Preserving the Past
Moving forward in a new direction
STORY BY: KATHLEEN MCGOWAN | PHOTOS BY: PATRICK MCGOWAN
Welcome to the Almgren House, a charming Southport Victorian, built as a family home circa 1906 and fit with many of the embellishments and frills of the era…bay windows, hexagonal and octagonal shapes, turret elements, wide porches, complex roof lines and embellished trim. It was the ideal choice for creative homeowners, Bob and Judy Harris, who were seeking that one-of-a-kind home and set out to preserve its historical significance, express their individuality and highlight it’s truly distinctive features.
Under the eaves of the front porch, guests are greeted with comfortable and inviting wicker furniture and red rocking chairs that provide a cozy sitting area. Blue shiplap lines the ceiling, container plants make the space inviting and the decorative and mature landscape provides a bit of privacy.
The outdoor colors, painted in gray tones that harmonize well with the red trim, are the same as when the home was purchased and the alternating colors of trim and siding creates a dramatic yet charming curb appeal.
Bob Harris, the 7th generation of his family to live in Southport, or Smithfiled as they call it, arrived from Virginia in 1971. Many other ancestors came from Virginia as well but the remaining generations were born here in Southport. Bob arrived as an educator and taught in the old high school…now the new high school…and was the principal at North Brunswick High School.
Bob and his wife, Judy, had been living on Oak Island and were looking around at homes, trying to find that perfect match. They had grown tired of the ins and outs of weekly and seasonal renters and wanted to live a small town and tree-lined neighborhood lifestyle. Bob wanted to come back to Southport…back to his roots.
“We like Southport and wanted this type of living…a laid back, easy going life. Both of us were getting to the end of our careers in education and we wanted someplace to retire that has the amenities we needed and the comfort that we like. This is the ideal place for us…. Its relaxing and I have roots here. Before I moved here, I spentall my summers with my grandmother that lived here. My mother was born here, my grandmother was born here and 5 generations of people before that. So I had a connection. Judy got a connection all of the sudden it seems.”
They looked at a lot of houses on Oak Island and in Southport until one day, while out riding around, they noticed a sign out in front of this house. Judy said “We need to go in there. So we made arrangements to come here and bang, this was it. Right then…Finally we had one house we both agreed on. It only took one look. We knew it just as soon as we saw it and moved in here in 1999 and have been here ever since.”
The house was built by Charles Almgren, a Danish immigrant, on a double lot which sold at that time for $50 – $150 each. He was a native of Denmark that came to Southport in the last part of the 19th century. He was a bachelor and never lived in the home although some of his relatives did. Dr. Dosher’s daughter lived in the house for a while as well as Mr. Jesson or ‘Jens’ who was in charge of the quarantine station here in the early part of the century. Frank Ross, an Episcopalian minister lived here and changed the downstairs master bedroom into his study. A few others include Arlene Owens, a school teacher and the Canstons who the Harris’s purchased the home from in 1999.
What very few people know about this house, as well as others nearby, is that it was built on gun emplacements installed during the war of 1812 to add firepower while keeping the ships from invading the port of Wilmington and the town of Smithfield. Originally, the land the house sits on, was a part of the Morris Plantation and behind the house, to the next block I believe, was a Confederate staging camp called Camp Walker. Cannon balls have been found as far as a block back.
During World War 2 the upstairs was changed into an apartment, with its own kitchen. A German woman once lived there and she stopped by the house one day while visiting Southport and just wanted to look at the front of the house. There is a lot of history here and Bob and Judy have worked hard at maintaining that.
Judy shares “I love historic houses. They have a story that no others have…there’s nothing like it.” Bob adds “Nothing is exactly square or rectangular and I like that about an old house.” I agree and I love that about an old house… all the creaks and the cabinets that don’t fit right. It’s broken in settled and that’s what you love about it.
