Airlie Gardens: The Annex (Landfall)
by Susan Taylor Block
In February 1902, Pembroke Jones began purchasing property north of Airlie, in Wilmington, NC, for a hunting preserve. He bought as if he were a Monopoly player with no opponent and recorded it in his name alone, just as Airlie was solely the property of Mrs. Jones. At first, Thomas H. Wright acted as agent by buying outright tracts of land that he then sold to Pembroke Jones, sometimes the following day. Eventually, Wright took on a more traditional role as he brokered real estate transactions straight to Mr. Jones. The land acquisition game would go on until 1918, the year before Jones died, and would include a large number of sellers: Lord, Grainger, Walker, Poisson, Cameron, Price, Williams, Bradley, Newkirk, Bunting, Blue, Miller, Sidbury, Divine, James, Holly, Lillie and Craft.
Though houseless, the sprawling estate provided space and plenty of bounty for Jones’s hunting friends. In November 1902, George Vanderbilt of Biltmore fame visited Airlie, preceded by a crack team of hunting dogs. Harry Lehr and William K. Vanderbilt joined in the pursuit, as well as a dozen other famous names. It was the beginning of a new era: Pembroke Jones’s adventure world was on America’s social map.
Sue Lovering, a relative of Pembroke Jones’s, was a Wilmington native. In her strong old Southern accent, she referred to the Joneses’ properties like most locals did in those days: Airlie was “Ellie,” and the new hunting preserve was, “Cuddin’ Pem’s place.” But Mr. Jones named the new tract “Pembroke Park at Airlie,” and proceeded to construct a 28-mile shell road through it. It was originally an extension of Airlie, but with a quite masculine stamp. Mrs. Jones reigned at Airlie, but Pembroke Park was the site of many stag parties. Even the grounds were more masculine: In contrast to the sea of flowers at Airlie, Pembroke Park consisted mostly of dense forest and wildflowers, but not one cultivated blossom.
Pembroke Jones made plans to build a rustic mail-order hunting cabin on a bluff overlooking the Sound but was discouraged by a “friend,” thought to have been Henry Walters. “You are losing a great opportunity for getting something just a little more expensive but ever so much more beautiful.”
John Stewart Barney (1869-1925), a frequent Airlie guest, was chosen as architect. Although a Richmond native, Barney had strong ties to New York. His family residence at 861 Lexington Avenue was occupied by Barneys from 1772 until the early 1990s. Pembroke Jones apparently met Barney in Newport where they were part of the same social circle.
J. Stewart Barney’s other architectural work included the restoration of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg (1907) and collaboration on designs for the Beaux Arts style Handley Regional Library in Winchester, Virginia; the Troy Memorial Library, in Troy, New York; the Emmet Building, Broadway Tabernacle, Hotel Navarre, the Rhinelander Memorial, the McAlpin-Fox House at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, The Church of the Holy Trinity, and Grace Mission Complex in New York City. He was one of the first architects to advocate using vertical lines in skyscrapers. This was considered a radical idea because the Architectural League endorsed horizontal lines, thinking it best to camouflage the extreme height of the buildings.
Once a partner of New York mansion architects Henry Otis Chapman and C. P. H. Gilbert, J. Stewart Barney was acquainted with many wealthy clients and networked with a web of New York architects, including Kenneth M. Murchison. Murchison, who was the brother of Wilmingtonian Luola M. Sprunt, distinguished himself as a designer of railroad depots, most notably at Baltimore, Erie, Johnstown, Scranton, Hoboken and Jacksonville. J. Stewart Barney’s former partner, C. P. H. Gilbert, designed Wilmington’s Cape Fear Club, on the southeast corner of Second and Chestnut streets.
About 1914, J. Stewart Barney wandered away from the drawing table to become an artist and sculptor. He moved to Paris where he studied watercolors and oils. His landscapes of Newport, Bar Harbor, and Scotland remain popular. In 1915 he published a novel, L. P. M.: The End of the Great War, that gives glimpses into the lives of the privileged, including a wealthy, well-connected couple named Jones.
