Above it All

Winter magic abounds at Lee Carter and Greg Bradley’s Blowing Rock aerie, Eagle Crest

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Standing on the southeastern ridge of Grandfather Mountain above Blowing Rock, with an organic façade of wood and stone, is the home of Lee Carter and Greg Bradley. The house is happily married to its environment, seemingly as much of the mountains as on one. The owners have joined Blowing Rock’s 1,500 permanent residents — a huge uptick in the twee town’s population since pre–Civil War days when the population was only 300.

Now Blowing Rock is the couple’s year-round address, satisfying the long-held dream of Bradley, who especially admires the solitary beauty of the Blue Ridge. Now they are living the high life in very high style, at nearly 4,000 feet altitude.

Whereas some would be daunted by creating a dream home where 35 inches of snow falls annually, the owners seemed undeterred and welcome the snow. Building a house “is one of the great things in life,” declares Carter, who formerly lived in Summerfield. His grandfather, Wilbur Lee Carter Sr., founded the Southern Life Insurance Company in 1929, and his father, Wilbur Lee Carter Jr., or “Bo,” served as president and chief executive officer until Southern Life was sold in 1986. Lee Carter, the grandson of the founder, worked as vice president until the company’s sale.

Bradley is from Illinois. He came to North Carolina to attend graduate school at Duke University.

The custom-made gate embellished with the name Eagle Crest is the first clue to what lies beyond: custom details and artisanship matter.

There is also the home’s siting, which is quite a statement in itself, in a town where privacy is afforded by the sheer geography of place. As the gate swings open on a frosty morning, there is the final ascent to what lies above: a dramatic drive past the original home, now a guest house, before the first glimpse of the 10,000-square-foot main house.

The curving, vertiginous drive ends at a porte cochère. Here, one pauses, for below that vantage point sits the world; now glittering and diaphanous with a dusting of snow and ice from the prior night.

Carter, a 6-foot tall man with the enviable posture of an equestrian, emerges from the front entrance, smiling and welcoming. His breath is a puffy cloud as he exhales. Labrador retrievers Travis and Cody grin in greeting, too, while eating the frigid air. Carter pats them affectionately and briskly rubs his hands. He has just cleared the long driveway of snow.

It is difficult to know which to admire first: house or landscape. The owners smile knowingly.

Carter and Bradley lived on a farm in Summerfield before taking a look-see for a second home. “We spent a year deciding where to live having sold Southern C’s Farm in 2012,” says Carter. A foray into Blowing Rock real estate wound up changing their lives. Bradley, who grew up in Illinois and worked for a time in Chicago, was accustomed to winters in the North, and missed snow.

When first shown the house and acreage high on a ridge, Carter thought it was too much for them — beautiful, yet he and Bradley shared reservations.

The existing house wasn’t quite their style — basically it was a dated ranch. Their reservations changed when the couple returned for another look and grasped what an exquisite setting it offered.

“We came up in September, seeing the house in peak leaf season,” says Carter. The leafy show sold them. “The original 10-plus acres property was, at one time, part of the Julian Price Park (named for longtime president and chairman of the board of Greensboro’s Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company) which is now a part of the U.S. National Parks System.” Julian Price, who died before Lee’s birth, was well known by the Carters.

“The fact that we bought land that was part of Julian Price Park was not a factor in purchasing our land but a happy surprise when walking the property and finding concrete ‘JPP’ (Julian Price Park) corner markers,” he emails later, adding an historic note. “According to our property history, which I haven’t verified, our land was part of a land swap with Hugh Morton and the National Park Service for Mr. Morton to allow the Park Service to build the Linn Cove Viaduct across the south side of Grandfather Mountain.”

It seemed not only a happy surprise but was a good omen. Once they closed on the property, the couple lived in the existing house until building the present one.

The main house is carefully, snugly sited; it is ruggedly, solidly handsome. Yet the house, as splendid as it is, must take second place to Mother Nature. Visitors to the now 17-acre property are afforded a rare spectacle, more what you expect from the seat of a small plane than automobile. The views, as Carter explains, can be 60–90 miles in range “depending upon the weather.”

The Blue Ridge lies at their feet. The mountains above Boone — Snake and Elk mountains — and the Tennessee Watauga Mountains rise to the north; the Pisgah Forest, Lenoir, Morganton and Hickory are to the south, and the Julian Price and Moses Cone parklands are to the east.