The couple did quite a bit of renovating and a couple additions while making the home their own but worked carefully to preserve the historical integrity of the home as much as possible. “It’s always im- “I wanted to come back to Southport, back to my roots. It was like coming home to me.” – Bob Harris portant to me wherever and whenever to preserve history…. it’s very sad if you don’t because once its gone, its gone. There is no more”, Judy.
Early on, when the couple first moved in, Judy found a bit of history in the attic. “I tend to explore every square inch of where I am. I was crawling in the attic space and I found an old scrapbook. The scrapbook belonged to a Miss Phipps, from Pacucah Kentucky, … and I’m from western Kentucky.
The scrapbook was titled “Travels Of A Southern Belle” and it was full of dance cards. She made the tour and Southport was one her stops. There were telegrams to her father from each place she stopped to keep him in the loop of where she was traveling. It was a very odd, almost uneasy feeling, since I am from that part of western Kentucky. Other than that no real surprises… We kept everything as is, no major changes, kept everything original.”
So, where is next? “We own another historic home, built in 1885, in western Kentucky that we redid too. And that’s where we will probably end up while we figure that out.” Smiles Judy. Bob adds, “We have found that this house was amazingly built compared to some others we’ve looked at and its been kept very well and that’s been a quality we’ve liked and appreciated. It’ll be hard to leave that behind.”
We settle in and continue or conversation in the front room, packed with stunning furnishings, art and populated with all the perfect details…deep crown moldings, treasures from the past and elements of the present day.
The wall color is one of those calming yet moody shades of green…it can appear tan or green depending on the amount of light filtering in through the front windows. There’s a nice mix of textured upholstery, antiques and floral arrangements in tones of intimate and sophisticated reds, golds and browns. Both are history buffs and Judy says “I’m an old soul by nature and both of us have always loved antiques… it’s extremely important to me no matter where I am…I migrate to the antiques.”
I find it’s not always easy to keep an old space from looking like a museum but Bob and Judy have created a timeless, comfortable and welcoming space. It’s easy to feel at home and at ease. This is home to them and they use it and love it. The furnishings create a nice balance between the masculine and feminine and Judy did it all herself. Both like the hunt and the history of antiques while looking for the perfect piece but if there is a piece to add they would enjoy the hunt and preserve it as is. “I can take two years to add a piece, to find the right one, to add to it… I’d take my time to find the right one.” Judy.
A settee gracefully occupies the opposite corner. Bob’s mother found the piece under the steps of an old warehouse, paid $2 for it and later turned down as much as $800. It’s been re-covered and adorned with an assortment of pillows creating a cozy and feminine space amongst a diverse collection of artwork.
Across the foyer, is Bob’s library which is fit with an eclectic mix of styles and fabrics tying the neutral wall color together and balancing the masculinity of the antique furnishings. The room is staged with appropriate mix of wood furnishings, a couple upholstered chairs…one of which was Bob’s childhood bed…a rocker and collected items on top of a central area rug.
A diploma hangs on the wall from the old Southport High Schools’ class of 1931. It belongs to Bob’s mother and is at home along-side many old books, artifacts, art and swords that set the mood for creative exploration and create a nostalgic, vintage feel. There’s a notable collection of service medals from Bob’s 7 years in Germany. He was there when the wall went up and once again, many years later, when it came down.
The entrance to the room is flanked by a lovely set of glass paneled doors although they are not the originals. They were re-created to match the original 3 doors that where inadvertently destroyed. The original 3 doors were propped up against the back fence, ready to be refinished, but were mistaken for garbage and were destroyed… It was very sad.
The bathroom, wallpapered with a traditional black and white toile, is very unique with its ornate fixtures and finishings that add character via a mixture of layered textures and materials. The black marble floor against the white tile and vintage-style lighting fill the space with period charm. There’s a lot of nice storage in this small Victorian bathroom which isn’t common but I am reminded that this was once the master suite. It’s actually kind of funny that there’s a real Victorian bathroom in his library. Note, above the sink… the mirror is an original window from the home. Judy smiles and chuckles, “I wanted one original window and I left it right there.”
