For Sid Teague and Camilla Wilcox, the past was truly prelude to a glorious future
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“This is the place where we create,” says Sid Teague matter-of-factly, indicating with a wave of the hand the area beyond his wide and commodious back porch. “An artist puts his work on canvas. We create on dirt. It’s important to us where we live. In some ways, it’s like we’ve withdrawn to a different time in the world.”
“When I first saw this house,” adds Camilla Wilcox, “It truly looked like it had been here forever — or at least a hundred years.”
Indeed it does.
To a visitor’s uninformed eye on this warm late Indian summer afternoon, with a cool glass of local wine in hand, the tableau that presents itself — a handsome barn and flock of sheep grazing peacefully in the adjacent meadow, a rustic rail-fenced garden giving up the last of summer’s bounty, pathways of crushed stone meandering through curated beds of native flowers, even an ancient log house tucked artfully into a corner of the property — gives off an air of Jeffersonian simplicity. The stately Federalist style house has the look and feel of a beloved family home passed down through the generations.
The fact that it reposes on a rural patch of land just outside the historic village of Lewisville, within a mile or so of the legendary Great Wagon Road that brought thousands of German and Scotch-Irish settlers to the Colonial backcountry, doesn’t hurt this impression in the least.
“Actually,” Sid allows with a smile, “none of what you see was here 20 years ago, though it was the site of an old farmstead going back to the early 19th century and maybe before. What you see now, however, is really the work and vision of two people who share a love of history.”
“It’s funny that you mention Thomas Jefferson,” Camilla Wilcox is moved to say with a bright smile, offering a bowl of sweet figs from her garden. “The first project Sid and I worked on here together was the Jefferson garden area here in back.” She indicates the area off the western corner of the porch where ferns, lungwort, fire pinks and an old-fashioned blackberry lily grow beneath the spreading arms of a black walnut tree.
To step back a bit in time, their spectacular collaboration commenced not long after the couple began dating in 2002, introduced by like-minded friends at a function of the Foothills Group of N.C. Sierra Club. Of course popular dentist Sid Teague and plant historian Camilla Wilcox would make an interesting couple, given their mutual interests in American history and the natural world.
At that time, Camilla was the longtime curator of education for Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University, a widowed mother with a son who was a college professor. Her life’s work had been finding and preserving historic plants.
Sid was also a life in transition, a divorced father of three. A son of western Forsyth, he had a deep reverence for local history and historic preservation that led him to undertake the complete construction of a spectacular brick house in Lewisville based on an early 19th-century design by historical architect and former Old Salem conservator Charles Phillips.
“It’s funny how things sometimes work out,” Sid begins the tale of their collaboration. “After my marriage ended, I looked around the state for a rural piece of land and was even considering the purchase of a historic house in Old Salem, when one afternoon I happened upon a man who was digging below the floor joists of St. Philips Moravian Church. That fascinated me. His name was Mo Hartley, Old Salem’s archeologist. We got to talking and I told him I thought I might build a house that would be authentic in every detail. I asked him where I might begin. He suggested that I get in touch with architect Charles Phillips.”
At that time, circa 1996, Phillips, Old Salem’s former director of restoration, was one of the nation’s leading conservators and experts on historic restoration. His lengthy professional vita included a 20-year stint restoring George Mason’s Colonial home in Virginia in collaboration with Williamsburg’s director of archeology Paul Buchanan, plus advisory work on James Madison’s Montpelier estate for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and numerous other public and private historic properties.
“Here I was, a local dentist, who happened to love history, getting in touch to see if he might design me a house,” Sid remembers with a laugh. “I wasn’t sure he would take me seriously.”
But Charles Phillips did.
“I knew from our first conversation that Sid was a thoughtful man who knew a great deal about history and had a firm vision in his head,” relates Phillips, who has since returned to his native Texas, where he is CEO of a preservation group, Conserve Architecture. “Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times it can be a problem — if a client insists on doing everything his own way,” he says. Fortunately, in this instance, it was a very good partnership: “Sid actually listened to the things I told him. He was a terrific client, very informed and curious. As a result, everything flowed really well.”
The 2,600-square-foot house Charles Phillips designed for Dr. Sid Teague was what the architect calls a three-story “survival Federalist-style” brick house. “It was the kind of house you would have found in the rural areas of the Southern states in the early 19th century,” Phillips explains. “Federalist houses reached their peak around 1790 in the major cities and towns of early America. But it took time for the style to spread out to the country — hence the word survival.”
With his “new old” house’s design plans in hand, Sid went looking for builders who would do specialized reproduction work but found that most of those he contacted were either unequipped to create the kind of historic property he had in mind or were simply way beyond his projected budget.
At the suggestion of an old friend who was a builder, however, he became his own contractor and dove headlong into the challenging process of building his historic dream house on a forested 8-acre parcel of land he found not far from where he grew up in western Forsyth.
“When I look back, I realize how challenging it was to build this house myself,” he reflects. “But it was something I really felt committed to do.”
And so, he researched the right handmade historic bricks and even hired the skilled German bricklayers from Surry County; sought out and lined up the region’s last two skilled plasterers, and found a firm down in Whiteville, N.C., that could provide reclaimed and finished “Charleston grade” heart pine flooring with no knots. Goodman Millwork of Salisbury provided stunning custom-made moldings and cabinets made from sustainable Pennsylvania cherry.
“If it sounds a little like a personal obsession,” he allows, “that wouldn’t be far wrong. I threw every moment of my life into building this house — every waking moment and even dreams at night.”
By the time of his second date with Camilla Wilcox in 2002, the house was more or less completed. After a pleasant supper at the Old Salem Tavern, Sid drove Camilla out to have a look at his newfangled, old-fashioned historic homestead dream house.
