A chance encounter with a rendering of a residence in the Caribbean luxury magazine Real Life inspired Winston-Salem, N.C., native Will Spencer to desigtn his new home using a maritime motif. In the process, he got more than he ever could have imagined.
He’d already bought his trapezoid-shaped lot on Figure Eight Island, off the North Carolina coast, one row back from the ocean and near an inlet connected to the Intracoastal Waterway.
Because the lot is on the northern tip of the barrier island, it was probably underwater at some point during its long oceanfront history. But today, it has proven itself to be high, dry and eminently buildable.
A second encounter – this time with master homebuilder Mark Batson and one of his newest residences – advanced Spencer’s narrative even further.
“He’d seen that same rendering three years ago in the airport when he was coming through the Caymans,” Spencer says. “Mine is similar – different in many ways, but essentially the same concept.”
That concept is something new to Figure Eight Island, if not to the entire North Carolina coast. It starts with a rooftop pool hovering three stories atop the home and finishes with a flurry of nautical touches.
“When I was growing up in Winston-Salem, Dick Reynolds, the son of R. J. Reynolds [founder of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company], had a house that looked like a ship,” he says. “I was always fascinated with the Ship House and I wondered how cool that would be, to have a house like a ship.”
Very cool, as it turns out, thanks to Batson’s firm, Tongue & Groove Custom Home Builder, based in Wilmington, and architects Michael Kersting and Toby Keeton of Kersting Architecture, also in Wilmington.
The three teamed up with Tongue & Groove’s Bridgett Mazer and Spencer’s wife, Christy, for the home’s interior design.
But first the builders had to pound 60 pilings into the sand on site and pour a concrete cube atop. Then came the steel superstructure, followed by walls, windows and floor framing.
“It’s like how Venice was built,” Kersting says. “We were trying to keep the house as stiff as possible. If that pool were to start swaying, it could pick up momentum and be a real tragedy.”
The pool is nothing short of astounding. A large stainless steel tub lined with mosaic tile, it was lifted by a crane onto the roof of the home. An ipe wood deck was pushed up against it and a fire ribbon was installed next to it. The terrace may look like a deck, but underneath, it’s a flat floor.
“It was built by the best people around, and the pool company just happens to be in Wilmington,” Keeton says. “They do pools in Miami and Dubai and all over the world, but they’re just across the river from the house.”
For the home’s nautical theme, Kersting and Keeton offered their client a nostalgic look back at some of the great recreational boats of the 20th century.
“We presented the Chris-Craft and Riva type of yachts to bring into a piece of the architecture,” Kersting says. “To shore up the nautical motif, natural mahogany is played against the white concrete panels to look like one of those old yachts.”
Opposite the pool on the roof deck is a cabana that’s modified with the hull of an older boat. The fore is a bar, the aft is an outdoor couch and the fiberglass boat itself is a vessel with special meaning for Batson.
“During the building phase, my younger brother perished as a commercial fisherman, but he had planned for the boat bar all along,” Batson says. “So instead of going to the dump, we used his 31-foot Navy hull for the bar and seating. It honors my brother with a plaque, and at the same time people are having fun around it.”
The home’s natural setting is about as harsh as they come, leading its architects and builder to adapt to local customs as they designed it. “We took a hard look at things in the water – boats and docks and bridges,” Kersting says. “We wanted to learn the lessons that boat builders incorporate into their designs.”
That meant dealing thoughtfully with the effects of salt water and winds up to 130 mph, equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane. There’s sunlight bouncing off the water too, along with high humidity and flooding.
“With the Atlantic, we get the added whammy of very, very humid summers,” Keeton says. “It ain’t Southern California – you kinda shouldn’t build here.”
But build they did, and they built this home to last. The mahogany is a renewable resource that holds up well in a difficult environment, and the glass is insulated with a UV coating to keep the sun out.
Shades are white and reflective for the same reason. And the western wall is mostly opaque, to avoid heat gain in summer.
Batson insists that it’s neither a 50-year home nor a 100-year home, rather a 300-year home. “The only reason this house comes down is if someone tears it down,” he says.
And if the elements are hard on it, its materials are designed to endure. While the average Figure Eight Island home has to be painted every three years – to the tune of $35,000 to $40,000 a pop – this one gets minimal annual maintenance. “You wash it and oil it once a year,” Spencer says.
One unintended consequence of building on the Atlantic coast presented itself to Spencer early on in the construction process. A neighbor suggested to the new owner that his property had long ago been home to a shipwreck. And sure enough, an investigation yielded an historic find.
“We poked around in the brush and found iron spikes and the front of a hull,” Spencer says. “We dug it up, and the state archeologist came out and was able to identify it as a ship that was lost in a great storm.”
Indeed, as a letter from the archeologist notes, “On April 17, 1877, the Wilmington Star reported an ‘unknown schooner’ broken in half and washed up on the beach at Rich’s Inlet.
“Apparently enough of the lumber cargo washed up to lead some observers to speculate it was the lumber schooner John S. Lee, although there was no definitive proof,” the letter continued.
“By the end of May, her owners were sending telegraphs to various ports inquiring about the vessel’s whereabouts. No other references have been uncovered concerning the vessel, crew or passengers…”
Spencer mounted the remains on a pedestal, and took time to reflect on his experience on Figure Eight Island.
“I bought the lot, found a shipwreck and built a ship,” he says. “And I was able to preserve that shipwreck. All of its souls were lost at sea – the captain, his wife and daughter – but now it’s in a cradle for some kind of permanence.”
It’s in good company, too, alongside a residence that’s now at home on the rough-and-tumble Carolina coast.
Image Credits: Photographs by Michael Blevins.