Bob spends a lot of time in the library because he likes to ‘piddle around’ in there but other then the library, his favorite is the dining room. The dining room table was made by Bob’s grandfather and great grandfather out of an old walnut tree that fell in their yard during a storm. It’s was made without nails, including turned legs, at the turn of the century and its been in the family ever since. It hasn’t been moved many times… it weighs a ton.
An antique chandelier hangs overhead and is dripping with crystals adding sparkle and light that bounces off the rich wood and warm red walls. The 1860s sideboard, with hide-a-drawer to hide jewels and whatnots, sits flush with the wood floor and is home to a set of antique lamps and paired with a set of mirrors creating a rustic charm and eccentric atmosphere.
Judy shares that they just don’t make furniture like this anymore, “It’s gone by the wayside and it seems that the younger generation doesn’t appreciate wood, it’s grains and the construction involved.”
An English wash stand sits in one of the homes four bay windows. It has been slightly redone and updated a little..which Judy acknowledges probably ruined it’s value… but they like it and it fits perfectly in the space and now acts as a small beverage bar.
A rustic wooden staircase leads to the three bedrooms upstairs. It’s covered with a floral runner that adds character and color while providing an interesting contrast to the more formal wainscoting, soothing green walls and rich red wall paper. There’s not a creak or pop as we climbed the stairs and I was impressed…that’s uncommon in an old home.
The green walls continue into the landing and down the hallway where there’s just enough room for a cozy desk. An arched entrance to the hall eases the transition while a set of rugs coordinate with the runner on the stairs. It’s a nice welcome to a hallway adorned with family photos and collected art.
Each bedroom has it’s own style and character. The master bedroom features soft textures, calm neutral tones and an elegant vintage style. A beautiful four-poster bed, dressed in crisp white linens, is the focal point of the room and helps to keep it open and somewhat neutral against the small print wallpaper, the blue shiplap ceiling, the vintage accessories and the flowing lace curtains.
The furnishings and a Victorian settee add a slightly more formal touch and their darker tones bring some warmth to the space. Can’t you just imagine spending an afternoon on the settee in the bay window, lined with lace curtains for privacy? What a lovely space to daydream the afternoon away.
The master bath is a cool grey and white, giving it somewhat of a luxe look. Frosted glass allows light to filter in but keeps it private at the same time. Rustic shiplap, painted white, lines the ceiling adding architectural detail and very cleverly brings character to the small space.
A small nook, with the original paneled door, makes for a nice linen closet and a recessed cabinet installed on the opposite wall provides even more storage options. Storage is always a nice feature for an old house…the closets in the home are very roomy as well.. and that’s uncommon.
The second bedroom has a set of narrow twins covered in bold stripes creating the perfect Victorian style bedroom with dark, rich colors, and intricately detailed accent pieces. The look is softened a bit by bringing in the lovely floral wallpaper and the sky blue shiplap overhead.
And bedroom number three was originally a child’s bedroom so Judy decided to make it a child’s room once again. It is full of opulent finishes with layers of textured fabrics in florals and lace that enhance the lavish furnishings and collectibles that are romanticized throughout the space. Gold finishes and decorations shine in this bright room full of patterns and color while light from the large lace covered windows flood the space with light.
Back downstairs to Judy’s favorite room…the kitchen. Its where she spends most of her time. And I can see why, it’s lovely. Older homes tend to feature functional, smaller kitchens rarely used by the home’s occupants but this kitchen is used and the couple wanted it to be marketable to contemporary buyers. Hence, this century-old home’s kitchen has been updated with every modern convenience.
Judy wanted a practical functional space to replace their old closed in kitchen. So the space was opened up and they added new appliances, created more work space and had a large island constructed that includes plenty of prep space, is open on all sides and still allows for plenty of space to move around.
The center island, which serves as the command center of the kitchen, is made from a Queen Anne table from Bob’s Aunt Grace. Grace owned a store in the old Southport Village called The Water Wheel. She did very well there and made enough money to send her son to NC State who went on to earn an engineering degree. Anyway, this was one of her tables but unfortunately only the top could be salvaged.
