Simons Island, Ga., was finishing up at Valdosta State University and working as youth director at a local Methodist church. Barbara was a freshman at the college and attended the same church.

They married at the end of Barbara’s freshman year, furthered their educations in Tennessee, and moved to Greensboro in 1964 so Jim could lead the children’s ministry at West Market Street United Methodist Church. A few years later, he pivoted to secular education at a local Head Start training center.

Then, around age 40, Jim had what Barbara describes as a midlife crisis.

He heard a calling to create beauty, a pull he’d felt while working for florists in college. He’d felt the same tug while working for Herschell’s Fabrics, a high-end textiles house in Atlanta.

Guided by his inner light, Jim enrolled in the interior design program at UNCG. He was encouraged by Barbara, who’d finished her biology degree at UNCG, then landed a job with pharmaceutical and agrochemical company Ciba-Geigy.

Jim’s contacts led to a full-time position at Under One Roof, a seller of fine domestic goods in Quaker Village.

“I was building a reputation for floral design,” he says.

When the owners sold the shop, Jim felt stuck.

“I said, ‘What in the world am I going to do now?’” he remembers.

He answered his own question by opening Designs North, a business devoted to the arrangement of interior spaces and flowers — both cut and silk flora, or as they are sometimes called in the industry, PBs, short for permanent botanicals.

He ran the store — first in a shopping center at Lawndale Drive and Martinsville Road, and later in the Westover Gallery of Shops — for 27 years. He retired at age 68.

Eight years Jim’s junior, Barbara worked for several more years, then tacked on a second career as a part-time consultant.

The house evolved with them, becoming a dynamic journal of their interests and activities.

Avid supporters of the arts, the couple bejeweled their walls with paintings by area artists including Roy Nydorf, Connie Logan,  Alexis Levine, Betsy Bevan, Adele Wayman and Leigh Rodenbough.

They adorned their shelves with pottery from Tarboro’s Siglinda Scarpa, Greensboro’s Charlie Tefft and various Seagrove artisans.

They stocked their lofted screened porch, which feels like a treehouse, with so many whimsical birdhouses purchased at Habitat for Humanity fundraisers that the goldfinches and cardinals outside must have been dying for an “open house.”

The Norths understand from first-hand experience the challenges and thrills of creating extraordinary works from ordinary ingredients. Jim still does interpretive floral arrangements for their church, Presbyterian Church of the Covenant on South Mendenhall Street in Greensboro.

“They’re based on my thoughts about relationships and about creating a more sustainable Earth,” he says.

The couple take the concept of “small world” personally.

For several years, they have opened their doors to Friendship Force, an organization co-founded by former President Jimmy Carter to promote home-based visits between people of different cultures.

The Norths have traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Denmark.

They’ve hosted visitors from Japan, Australia, Moldova and Turkey.

And they have participated in the Road Scholar program, formerly Elderhostel, which orchestrates adventures for seniors. In 2023, they went to the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. Their group helped to decorate a riverboat float representing Louisiana.

“We crushed coconut,” Jim says, explaining that only botanical materials are used on the eye-popping entries. “Everywhere there was white on the float was crushed coconut.”

The Norths brought back a sweatshirt. A trip to Iceland, with another outfit, yielded a small ceramic bowl.

“We’ve gotten to the point we try not to bring back a lot of stuff. We have so much from over the years. We don’t need one more thing,” says Barbara.

The couple have been trying to thin their material possessions.

“The problem is, we’re so emotionally attached to our things,” says Barbara. “Most everything we’ve got has memories attached, and that’s so hard to give up.”

To Jim, the next step is clear: Move to a retirement community that offers lots of activities.

“We’re young elderly people,” says Jim, who turns 88 next month. “If they have a trip, I’ll be the first person on the bus.”

Barbara, 80, isn’t ready to board yet.

“This year, we will have been in this house 30 years,” she says. “That’s hard to think about. Those 30 years have gone by fast.”  OH