He remembers how she got out of the car and just looked up at the house and smiled. At the time, he recalls, “I’d just moved into the house but the walls inside were all whitewashed. At that stage, everything was pretty basic.”
“I remember thinking,” recalls Camilla, “Oh my, I think I’m home.”
Over the next five years, as history beckoned and love took root like the passion flowers on their period-correct picket fence, Camilla’s gifted eye for design, not to mention historic colors and rich textures — along with family heirlooms combined with historic furnishings they picked up from sorties to antique auctions — slowly transformed the interior of their Survival Federalist into a warm and inviting masterpiece of historic design.
“Sid was a wonderful client, the kind you dream of having,” says Phillips. “But it must be said that Camilla’s influence was really important. She saw things Sid couldn’t see. Her understanding of interior design — the beautiful flooring and colors she chose — and the historic nature of the house made it all fit so honestly and naturally on the landscape.”
“We actually had to postpone the wedding for a year in order to build closets,” Camilla remembers with an amused shake of her head, noting how most 19th-century houses typically relied on wardrobes in place of closets.
“The only closets I originally built were for myself, thinking I’d be a single man,” Sid admits. “I finished the third floor with closets and a place for Camilla to have her own dedicated space.”
“Sid had his study on the second floor,” she injects. “I needed my own inner sanctum too.”
His cozy second-floor nook hosts favorite books, sentimental items from his boyhood and many years of travel and outdoor life.
Her third-floor aerie boasts a serene reading room and old-fashioned clawfoot bathtub that took several men to maneuver up two flights of stairs.
On a broiling August afternoon in 2007, a hundred friends and family turned out for the wedding of Sid Teague and Camilla Wilcox beneath a 250-year-old southern red oak behind their house.
By then the property included a new irrigation pond and a recently constructed “sitting porch” that spanned the rear of the house. The porch was shaded by wild grapes that migrated from the nearby woods, along with Carolina jasmine and Lady Banks roses — an ideal spot for catching the prevailing afternoon breeze. “Original air conditioning,” Camilla jokes.
There was also a new carriage house garage designed to replicate a 19th-century hay barn and winding stone pathways tiered with historic and native flowers behind retaining walls.
Sid’s cousin, a Moravian minister, officiated, with musicians from the
N. C. School of the Arts providing the music — including an up-tempo version of “Green Acres” as a surprise for Camilla.
“She was, after all, the city mouse marrying the country mouse,” Sid quips. “I’m the constant builder. She’s the gifted decorator. She simply brought her talents out to the country.”
Their wedding guests were also treated to the couple’s latest acquisition —a relocated log house that once belonged to Sid’s great-grandmother, a rustic family homeplace he’d literally dug up and moved in two pieces from its original site 20 miles away on the road to Lexington. The old family homeplace has been faithfully restored and filled with family furniture donated by Sid’s relations.
“Charles Phillips told me he thought a house like ours needed an old house in order to give the property the right feel,” Sid says. “I think he probably had a simple corn crib in mind, though — not an actual family house on skids.”
“One thing I learned about Sid pretty quickly,” Camilla adds, “there was always something else to build in the planning stages, with more creating to come.”
Indeed, soon a handsome well house constructed from a pallet of leftover antique bricks was added to the property, followed by an elegant garden shed and perhaps the county’s most artful chicken coop, all designed by the elegant hand of one Charles Phillips.
The coop today boasts 50 resident chickens of 10 different heritage varieties — blue cochins, dark brahmas, Delawares and others — yielding on average a dozen eggs per day, which Sid, who is a youthful 69 but still works two days a week, often takes to work for his employees.
Perhaps the crowning touch came three years ago with the completion of a magnificent 30-by-20-foot mortise and tenon barn constructed by Steven Cole Builders of Danbury, and now home to a dozen Corriedale and Dorset sheep and a charming pair of mother-and-daughter llamas named Rosa and Lily. They share the barn with Sid’s remarkable collection of antique farm implements and a genuine Nissen wagon – a fitting touch given that Nissen Wagon Works, established down the road from Old Salem, was one of the largest wagon makers in the South in the 19th century. Two of Sid’s great grandfathers worked there.
If there’s any truth to the notion that home is where the heart is — a phrase historically attributed to everyone from Pliny the Elder to Davy Crockett — this history-loving couple has surely created a homestead for any season in the heart of the country.
“The house does seem to fascinate people. When our friends and family come to visit,” Camilla notes, “we light the fireplaces and cook lots of meals, and talk on the porch even into winter. People like to wander all over the house, up and down, checking things out. My grandchildren always seem to discover something that intrigues them.”
And why not?
In the house’s expansive red-oak-paneled basement — reached one way by a outside door, the other by a cool pioneer-style ladder through the floor — are Camilla’s workshop, and curated rooms of antiques and collected furnishings from their many years of chasing history though auction houses and back roads, every item carefully catalogued, including a vintage mail-slot cabinet that once belonged to the Lewisville post office. “Perfect for wine bottles, eh?” Sid jokes.
Back on the porch, as a cool blue dusk settles over the peaceable kingdom they have made into a living postcard from the 19th century, Sid admits his last “creation” may be finishing the second floor of the carriage house for a home office.
“I’ve just given my notice and will need a place for my office furniture.”
“He’s officially retired three times already,” Camilla wryly points out. “Whenever our friends saw Sid’s newspaper or billboard ads for his practice, they knew another construction project was about to begin here in the country.”
“We may finally be approaching maintenance mode,” Sid concedes as he heads off to the barn to feed the sheep and llamas. “But building the past has been such a pleasure. You never know what we just might create next.” h
Jim Dodson is the editor of Seasons and its sister magazines, O.Henry,
PineStraw and Salt.