The bottom of the island consists of shelves with the open sides all-around. Which, according to Judy, “Makes it easy to come in, pick out what you want and have at it.”
A couple of spaces in the base cabinets are open shelves and are a nice touch for easily accessing cookware and equipment. A series of small narrow drawers are stacked on both sides of the sink and each of these small drawers is the perfect size for spices. There are no clips on the back to hold them in so they slip all the way out when cooking and allow for all the spices to be seen at once.
Crisp blue walls highlight the large molding, dark hardwood floors contrast against the sleek white cabinets and modern pendant lights hang over the old style apron sink which stands out against the rich granite counters. Natural light flows in from the large windows above the sink and through the stained glass created by Judy. The stained glass on the left represents boarding house and the other one, on the right, represents kitchen. They are both English.
The kitchens pantry is a locker from an old Japanese ship….most likely used to as a safe or for guns…either way, it’s a pantry now. The cabinet is wooden but the front bars are iron and the lock is brass. The couple has adapted to the small space and found storage wherever they could and, as Bob says, “You do what you gotta do. The pantry is good when the grand kids are here. We can lock it and keep them out of the snacks that their parents don’t want them to have.” We all laugh.
Put all these modern touches together and it creates a fully functional cooking, dining and entertaining space. It’s large and has all the modern amenities a chef could want, it allows for greater traffic flow, is full of natural light and efficiency yet still maintains the home’s antique charm. There’s a mix of eclectic accessories and a collection of decoratives, pots and pans overhead adds presence and functionality to the room in this century-old home.
So what does Judy like to cook in her kitchen? “Well, the grands love pastas and we do German food…with Bob living there for 7 years. The grands are global… they’ve been exposed to a lot. They love to help and they both like to get in the kitchen.”
“Of course, I’m a strictly southern cook. So it’s nice to have help and some variety. But, I just love sweets and I do the old Southern pecan pie and the Savannah Ooey Gooey Pie. I can put anyone into diabetic shock.”
“I do fried chicken and the hole 9 yards…mashed potatoes and all that. They like that every once in a while…the corn bread… I do it all. Some people have gotten away from that. Not me. I do it all. Everyone jokes about who is gonna be the first one to have a heart attack?!” Judy smiles and laughs. And of course, I agree…that’s the best kind of food. It’s soul food…heart and soul.
Judy adds, “And yes, the kitchen is an open kitchen,” and Bob laughs as she says, “Anybody that wants to cook is welcome to cook in my kitchen. Just have at… you can see it, you know where it is, just pull it out and get busy.” That’s the way it goes.”
The breakfast room is fit with an English pub table that flips out and seats six. Judy cannot part with this piece. They will both miss the kitchen area, however Bob is slowly losing his sight so it’s time to pare down. The couple will go to their Kentucky home, travel, regroup and try to figure out a plan for what’s next. Bob loves, needs and wants to travel as much as he can, while he still can so that’s what the couple will do. They’ve been married for 35 years… quite an accomplishment… and they will be just fine.
A Tiffany style light hangs over the pub table, toile slipcovers cover the side chairs and an old phone, that’s been in the family for years, sits on a nearby cabinet just waiting on a call from the past. The red wallpaper in the foyer almost joins the room and carries the color scheme throughout the home. It is new but fits so well that it looks original. Judy loves wallpaper and added it throughout the home.
It is here, at the edge of the breakfast room, where the house once ended and an additional room was added. It has a seamless look by matching the home’s existing structure. “The space was small so we had it pushed out and made it work. It’s perfect size, cozy and has everything you need,” Judy explains.
The bookcases and fireplace were added, along with some storage and an office space around the corner which Judy uses and loves. “It’s tucked away and we love that.. so what if I have bills out,” laughs Judy.
Bob adds, “Judy spends time back here, I come back here sometimes to use the computer and I like the fireplace…it heats entire area.” Bob would rather go into his cave/study.
