Generations of travel are reflected in a charming eclectic Pinehurst home
By Deborah Salomon • Photographs by John Gessner
Surely Marco Polo helped furnish Becky Smith’s intensely personal home at Country Club of North Carolina.
Her rationale for the international potpourri: “Just because I like it.”
What Smith likes are pieces from Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Burma, England, Australia, the Caribbean, Africa, Switzerland. Her collection of glass canes hang in sunburst formation from the library ceiling. An orchid garden blooms in the breakfast room bay window. Walls of one bathroom crawl with friendly insects hand-painted to match a bug mirror, while a magic dragon mural livens a hallway.
Appropriately, a sign in the driveway announces Uzbeckystan.
The world tour commences at the door where massive stone Foo dogs — mythical animal statuary guarding Chinese palaces and imperial buildings — flank the entrance, while the knocker is a brass lion’s head, either Africa or Anne Klein.
The Smiths, from points north, chose Pinehurst for early retirement during a tour through the South. They already owned a home in Kiawah, S.C., and thought they would end up in Chapel Hill, which had amenities and a cosmopolitan population. “We were driving from Charleston to Chapel Hill and stopped in Pinehurst to play golf with friends,” Smith recalls. Afterward, they wandered into the village and “fell in love.” Their first house was near the village. Then, in 1999, they drew on Steve Smith’s experience as president of a nationwide homebuilding business to plan, with Pinehurst residential designer Suzy Morgan, and build from the finest materials (evidenced by moldings, door frames, cherry floors), a 6,000-square-foot. neo-Georgian residence with public rooms capable of accommodating 100 guests. Their priorities: a main floor master suite and display space for art and furniture collected over several generations.
“My parents and grandparents traveled by ship so you could bring things back,” Smith explains, although transportation rarely interfered with her own acquisitions.
This residence is, more than most, a sum of its parts. Each piece owns a story, a link. Docent Smith shares them eagerly, beginning with those glass walking sticks:
“I went into a country store and saw a glass cane with a hollow bulb and stem. It seems that at the end of the day, blowers would take leftover glass and make whatever they wanted. I found more in New Jersey. Wherever there’s sand, there’s glass.” She also learned that when a glass blower died, small canes were arranged around his grave.
The canes reminded Smith of a wall-mounted starburst of muskets in Williamsburg; the canes were too long for the walls, so she had a special ceiling installed in the octagonal library and suspended them with fishing line.
Smaller canes are wall-mounted throughout the house.
This surfeit of eye candy begs a checklist:
Writing on the walls: Not quite, but many are covered in wallpaper, no longer the vogue. Smith used grasscloth extensively, as well as Asian florals with retro matching fabric window treatments. Blue bows and bunnies cheer her grandchildren’s upstairs quarters; a pale apricot sponged-paint effect papers the master suite. Chinoiserie in the formal dining salon creates Asian serenity. Murals tell another tale. Smith hired North Carolina artist Chris Bernard to paint trees and plants on kitchen and breakfast room walls, along with that hallway dragon and bug bathroom.
By arrangement: This floorplan lacks a contemporary family or great room. Instead, all paths branch off the living room, a salon with multiple seating areas delineated by Oriental carpets. Steve Smith’s onetime office, rich with leather chairs, one an heirloom, overlooks the garden and golf course. The windowless octagonal library, Smith’s idea, seems patterned on a men’s university club. Upstairs, an apartment for their daughter and now-grown grandchildren still displays stuffed animals, a doll house and window seat straight from an English storybook. That formal dining room with Phantom chandelier and uncharacteristically post-modern table leads into a butler’s pantry and kitchen best described as vast, white and functional: two refrigerators and a full-size freezer, two dishwashers, three disposals, multiple ovens, tile floor, endless counter space designed for big parties during Steve’s tenure as Pinehurst mayor. “The caterers thought they died and went to heaven,” Smith says. Weather permitting, the parties spilled out onto the huge terrace and pool deck. She recalls a Western-themed 60th birthday party for Steve, complete with a neighbor’s horse who wandered the property, nibbling greenery. “Steve’s favorite meal was breakfast, so we just served breakfast foods.”
