By Maria Johnson • Photographs by Amy Freeman
They wanted something different.
A barn, a church, someplace you wouldn’t necessarily think of as a personal space.
So when Laura and Mike Griffin went tooling around on a scooter, looking for rural properties, they weren’t looking for your average address.
In fact, Laura had espied a farmhouse that she liked.
But Mike didn’t.
So they asked the real estate agent if he knew of anything more unusual. He pointed them to a listing a few miles away. The property, in the northern Davidson County community of Wallburg, included 9 acres and a fairly new house that was nice but nothing remarkable.
But the barn . . .
The barn was the hub of a former dairy farm that had belonged to the Motsingers, a family name that’s as common as “Jones” on this Germanic shoulder of the Piedmont.
Laura and Mike zipped over to property.
Perched by the road, the Depression-era barn slumped as if it were trying to return to the Earth from which it had been raised.
Mike tried to slide one of the front doors sideways, but it was stuck, so he tilted it upward from the bottom.
He and Laura stuck their heads in.
The air smelled like loamy dirt. Daylight leaked in all around. There was evidence of animals other than dairy cows. Mud dauber nests crusted the rafters. A hay hole in the middle of the plank floor opened to the milking barn below, a sort of a walkout basement.
“This is it,” said Mike.
It’s funny, says Laura, how you go through different chapters and experiences in life and then, if you’re lucky, you end up where you started: being yourself, the you you always knew.
She was the artist. The designer. The one who daydreamed about color and texture.
She came by it honestly. Her father was a vice president of Cone Mills Corp., the textile giant that moved the family from New York to Greensboro when Laura was a kid.
They lived in the Green Valley neighborhood; they jokingly called it “Gratale Valley,” a nod to the family’s Italian name (grah-TAL-ee). Their home life was spiked with Mediterranean vigor and an appreciation of aesthetics. Laura’s mom had studied fashion design in New York.
“They knew what was beautiful,” Laura says of her parents. After graduating from Grimsley High School, Laura started at UNC Wilmington in art. Two years in, her father nixed that plan. She wasn’t competitive enough to make a living in the art world, he thought.
So Laura nabbed a science degree from UNCG, and topped it off with an associate degree in radiologic technology from N.C. Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem (now Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center).
Her career tugged her to Charleston, South Carolina, then to Buffalo, New York, with her husband Robert Pearse.
A standout soccer and lacrosse player, Robert had earned an English degree from Guilford College, which was nice, but not very edible. He made money by cooking in restaurants, a knack he, too, had come by honestly. His mother had studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
By the time Laura’s radiology career steered them back to Chapel Hill, they could see the bones of a different life: one in restaurants.
In Chapel Hill, Robert crossed paths with George Bakatsias, a legendary Greek restaurateur who captained a fleet of highly regarded white-tablecloth establishments.
He had his eye on Greensboro, and he knew the people he wanted running the kitchen and the front of the house: Robert and Laura Pearse.
The Nicholas — derived from a name that’s common in both the Bakatsias and Pearse families — opened in 1986 and had a short-lived but brilliant life. Tucked into an upper corner of what was then the Forum VI mall in Friendly Center (now an office building called Signature Place), the restaurant set local foodies swooning with dishes such as tamari-glazed flounder, seven-hour duck and beef tournedos.
Ironically and wonderfully, The Nicholas was just a few floors away from the very popular and vastly different K&W Cafeteria, which still anchors one corner of the building.
“Of course we went to the K&W,” Laura says, detailing every dish that she, Robert and their two sons ordered routinely. “We loved it.”
A little more than two years after The Nicholas opened, Bakatsias was out and the Pearses were in as owners. The restaurant assumed a new name, Robert’s, and raced to the head of the local restaurant pack.
“Robert really pioneered fine dining in Greensboro. John Batchelor (the News & Record’s restaurant critic) was smitten,” says Laura, who handled everything between the front door and the kitchen: the design of the dining room; the welcoming of weekend customers; the planning of parties.
Robert’s had a decent run, four years, before sputtering to a halt as companies snipped out corporate credit cards.
