The Dollhouse at Airlie Gardens

by Susan Taylor Block

(Dollhouse photos by Gilliam Horton)


The grown-ups' house at Airlie, about 1930. (Courtesy of Bill Creasy) Click on photos to magnify.

Sarah Wharton Green Jones Walters, owner of Airlie Gardens from 1884 until her death in 1943, built one of Wilmington’s finest dollhouses, about 1917. It was electrified, furnished, and maintained to perfection. Imaginary meals were served on fine china and eaten with sterling silver spoons and forks. Mrs. Jones built the little house the same way she amassed a 39-room house, and constructed a wing of luxury apartments, an amphitheater, and a freestanding ballroom – with lots of good help.

Sarah and her husband, Pembroke Jones, maintained a local staff of many talented workmen, including Francis Marion McGowan, a construction supervisor for Jones’s elaborate hunting lodge at Pembroke Park (Landfall), St. Andrew’s on-the-Sound Church on Airlie Road, and much of the ornamentation within the original 155-acre Airlie estate. Most likely,  McGowan supervised construction of the Airlie Dollhouse, too.


The Dollhouse, about 1950.

Sarah Jones built the dollhouse for her granddaughters, Mary, Sarah, and Jane London Pope – the children of Sadie Jones and husband, John Russell Pope. Pope, an architect who would draw plans for the Jefferson Memorial in the 1930s,  just might have sketched the dollhouse. Sarah’s granddaughters were born in 1913, 1915, and 1917, respectively. What fun it must have been for the girls to leave their homes in stuffier Newport and New York City, and enter the wonderland that was Airlie. There, they had scores of acres on which to romp; local cousins and a fresh group of playmates in abundance; and the presence of a doting powerhouse of a grandmother who spared little to surprise and delight them.

The Waves, designed by John Russell Pope, was the Pope's residence in Newport. (Jonathan Wallen, Stephen Bedford)

The Temple of Love, at Landfall, is another of Pope's designs. This is the way it looked about 1918.

The very garden would have been enough with its twists and turns over  bleached oyster shell paths, for Sarah designed it to be a series of visual discoveries. Current costs prohibit maintaining it as such, but Airlie did not include as much open space then as it does now. Vistas were purposefully obscured to make traveling the lanes and walking the footpaths an experience of continual amazement. Youngest granddaughter, Jane Pope Akers Ridgway, remembering that time, wrote in 2001, “Airlie was a happy, beautiful, magical place.”

Despite the fun involved, there was a poignant aspect to the dollhouse. Young Sarah died of disease in 1922. Mary would perish in an automobile accident in 1931, at age 17. The roadster Mary was driving, a gift from her grandmother, had been hers for only a week. Ironically, the only other local dollhouse of distinction, “Sunnyside” at Orton Plantation, had its own tragedy.  In the 1890s, Luola and James Sprunt built Sunnyside for their only daughter, Marion, who died of scarlet faver in 1901, at the age of 13. Like the Joneses, the Sprunts had their own close family connection to an architect. New York-based architect, Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, was Mrs. Sprunt’s brother.


James L. Sprunt, Jr. (on right) emerges from Sunnyside, at Orton Plantation, about 1920. (Cape Fear Museum)

In 2001, Jane Ridgway remarked  that she and her family had had to deal with much tragedy through the years. Her grandfather, Pembroke Jones, never knew his mother, having lost her when he was three months old.  Her mother’s oldest sibling, Alice Dickinson Jones, died at age four. Then came the deaths of her own sisters, Sarah and Mary. Since that interview with Mrs. Ridgway, she has lost one of her own two daughters.

Jane Pope Akers Ridgway, seated beneath a portrait of her grandmother, in 2001. (Photo by Tom Ridgway)

Pembroke Jones died following surgery, in 1919. In 1922, Mrs. Jones married their longtime friend Henry Walters, and the two of them spent much time at Airlie. Mrs. Walters entertained granddaughter Jane and her Wilmington friends often there and the dollhouse was a favorite space for them.


Art collector and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad magnate Henry Walters (left) and wife, Sarah, about 1923.

After Sarah Jones Walters’ death, daughter Sadie Pope inherited Airlie. On January 16, 1948, she sold the estate to Bertha Barefoot and W. A. Corbett. The Corbett’s older granddaughters enjoyed the dollhouse and created their own happy memories there for almost seven years. Granddaughter Sandra Corbett Hiatt remembers going to the dollhouse with her father, Horace Corbett. The old furniture was still in place and there were baby dolls about. As a child, of course, she was quite comfortable, but her father had to bend way over just to get through the door.


W. A. Corbett poses with Azalea Queen Gregg Sherwood at his home in 1950. The old Airlie mansion was razed in the mid-1960s. (Photo by Gilliam Horton).

Sadly, all that came to an end on October 15, 1954, when the winds and high waters of Hurricane Hazel damaged the dollhouse. Along with many tons of debris and downed trees, workmen carted it away.

(Sources include interviews with Jane London Pope Akers Ridgway, 2001-2007; James L. Sprunt, Jr., in 1998; and Sandra Corbett Hiatt, in 2010.)

About Susan Taylor Block

Susan Taylor Block is a writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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