The room is filled with natural light from the large windows giving it an open and airy look while keeping in style with the rest of the home. The challenge was to bring the space up to date with modern conveniences without losing the cozy feel of an old home.
“Our contractor, Philip Smith, mimicked the some 55 original Southport bows in the home when completing the addition and, naturally, they coordinate flawlessly. The deep crown molding was hand-made and was a surprise. He did this on his own and he took a big risk hoping we would like it. We love it! There’s nothing NOT to like about it,” adds Judy, “He lives on Oak Island and is the best.”
I like the little desk area in the front corner. Judy explains, “I had to have that and I don’t know why… I can’t remember now. It just seemed like that little space needed something but it isn’t used a lot.” She laughs and shrugs her shoulders.
There’s plenty of photos, books and mementos in the cozy space including a photo of their son when he attended the Citadel. He now lives in Arlington and has been offered a government job. Bob laughs, “You gotta have a good job to live in Arlington.”
The laundry area and an additional bathroom were added although Bob didn’t want to use the space for another bathroom. But Judy feels that you cant have enough bathrooms. Its small, almost closet-like but its nice and full of light.. Its just lovely.
There’s a lot of people in the this part of the home at Christmas time and it has a good flow. Guests can move about freely since there are no dead ends… just circles. There’s also no showoffyness, according to Judy, the family is all about living comfortably and wants guests to feel at ease in their home.
Philip Smith also created a sweet little porch off the addition which Judy named Mussolini’s Porch because it looks like the perfect place to give a speech. If you ask Judy, Smith is one of the best contractors she has ever seen. “He’s got a real eye for preservation and renovation and is very concerned about keeping the history alive. I came home and this porch was what I found. I just love it.”
At the bottom of the porch stairs is the outdoor pantry complete with an awning and screened door. Judy, “People can just come in, get in the fridge and grab snacks from over there. They can just have at it.”
The space was once a one car garage and the couple just didn’t need the garage here in Southport. Besides it was constructed more for the size of a Ford Model T and once you’d get a car in there, there’s simply wasn’t much room for anything else.
Probably my personal favorite is the old sleep porch out back. Judy shares, “We really did it for the grands – two boys, aged 10 and 15 – it’s heated and cooled. They LOVE this because it’s like they are in their own little cave. We used the same principles we would for an interior space, with one exception, its more fort-like. It’s a comfortable place to relax, dine, and converse, and all the curtains, furnishings and upholstery are made with durable fabrics and materials.”
Tiebacks secure the curtains to the lower porch rails to keep them from billowing too much into the living space and faucet handles adorn the curtain rods playing up the fort-like atmosphere. The couch doubles as a trundle bed and there’s curtains all around, like a top secret fort. “We never hear a peep out of them,” smiles Judy, “We thought they’d fuss about not having a TV out here but we haven’t heard a word. They’ve enjoyed this room.”
The couple once used the space as a cooking porch but for now the ceiling exhaust is closed off and the roof sealed. Judy mentions that it can be turned into a game room or whatever the new owner sees fit to use it for.
The stained glass in the upper windows, at the peak, were created by Judy. They are of Prices Creek. Bob’s Great, Great Uncles…somewhere along the line, were blockade runners and one of them would set the light for them and made a lot of money… about $3000 per time. That’s a piece of history.
As we walk back towards the house to visit the upstairs, Judy asks, “Ya’ll want some wine?” And that may have been the best thing I’d heard all day. Nothing like Southern hospitality.
Together, as a couple, Bob and Judy will miss the backyard. They both say that the backyard is the best room in the house. “Even on hot days we have a great breeze out of the southwest,” adds Judy, “We cook out and entertain a lot. Its just very nice out here. It’s my favorite yard of any place I’ve ever lived. There’s a lot of brick that requires some upkeep, especially with all the leaves from the big oaks, but we don’t mind. It’s worth it to have the trees.”
The breeze is divine, because of the positioning of the house, you would never know that it’s in the upper 90’s and humid today…what a great place to spend the afternoon.