(The parklands are thanks to “great Greensboro businessmen,” Carter emails later, “and philanthropists who left their gift to us all by donating thousands of acres to N.C. and the U.S. Park systems.”) Over time, the couple bought additional parcels. Now they have undisturbed privacy and complete sanctuary.

They abut land “owned by the Broyhill family now known as Sweetgrass,” Carter mentions.

It takes a lot to compete inside with panoramic views of Blue Ridge beauty, but the owners did their best when they were making plans to build. The home, in Blowing Rock vernacular, “leans towards Arts and Crafts” as the owners say. They hired architect David Patrick Moses, and Enterline and Russell builders. Both were known for functional homes built in the High Country style.

“Everything was locally sourced,” they say with pride. Working with a team including an architect, contractor and interior designer, Carter says, “we developed a very tight bond with all these folks and we couldn’t have completed our dream home without them.”

The project began in 2014 and was completed two years later; the owners moved in on Christmas Eve 2016.

Now the home possesses an air of Black Forest magic, with multiple fireplaces, even one outdoors. Yet with native stone and wood and beams, the massive two-storied home with vaulted ceilings evokes environmentally friendly comparisons to local historic structures.

“There are 16,000 feet of 200-year-old hand-hewn beams throughout the house,” Carter says, “and in the porte cochère that were purchased and trailered to the house from Pennsylvania and Delaware.”

“Almost every room is beamed,” he adds.

The exterior wood is poplar, in the style specific to Linville and Blowing Rock. Formerly, the owners explain, local architecture employed chestnut in the days when it was abundant. Like chestnut, poplar is also hardy. The winds at such high altitude are fierce and can be ruthless; only the hardiest, time-tested materials are suitable at this elevation.

“Otherwise, the weather tears anything off.” 

Featuring six fireplaces, the builders employed the dry stacked stone method traditional to older structures in the area. None of the stone is mortared.

“The pattern is Blowing Rock Rubble,” says Carter, who points out that this work was done by craftsmen in the same style as the Episcopal Church nearby.

Indicating the high stone foundation, Carter says, “We did the house in stone to chest level,” he smiles, indicating with his hand.

The result is a casual chic, Blowing Rock–style residence befitting the mountainous environs. Even the garage adhered to the style. 

“The RV shed, as we call it, has exterior 12×12 timbers hewn by a nephew of Doc Watson, who used an adze to hand hew the timbers to complete the exterior,” says Carter.

Notably, there are three staircases and even a beautifully appointed, paneled elevator. The elevator, in keeping with the home’s high style, features a couple of Black Forest panels from Carter’s parents’ house at Southern C’s, which was designed by Virginia Zenke.

As for the furnishings, which merit more than a nod, there is a unified mix of collected and inherited objects. The result is gathered. Meaningful.

Horse-inspired objects and equestrian touches are found throughout. Carter and Bradley, along with the family, owned the Southern C’s Farm. Here, says Carter, they kept “eight horses, had up to 60 head of beef cattle, and a 200-acre loblolly pine plantation.”

There, Carter and Bradley harvested Orchard grass hay. “We baled and stored approximately 20,000 bales of hay per year, which was marketed and sold to the Brood Mare industry.”

At Eagle Crest horses still reign. (The family members ride, jump and hunt and are generally horse-mad.) So, the interiors have a Ralph Laurenesque, hunt/country vibe manifested by Tiffany lights, stained glass designed specifically for the owners and richly stained wood.

But why limit yourself to Tiffany? A keeping room with a massive fireplace is devoted to a staggering collection of Murano glass, which is displayed on custom-shelving. The room also features a massive Christmas tree — one of three that Carter and Bradley decorate for the holidays. The largest is in the upstairs entrance. There is even a small Christmas tree in the house bar, where crystals twinkle on a mirrored tray. The ornamentation is symbolic of the pair’s junkets around the world over their years together. They celebrated their anniversary this year.

“We buy ornaments wherever we travel,” says Bradley. “We have 1,000 ornaments on the main tree, and we remember where each came from.” Favorites include ones bought in London.

There are beloved ornaments brought to Blowing Rock from a trip to Vienna. The pair love the Lipizzaner ornament most of all. “The perfect horse,” observes Carter, ever the equestrian.

Another favorite, says Bradley, was brought back from Ecuador, “the center of the Earth,” he says.