The Pearses pivoted and opened a smaller, budget-friendly place, The Smoking Dog, which served sandwiches and vegetarian fare near the college fueled intersection of Walker and Elam avenues. The restaurant fed — and fed on — the crowd that poured out of The Blind Tiger and other nearby bars at closing.
Blind Tiger business partners Neil Reitzel and Scott Toben took note and approached the Pearses with an invitation: “Let’s do something better.” The result was Revival Grill, which first occupied a cubbyhole in Quaker Village near Robert’s alma mater and later moved a stone’s throw away to a former videotape rental building.
Huge, sophisticated and innovative, Revival Grill had legs. It lasted more than a dozen years, but by 2004, Laura was out. She and Robert had split up. “It was time to move on,” she says.
Mike’s neighbors at Belews Lake, Greensboro’s nearest and dearest watering hole for boaters, wanted him to meet Laura. But they didn’t tell him.
So they showed up at Mike’s house with Laura one Sunday morning in 2008.
After introductions, Mike, who’d been divorced for a few years, cut to the chase.
“So, what’s your deal”” he asked Laura. “Do you have a boyfriend or something?”
One of the neighbors stepped in.
“Wait, Mike, don’t you have a girl coming up here today?”
“Yeah,” said Mike, gesturing to Laura. “But I like her better.” Laura blushed.
That was on a Saturday in October. By Monday, Mike had her phone number. By December, he was whisking her to Paris for her birthday. They saw 18 countries in three years, often touring the countryside on motorcycles or scooters that allowed each of them luggage space equal to two shoeboxes.
“How many women do you know who would do that?” says Mike.
“You can do a lot with black spandex,” Laura explains. “Leggings, short sleeves, long sleeves. You wear your coat.”
The thing that united them, Mike says, was curiosity and the courage to follow where question marks led them.
“We’re so different. I’m a Southern boy. She’s a New Yorker. But we’re really one heart.”
A few feet away, Laura nods and wipes away a tear.
“We’re kindred spirits,” she says.
In a dab of foreshadowing, they were married in a renovated barn at Hanover Park Vineyard in the Yadkin Valley in 2011. Laura’s ex-husband Robert, who operated Bin 33 restaurant and wine bar in downtown Greensboro at that time, prepared the food.
“Robert and I remained fans of each other,” says Laura. “He loved Mike.” Robert helped the couple launch a new business, the Kernersville-based Eco Solutions, which buys used cooking oil from restaurants, purifies the oil and sells it to biodiesel manufacturers around the world. With Robert’s help, Laura used her restaurant contacts to line up suppliers for Eco Solutions.
The business tapped Mike’s interest in motors and energy effi ciency. He’d raced dirt bikes as a kid in Winston-Salem. In the 1970s, he darted around in a VW diesel Rabbit.
Packing a degree in chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill, he came to a fork in the career road and took it into a Greensboro printing business, where he worked for most of his adult life. When his stake in the business dissolved, along with his first marriage, he went looking for new adventures.
Laura was in the same place. For several years after her divorce, she’d worked as a creative coordinator for wineries and tourist attractions around the state, including Childress Vineyards in Lexington, Silver Coast Winery in Ocean Isle, and Chinqua-Penn Plantation in Reidsville. She wasn’t long gone from Chinqua-Penn when she met Mike
“We both totally reinvented ourselves,” he says. Chinaberry Farm. That’s what the Griffins call their homestead, which they bought in early 2011. The name comes from the chinaberry tree that stretches its arms wide between the barn and the Griffins’ Cape Cod style home.
The barn is the headliner.
The new gambrel roof gleams golden-copper.
The burgundy walls — fashioned from newly hung German-cut pine siding — absorb the eye, then plank doors punch it with different colors: purple, blue, orange, yellow.
“Not many people would get that,” Mike says.
The Griffins had plenty of help with the makeover. Laura’s friend Laury Bershad Wright, a textile designer and colorist who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, helped to pick the colors. Handy-folk Howard and Sandy White, of Madison, pitched in to transform the barn’s interior.