In 1903, J. Stewart Barney designed an Italianate showplace for Pembroke Jones in which the doorknobs alone cost more than the owner’s original plan, $1500. Two carpenters and a large crew of local laborers built the wood and stone masterpiece in a year at a cost of $50,000. When the house was complete, the Italian ambassador himself visited and declared it “the most perfect note of Italy in America.” Writer Samuel Howe compared the building and setting to a scene straight out of a Maeterlinckian drama, particularly theater manager Oscar Hammerstein’s (1847-1919) version of Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande.”
Henry Walters had roads through the entire estate paved with clamshells. Atlantic Coast Line trains brought the shells to Wilmington from Baltimore. The clamshells from “away” provided another contrast to Mrs. Jones’ Airlie where all the roads and lanes were paved with Wrightsville Sound oysters.
The interior was stunning: three adjoining great rooms with multivaulted ceilings, many elaborately furnished apartments in one wing and a kitchen fit to cater hundreds of guests in the other. The great hall, capped by a high multi vaulted ceiling, sported two large Italian Renaissance stone mantels, each of which was supported by two carved female nudes. The walls of the apartments were divided into panels by Ionic columns in bas-relief. Indirect lighting and a simple air conditioning system added a touch of the future to the old-world charm.
The kitchen was large enough to contain a complete bakery, and the butler’s pantry held a gold and silver service for two hundred. A trapdoor led to a wine cellar, just as another trap door in the house led to a camouflaged sound-side portal . The ceiling of the immense dining room was solid and vaulted. The walls throughout were off-white. Heavy brown drapes hung at all the windows. Electricity had reached Airlie and Pembroke Park in 1903, making both properties dazzling against the night sky. For more tranquil guests, the black walnut library beckoned. A handful of Wilmingtonians still remember the handsome space, particularly one detail: One of the walnut panels, though uniform in appearance, was actually a door leading to a bedroom.
The house was furnished with items from an Italian palace, including a large collection of elaborate painted chests. In 1902, Henry Walters purchased all the contents of Palazzo Accoramboni, in Rome, for $1 million. What better way to display a portion of them than to build a little Italian palace in America? It was filled with contents so different from anything else in southeastern North Carolina that well-spoken eyewitnesses still have trouble describing it. The local tradition that “it was Henry Walters’s money” probably holds true for the Lodge, a premise substantiated by the lack of publicity during and after the Lodge’s construction.
Outside, facing Wrightsville Sound, an old Gatling gun was mounted on the terrace, close to a stone lily pool with Goliath-size goldfish, about 10 ‘ by 6’, lined with mirror tile. The balustrade on a ravine bridge nearby matched the style of the Lodge. A tall Ionic colunade stood at each end of the bridge.
Between the house and Wrightsville Sound, in the midst of a grove of oaks, pines, and magnolias, there was an imposing bronze statue of Cupid. Outside one of several bedroom wings sat a concrete statue of Medici, Venus, facing west. A statue of Diana the Huntress was placed at the end of another wing of bedrooms. Each bedroom in the Bungalow had its own fireplace.
The Bungalow contained a large English basement that included quarters for the house staff, and the control panels for a large system of buzzers that alerted workers to report to certain rooms. A thousand-gallon tank located about 500 feet away, fed water to the house through a two-inch pipe. Fine mists of water sprayed in the center of the solarium from a marble fountain. Solarium had a heavy glass in the ceiling that was fortified with chicken wire. The rest of the Bungalow was sheathed in a roof of green tiles that were made in Chicago.
Capriciously arranged coquina terraces adorned the grounds around the Lodge, or Bungalow as it was called originally. They swirled in the shape of a warped “S,” much like waves lapping on an uneven shore. Multilength contoured steps made of moss-covered ground and green creeper dodged roots and tree trunks. The terraces and steps rose at uneven but medium-range increments, but the terrace line on which the Lodge stood was straight and elevated a full five feet.