Magic carpets: Smith lifts colors from her Oriental rugs — dusty turquoise and terra cotta in the living room, where upholstery in soothing neutrals do not detract from the art, which includes portraits of the Smiths’ Cavalier King Charles spaniels. Not all rugs arrived via Aladdin. Brightly painted floorcloths — more New England than Southern, although these came from Chana Meeks in Siler City — cover breakfast room and nursery floors.
Whimsy: To relieve the formality, Smith chose grasshoppers for the master suite bedspread, also a Thai puppet settled in a corner on a child’s chair and a mystical Irish doll in the entranceway. Paintings of beach bars (Captiva, Holden Beach, Cedar Key) frequented by the vacationing Smiths entertain the bathroom. Blown glass “witch balls” hang over windows. Keep looking: collections of Royal Doulton character mini-mugs; a dining room sideboard once the top third of an overmantel; stone heads representing the rivers of Ireland guard the garden; finally, a mangle (circa 1930s) for ironing fine cotton sheets dominates a laundry room otherwise equipped with futuristic front loaders.
The Sound of Music: In a house rich in mementos and art objects, the most enchanting are Smith’s antique Swiss and Russian music boxes, some nearly 3 feet long, emitting Dolby-quality sound, which echoes down the long front hallway. One small box hides a mystery: “It worked fine but the case was a disaster,” Smith says. She brought the box to a craftsman for repair. He discovered a hole in the wood with a musket bullet lodged inside. They surmised the bullet hit a tree where it remained, perhaps for centuries, until cut down for lumber.
Tables, tables, everywhere: Many, like the ones holding the music boxes, were made by Smith’s father, an engineer by trade, a fine cabinetmaker by avocation. Smith brands most coffee tables “boring.” Not the main event in her living room — black Chinese lacquer with a kaleidoscope of inlaid flowers. Nor in the library, where elephants tangle under glass on a Thai import. Some armoires and case pieces are custom-made reproduction from a Massachusetts woodworker.
Books, books, everywhere else: Becky collects children’s books. Steve collected signed first-edition mysteries. Laid end to end, the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases throughout the house would almost fill a tennis court.
Lady of the orchids: Common kitchen motifs lean more to zinnias, sunflowers and geraniums than orchids. But, in a house filled with exotic mementos, a potted orchid garden humidified by a calla lily fountain seems quite at home in a breakfast area adjoining the kitchen. Smith nurtures 40 plants; as each finishes its blooming cycle she moves it to a screened, shaded, sprinklered orchid cage in the forest which she visits once a week. She became an enthusiast after seeing orchids grow wild in Bermuda, Jamaica, Ecuador, Thailand and Bermuda. “Steve and I owned condos on Captiva. I decided to give myself a present so I bought two orchids, then I studied the varieties and started collecting.” She has grown orchids in cold climates, in houses that provided the ideal northeastern light. Orchids, she discovered, are tough as nails. “But I’m quite brutal. If they start to look skuzzy, I throw them away.” Her best luck has been with the phaleanopsis variety. “I stick to what I’m good at.” She also discovered that plants respond to people. “I’m in my (outdoor) garden every day. Plants know when you’re happy working with them, whether you’re good at it and love it — or couldn’t care less.”
Homeland: The Smith residence, approached by a circular drive, fronted by a goldfish pond, sits on 5 acres bordering CCNC’s Cardinal Course. Its terrace of Hollywood proportions surrounds a pool designed for swimming laps, or simply sitting on the steps. Smith’s potting room opens onto a garden that includes 500 azaleas, rhododendron, dogwood, magnolias and camellias, assuring blossoms year-round. Obviously, exquisitely, this house and its contents are the distillation of a life rich in travel, adventure, experience and appreciation.
Welcome to Uzbeckystan. PS