He is especially fond of a collection of snowmen, including ones by Blenko, Vitrix, Gibson, H. J. Yarrito, and Thames Glass, which he has displayed in his study and also in the keeping room.

“There was lots of collecting of stuff,” says Carter. “We kept as much family memorabilia as possible.” For example, a 25-foot-long rug only works in the spacious, open layout that a large floor plan offers. The dining room table, also massive, was his grandmother’s and has pride of place.

“I grew up playing under the dining room table,” he remembers.

Carter has appointed his study with his grandfather’s 1920s office furniture, even the original bill of sale. He also framed original shares of Southern Life stock given to him and his parents by his grandfather.

There are myriad collections from their families and also from their own pursuits: duck decoys, Blenko and Murano glassware, and Majolica. Carter jokes, “we have quite a few collections of collections.”

There are displays of family china. “We got all of the china the girls didn’t take,” says Carter.

For as the avid collectors quip, excess is best, because the vaulted views surrounding them insist that more is more.

Especially during the holidays. From its lofty perch, with dramatic elevations and vistas, Eagle Crest is the ideal home to decorate top-to-bottom at Christmastime. “Greg is the Christmas decorator-in-chief,” says Carter. “We have literally ‘rooms’ of decorations that have to be put out. The Christmas tree takes almost seven days alone to put together with its host of ornaments and lighting.”

In addition to the multiple trees, Carter and Bradley add plenty of twinkle, sparkle and glass, including aforementioned rare glass and long-collected ornaments. Then the parties begin. Overflow guests are installed in the guest house and parties with friends punctuate the couple’s calendar straight through the New Year.

The house and properties are a labor of love, a culmination of everything the couple has ever cared about — most especially the land and environs. And the vistas from the interiors invite awe from any vantage point or floor. While Blowing Rock has one of the largest refuges of ravens found anywhere, according to the owners, here is a proper roost for a more majestic bird. It is their home’s namesake, the eagle.

And as for human roosts, Bradley’s favorite space for relaxation is the living room and the porch, which afford southern views of the Globe Valley and the Pisgah National Forest. He mentions more than once that he had “missed the snow.”

On a wintry day, snow caps the ridges and ices the winding drive below with magical effect. As the couple’s long-time friend Larry Richardson says, “It’s a showstopper.”

The downstairs area is devoted to the laundry room, utility and storage areas, and the Labradors, with dog door access to a bear-proof fenced area. In the laundry room, there are more collected touches. Tile the couple brought home from Capri is incorporated into a custom table.

There are also details that make the house very much modern, although invisible to the eye. It is an energy efficient “smart” home with LED lighting throughout. The walls are approximately 12 inches thick.

“We have been in 100 mile-per-hour winds and nothing moves but the water in the toilet!” says Carter, as it was constructed to 150-mile wind specifications due to their location atop a ridge. The house is also 100 percent solar powered from a connection to the Blue Ridge Electric solar farms. 

“We built this house to die in,” he adds, pointing to the necessity of an elevator that was installed in anticipation of their senior years. 

Both Carter and Bradley were caregivers to elderly parents. They planned their mountain-top home accordingly.

Although they first met in Durham in 1988, they married in 2012 in New York once the Marriage Equality Act was passed in the state of New York. They have been married for six years.

As for any homebuilding do-overs, Bradley says, no. He likes “everything about the house.” Except, perhaps, he would have rounded the kitchen cabinets, he says. Carter critically surveys the front foyer. “I wish the front entrance and balcony were widened.”

But mostly, they are content.

Eagle Crest is a sprawling, meaningful and home no matter what the season. But Christmas, of course, is sheer magic.

At Christmastime, the owners are moved by the play of colored lights from their enormous main tree reflecting off the crystalline snow. It’s worthy of more than a few trips outside, just to admire a little Christmas glow from within.

Richardson, a frequent houseguest, has stood on the front lawn and watched the twinkling beauty of it as night falls and the trees are lit and fires are laid inside. He says one is never too old to appreciate the seasonal wonder.

Particularly when it becomes a snow-dusted wonderland, twinkling in moonlight on Christmas Eve, or in clear morning light on Christmas day, sprawled fetchingly at Carter and Bradley’s feet.

Cynthia Adams is a Triad-based writer and contributing editor to Seasons’ flagship, O. Henry magazine.

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