A variety of chairs and circles are arranged to accommodate sitting, sharing and visiting and invite rambling walks and afternoon lawn parties. There’s lots of interesting little spaces, different patterns in the bricks and little gardens to the side. The couple grows veggies and has a compost pile but this year the garden is limited to veggies in pots…it’s just easier to manage. There’s an oyster pit for roasting and a time out chair… but Judy smiles and says they don’t use that much.
Family recently traveled from Virginia, Raleigh, Kentucky, North Carolina, California and Arizona for a reunion and the couple effortlessly entertained some 20 quests. It’s a nice sized yard that goes all the way back to the alley, about 160 feet, and it’s 66 feet wide which I believe is a double lot.
The backyard consists of several small structures that Judy refers to as Kentucky Houses. These small houses have tin roofs and boast both traditional and updated elements. The small front porches are reminiscent of an old general store. These are actually utility and storage buildings but they offered more opportunities for Bob and Judy to showcase their creative spirits. The house on the right is Bobs workshop… complete with a swing an old barbers chair on the porch. The chair is from Kentucky and dates back to the 1890s.
So, according to Judy, “It will go with the house, you an sit in barber chair and have somebody cook for you…perhaps a shave and a haircut too! But, it weighs a ton and we cannot move it again.”
Judy’s shop, the house on the opposite side, is where she creates and stores her stained glass supplies. She’s made all the stained glass in the house and has enjoyed the hobby for 10 years now.
All the original windows form the house are in these old Kentucky house. Philip Smith, the contractor, made it work. Judy smiles. “He’s great at that. It’s funny how things work out. It’s just great and exactly what I wanted. The porches and everything….and it works.” The space gives the homeowners additional spaces to sit and entertain under the canopy of the trees and in the lush gardens around the yard.
Judy points to the opposite side of the yard and says “That’s Bob’s cookhouse.. and it’s movable. You can just break it down and move it wherever you want. Yep, just have at it.” It’s an awesome little space that equipped with a fridge, a sink, rain flaps for wet weather and electricity for any and all of your cooking and dining needs. “We have really enjoyed this space. You can get 20 people in there easily and there’s flaps if cool or rainy.”
So what’s next? The couple will miss the neighborhood and they have always felt at home here. “Its one of the best streets in Southport,” according to Bob, “I think its definitely one of the prettiest streets in Southport with the canopy”. But they will go to their Kentucky home and try to figure it out their next step in their journey together. Bob is losing a lot of his sight so, loves and needs, wants even though travel while can.
They will do a lot of traveling in Germany and have even purchased a house there in a small village, even though the Moselle River, that was built in the 1900s So I guess it’s time to expand and get busy again… even though Bob said no more old houses.
The home is set to be renovated but the plan is to be in Germany most of the summer, part of the fall and even Christmas time since it’s beautiful that time of year.
As we talk under big old oak tree, Judy shares, “Who knows, we may be back to Southport. We’re adopting a gypsy life and that’s o. When the time comes, and Bob is not able to, we will figure something else out.” And I think…how nice to have the opportunity to do just that, how fortunate to be able to do that with someone you love.
What will you miss the most?
Judy: “Well, its just worrying about the house, not knowing what’s happening and wondering what’s happening to it. That kind of thing, wondering if its taken care of…because we have hopefully maintained everything the way that we should have. The history of the house and the neighborhood is important.”
Bob: “The yard and the study. I will miss them both a lot.”
The Grandchildren via Judy: “The grandchildren are really attached, they don’t want us to leave. They have made it home too and they don’t want us to leave Southport. We were more concerned about running it by the grand kids than about telling anyone else that the house was going to be for sale.”
Their Son via Judy: “The front porch… we use it a lot,. It’s my sons favorite place. He sits out there with the boys, plays the guitar and talks to people walking by.”
To tour this home, please contact the listing agent, Kay Jolliff of Margaret Rudd & Associates, Inc., Realtors at 910-523-0624 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org