They cut windows and doors, strung stairs, refreshed lofts, and installed massive architectural pieces – a canvas for Laura’s rustic, eclectic vignettes throughout the barn.
Like an expert chef, Laura harmonizes notes — furniture, paintings, ironwork, pottery, fiber, wicker, leather and glass — that might seem disparate to a novice. “I love putting things together,” she says. “I’m all about the creative process.”
A dining table for 12 occupies one corner. A 17-foot-long bar, made by Rick Landreth, of One Way Architectural Salvage and Antiques in King, borders a long wall. A cozy sitting area anchors the middle. Overhead, the skeleton of a rowboat is suspended from the rafters 35 feet above. Laura rescued the wooden bones from a roadside dump near Belews Lake. “I coveted it for three years,” she says.
With the barn’s vast airspace comes a predictable chill, which is why most of the building is a three-season space.
“The blessing and the curse is that you could never heat this space,” says Mike. The Griffins’ solution? They’ve book-ended the barn with small, heated and cooled living quarters, each topped with a loft. On one end, a French cottage façade — complete with stucco walls, multilight doorway and red tile roof — leads to an efficiency apartment. Another slice of domesticity lies on the other end of the barn: a library that connects to a full kitchen.
The library loft harbors more of Laura and Mike’s weekend salvage picks, including a large, flat wooden swing suspended by intricate chains. It was Laura’s surprise gift to Mike for their fifth anniversary, the wood anniversary.
“My surprise was that he hung it,” she says, laughing.
In addition to hanging the swing securely, Mike made sure its flight path didn’t clear the loft’s railing.
The swing story summarizes their relationship: Laura’s the artist who sees the vision; Mike’s the craftsman who makes sure it works.
“He puts a lid on it,” says the kinetic Laura.
The hammer-and-saw life is new to Mike, after a period of living in a big house in the suburbs and dressing for the office every day.
“This is a different phase of my life,” says Mike, who’s 60. “This is more me.”
In addition to working on the barn, he tinkers with his beloved motorcycles.He scratched one goal off his bucket list when he started racing Grand Prix motorcycles.
“It’s a 180-mile-an-hour sport, with one knee on the ground,” he says. Laura’s bucket list, he says, is the barn and farm. Before, Laura used her design savvy in restaurant business. Now, she applies her creative muscle at Chinaberry, but there’s a key difference. “I have privacy for the first time in my life,” says the 59-year-old. “I lived in a bubble for 26 years. When you own a restaurant, and you’re hugging and kissing people every night, everybody knows your business.”
The barn contains a few nods to Laura’s restaurant past; the botanically inspired door pulls came from Revival Grill, courtesy of metalworker Jeff Barbour, who made them and later salvaged them before the restaurant was torn down to make room for a Walmart Neighborhood Market. But that’s as far as the restaurant ripple goes.
The Griffins say the barn will be used primarily as a guesthouse and setting for family gatherings. Last June, they hosted a rehearsal dinner for Laura’s son Nick and his bride, Sara. Nick’s dad, Robert, attended the party and wedding. He died of heart failure the following month. Recently, several of Robert’s old restaurant friends attended a brunch that Laura and Mike hosted at the barn (see page 72).
Laura says the barn will be available to the public as a backdrop for photo events, but she insists that her days of party planning and feeding the masses are over. Now, the only creatures clamoring for food at the farm are the animals that populate the Griffins’ home and barnyard. They include — take a deep breath here — four dogs, three cats, a donkey, a horse, a mini-horse, a mini-parakeet, two roosters, one pig (named Pig Newton), two goats and three sheep (Harris, Tweed and Poplin).
“Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy with the fabric names,” says Laura. “But I could go on.” The animals start crying for chow at sun-up. Laura spends two hours every morning feeding and cleaning up after them. Come to think of it, the beasties are not that different from restaurant customers, says Laura.
“They walk in hungry, and they want instant gratification,” she says.
Maria Johnson is a contributor to Seasons. She can be reached at email@example.com. Contact the Griffins at firstname.lastname@example.org.