John Robert Lane, Jr.
by Susan Taylor Block
Wilmington, North Carolina lost a wonderful character on January 3, 2010. A powerhouse of energy and planning, John Robert Lane died of a heart attack at age 64. His demise was like an implosion. He is survived by his partner of 43 years, Bob Warren.
Bob Lane grew up in Mount Olive, NC, and had 17th-century roots planted in old Virginia. He spent summer vacations tramping around Jamestown Island where his aunt lived in a quaint cottage that’s now home to the archaeologist-in-residence. “The Bobs,” as they are known affectionately, both grew up to be experts on the Colonial South and made a historical pilgrimage to the Williamsburg area every fall.
Bob Lane moved to Wilmington as a boyish looking young man and got a job as assistant interior designer at Belk-Beery back when the store was located in historic downtown Wilmington. Belk-Beery was the center of shopping in the good old days, and even contained a bookstore that sold autographed copies of Jessie Rehder’s Wilmington-based novel and drawings by local artist Claude Howell. A wall in the ladies’ wear department featured a mural of Orton Plantation draped in moss. The whole building hummed slightly with the steady vibration of escalators and customers on foot. It was a pretty, Southern people-place, and Bob was truly at home working there.
Eventually, Bob became the designer. He was seen frequently, hand on hip, delivering a withering stare at displays, merchandise, or customers he found to be short of perfection. He developed a following of folks who appreciated his keen eye, candid conversation, and clever wit. Many years after Belks moved to Independence Mall, Bob retired, but he never quit.
Bob Lane was a lover of beauty and a master of arrangement. After just a glance, he would set about to reorder, improve, and sometimes embellish. There was no timidity in him. He was convinced he knew what to do, and he went ahead and did it. His talents were put to perfect use when Bob Warren and Bob Lane opened “J. Robert Warren Antiques,” a shop on Orange Street. While Bob Warren purchased, appraised, and sold, Bob Lane decorated the three-story shop and greeted everyone with his two-syllable, “Hey.” Together, the two of them matched hundreds of customers to distinctive possessions they prize. Their client list includes the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington; the Cupola House in Edenton; and Tryon Palace in New Bern.
Bob Lane’s artistic hand was all over the two residences The Bobs shared – one in Wilmington’s historic district and one in a pretty, peaceful rural area near Dunn, NC. Oak Grove, Bob Warren’s family farm, became a beloved haven to Bob Lane. There, he created a Colonial-style kitchen in the same cabin that once housed his museum. Based on years of study, he planted a Colonial garden there, too. The Bobs created a film over a picture window that allowed them to watch birds at a nearby feeder, but kept the winged creatures from seeing them. It was a tender show of nature’s own artistic design and Bob Lane could not get enough of it.
The picture of Bob Lane is not complete, though, without more attempt to describe his personality. I first met him in 1974, just after The Bobs had initiated the first “Old Wilmington by Candlelight” tour. A group of us were going out to dinner, but Bob Lane insisted on reading us a newspaper column first. It was a local history piece out of the Mount Olive Tribune. Bob read the words of serious historian Claude Moore aloud, but managed through verbal expression and body language to have us in stitches by the time he finished. He was adept at impersonation – either specifically or of a personality type. Bob “knew” people.
It wasn’t until 2003 that I got to know The Bobs very well. They adored Freddy and the feeling was mutual. They became frequent guests. Freddy loved it when Bob Lane launched into his theatrics. He thoroughly enjoyed Bob Warren’s more dignified ways, too, and was happy for him to be my dance partner in his stead.
One day, at our house, Bob Lane put his hand on his hip and declared that he wanted to go to Mykanos with Freddy so they could drink ouzo and eat good Greek food. “You and Bob Warren can stay in Wilmington,” he told us. “Y’all are more alike, but I’m more like Freddy.” They were never able to make that trip, but if they’ve caught sight of each other in Heaven, I’m sure it was one jubilant reunion.
The Bobs have been fixtures in my life for the past seven years. It’s like a movie at high speed. I can see Bob Lane doing his right-on impressions of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” and mimicing scenes from “Real Housewives of New York City.” He was good at recollecting little blips of recently heard cocktail party talk, too – particularly if he overheard anyone “putting on airs,” which is considered an atrocity in the South.