Beyond the terraced lawn, on the opposite side of the house, sat the Temple of Love, designed by John Russell Pope, a famous architect who, in 1912, would marry Sadie Jones, daughter of Sarah and Pembroke Jones. Mr. Pope spent the last few years of the nineteenth-century studying architecture in France, Greece and Italy, and later joined the architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White, well known to the Joneses. The Temple of Love, according to Pope’s biographer, Stephen Bedford, was the first in a series of buildings spun from this design that culminated in his most famous American creation: the Jefferson Memorial. Pope also designed the NSDAR Constitution Hall, National Archives building and American Institute of Natural History, in Washington, D. C.; and Richmond’s Broad Street Station, now the Virginia Science Museum; many structures for the Vanderbilt family, including the Trianon Inn and 12 toll lodges on the Long Island Motor Parkway, The Breakers, in Newport, and the Virginia Vanderbilt House, in New York; the Marshall Field residence, “Caumsett,” on Long Island, now a state park; and Skylands, a private residence that is now a New Jersey state park.
In Wilmington, John Russell Pope designed a 1915 home for Elliotte Emerson and A. S. Williams House, at 102 North 15th Street, in Wilmington. Located next door to the home of Thomas H. Wright, developer of Carolina Heights, the house sits on two lots once owned by Pembroke Jones.
At Pembroke Park, the coquina gazebo was the centerpiece of the Joneses Temple of Love. It canopied a small fountain ornamented by a bronze reproduction of Andrea del Verrocchio’s 1470 Florentine sculpture, Putto with Dolphin. The six-columned gazebo was surrounded by a circle made of four wedge-shaped pools that were connected by walkways. Each pool held a different kind of fresh fish for the dining pleasure of Jones’s guests, some of whom “caught” their catch with a crab net. Julius and George Evans emptied and cleaned the pools twice a year, protecting the fish in huge enamel tubs until fresh water in the pools reached the correct temperature.
Coquina for the gazebo and pools was made by mixing concrete with a variety of shells from Wrightsville Sound. In 1915, architect Samuel Howe wrote, “Of course, the temple is white, but not the white of Italy’s statuary marble nor the polished equivalent from some neighboring state, but following the precedent of the great craft workers of the Renaissance, local materials have been exclusively used. Here is the oldest and newest form of building material.”
In 1915, rustic gates that created the boundary between Airlie and Pembroke Park were replaced by new ones, designed by John Russell Pope. Architectural historian Samuel Howe called the classical entrance, “an agreeable surprise.” Banked in dark green cedar and hemlock, the masonry gates, painted in white and silvery gray, created a pleasant contrast that could be seen from a distance. When visitors, particularly those in fancy dress, drew closer, they could see another contrast. The gates feature scenes, created in low relief, of an ancient chariot race, in which participants are dressed in nature’s simplest attire.
There were also watering troughs for the birds and vases that held fresh arrangements when parties were held. Each gate was topped by a statue of a lion crushing a serpent. “The entrance is a timely promise of the beauties within the boundary,” said Mr. Howe. The same could be said whether one was traveling north or south. The road south from the gates led down Jones Road, just west of the churches at MacCumber Station, then wound east of St. Andrew’s on-the-Sound, towards the existing Airlie gate.
Sometimes at Pembroke Park, Jones’s capricious nature exhibited itself fully. Third-generation Wrightsville Sound resident Jane Holman Hardwick grew up hearing tales of parades of fine carriages passing along the old ballast stone surface of Summer Rest Road, as the Jones’s guests arrived for parties, the most famous being the “Tree Party.” Airlie superintendent W. C. Taylor, interviewed by Lewis Philip Hall, concurred. His own father, W. A. Taylor (1868-1947) oversaw plans for the event, one that married Southern hospitality and Wrightsville Sound’s ancient, sprawling liveoaks.
On that occasion, the Joneses’ guests traveled towards a surreal holiday where classical musicians and adventuresome guests climbed freshly cut gently spiraling stairs to platforms in the giant live oaks. White linen and sterling silver graced the tables as fireflies lit up the night. Peter Hill, the same man who delivered ice to the Joneses when they lived at 400 South Front Street, brought ice to Pembroke Park. Mr. Hill and his helpers placed 200-pound blocks of ice on the lawn to cool the guests.
On another occasion, Pembroke Jones’s big city connections and knowledge of downtown Wilmington came together. One evening, the after-dinner entertainment at the Lodge was a private concert by Enrico Caruso. Caruso’s pianist was ill, so Pembroke Jones engaged Mildred Kornegay, a pianist at the Bijou Theater, to accompany the world-famous tenor.