I can almost hear him on the phone from Mount Olive describing his exasperating but humorous search for jars of money his father hid well on his Mount Olive farmland. He could turn a simple trip to the grocery store into fodder for a stand-up comedy monologue. There’s no telling what Bob might have accomplished if he had had a penchant for writing – or if he had ever even bothered to learn how to use a computer.
I remember the time he kept telling me funny stories when I was trying to keep a straight face at a long somber affair. And I remember the raised-eyebrow look he could flash when he spotted a fashion violation at church. We used to sit in church together and, for me, it was a real exercise in concentration. Sometimes, he would just show up and sit with me at book signings, and that always made for a very interesting event.
Meals at The Bobs’ were steps back in time with great attention given to every aspect of Southern hospitality. Bob Warren is a grand cook, too, but Bob Lane did most of the kitchen work and set the table to perfection. Many candles glowed, flickering golden light on lush centerpieces and faces of friends-turned-family around the big table.
In November, The Bobs and I spent a week together in Williamsburg. Courtesy of my family, we had two separate apartments, but we spent lots of time together daily. We went to places where their ancestors had lived and I took them to the Southampton County Agricultural Museum and to “For Pete’s Sake,” a great little diner in Courtland, where my book friends Stafford and Gail Camp live.
It was a special treat to tour Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown with those two. They had deep knowledge of the places and knew lots of folks up there. Bob Lane was gregarious and could make friends even in the midst of argument. A docent challenged him on a fact one day and Bob puffed up instantly to rail at her. He proved his point quickly, and they became instant friends. I took a picture of them looking like bosom buddies not long before both Bobs and I boarded the James River Ferry together for the last time.
There was lots of laughter that week and they were like extra brothers to me in every way. Those Virginia memories are pure gold now. I will always miss Bob Lane, but his hand of design lingers in my house, and his wit, special brand of wisdom, and love will always be with me.
POSTSCRIPT: On May 22, 2010, the St. Francis Chapel on Bob Warren’s farm was dedicated to the memory of Bob and in honor of the Warren and Lane families. About 150 people assembled to witness the burial of Bob Lane’s ashes and to hear an address by the Rev. Mr. Ronald G. Abrams, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington. Accompanied by pianist Bill McNeill, we sang “I Come to the Garden Alone,” and two other songs dear to the hearts of those assembled.
Bob Warren served throughout as a poised and dignified host on a day that must have tugged rudely at his emotions. After the short service, he treated his guests to champagne and “dinner on the grounds” provided by Parker’s Barbeque.
The chapel was envisioned and built after Bob Lane’s death, an amazing amount of art created in so short a span of time. It was Bob Warren’s dream and he mixed his own ideas with those in Richard Upjohn’s book of 19th-century plans for rural chapels, that I just happened to have sitting on a bookshelf.
Jack Sheridan, his multi-talented builder, worked daily to help Bob Warren meet the deadline. Wilmington blacksmith Alex Moss wrought the cross and Jerry Darnell, a blacksmith from the Jugtown area, made nails, the chandelier and the 18th-century style weathervane. Artisans working in England 150 years ago created the stained glass designs that include clovers – favorites of Bob Lane’s among nature’s tender green delights.
Bob Warren hung paintings both The Bobs loved in the chapel. One is an interesting angle of St. James Church by their dear friend William Whitehead. Another is Neal Thomas’ depiction of the 1945 consecration of Bishop Thomas Henry Wright.
Though still, the tiny chapel seems to move and possess a pulse. Undulating patterns in the cedar abut the frozen patterns within stained glass. There is fresh-faced newness here, combined with that which is old. Bob Lane would be very proud.
Only a half-minute’s walk away sits the cabin that once stood on Bob Lane’s family farm. He equipped it as a Colonial kitchen and regaled The Bobs’ guests with commentary, dinner, and supper.
So, this man who was so spiritually attuned, yet could barely contain his personality while in church, now has an Episcopal chapel dedicated to his memory. How appropriate that the walls look as if they’re animated, the artwork by Whitehead and Thomas seems to dance - and that the sun appeared to smile on its consecration.
Postscript, 2012 – On January 26, the Residents of Old Wilmington organization dedicated a tree to the memory of Bob Lane. Bob Warren and the Bobs’ house are in the background. Here, Dolly Peason, a beloved neighbor who just turned 100, adds a bit of earth to the process. (Photo by Susan Block)