Though Sarah Walters was known to refer to the house at Airlie as the “fishing shack,” is not to be confused with“The Shack,” a beloved structure at Pembroke Park that served as the site of hundreds of oyster roasts. “I remember the oyster roasts distinctly,” said Eleanor Wright Beane. “We all rode from Airlie to the Lodge together. It was fun and there were always lots of oysters and lots of johnny cakes.” Once inside Pembroke Park, the shell road, by design, twisted and turned, climbed and descended, until it reached the arrow-straight approach to the Lodge. Uniformly manicured ivy bordered the entire drive through Pembroke Park, just as it did at Airlie.
“They’d roast the oysters,” of the famous New River variety from Snead’s Ferry, said another frequent guest, Rosalie Watters Carr. “They’d really roast them like they should be done. You could or could not have them opened for you. Some people preferred to open their own. Everybody had dessert after an oyster roast, something with lemons or lime, a citrus something.”
Gabrielle Gibbs Holmes Willard is a Wilmingtonian whose ancestors, the Fleemings and the Gibbses, lived on Wrightsville Sound in the 1800s. “Citrus was considered rare in Wilmington,” said Gibbs Willard. “Not native to the area, it had to be brought by rail and there was no refrigeration to keep it fresh. It was considered such a treat that children would be happy to find oranges in their Christmas stockings. So if the Joneses served good quality citrus, their oyster roasts ended on a special note,” she said.
The Joneses’ road that led to the Lodge wound around to the rustic log building. The Shack contained two wall-to-wall fireplaces used for oyster roasts. Pine needles scented with Cape Jessamine and India hawthorne served as a floor. When guests had had enough of oysters and johnny cakes, they could slip away to a nearby lake and gaze at moonlit waters from a swinging Japanese bridge made of very small logs.
Just as guests from near enjoyed the Shack, so did many from afar. Pembroke Jones entertained the “most notable gathering of large railroad owners ever assembled, at Airlie: Mr. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., principal owner of the New York Central Railway, known as the Vanderbilt lines; Mr. A. H. Smith, president of the New York Central; Mr. Henry Walters, John R. Kenly and Mr. Lyman Delano, officers of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad; and Mrs. H. M. Flagler, owner of the Florida East Coast Railway. Other guests: Mrs. Warren Delano, sister of Mr. Walters; Mr. David Barnes, a prominent member of the NY Stock Exchange. They came for oyster roasts, then departed on trains, Vanderbilt to Florida for a fishing trip, the others to the north.
William Vanderbilt, Jr., (1878-1944) visited Airlie and Pembroke Park frequently, often arriving on his yacht, the Tarantula. Built in 1902 by the British navy as a torpedo boat, the Tarantula did not pass government inspection. Mr. Vanderbilt purchased and upgraded the vessel, then customized it luxuriously. “It is a speedy vessel, has every appearance of a torpedo boat and is said to be able to make between 25 and 30 knots an hour,” said a Star News reporter, in 1909. “Captain A. E. Harding, the master, who is well known at this port, is in command.
Wilmington resident Robert Bridgers, grandson of railroad luminary R. R. Bridgers who attended the Joneses’ wedding, remembers seeing one of the grand yachts that brought guests to Airlie. “They anchored it at Southport because it was too large to dock at Wilmington. Our whole family drove down to see it. It was a beautiful steam yacht. The crowd from New York sailed here occasionally, but mostly they came in private Pullman cars. Sometimes they would ride from Airlie to Pinehurst for the Southern Open. The train made a stop in Aberdeen. They were all fans of a Scottish golfer named Bobby Cruikshank.”
COPYRIGHT: SUSAN TAYLOR BLOCK. CITATION: Block, Susan Taylor. Airlie: The Garden of Wilmington. Wilmington, NC, 2001. Additional information on the Bungalow provided by John H. Debnam of Wilmington, NC. (Book commissioned by the Airlie Foundation, Inc. All proceeds of this book go to the Airlie Foundation, Inc. The book is still in print. Contact information available at airliegardens.org )