An innovative haven for Winston-Salem’s innovator-in-chief
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by John Gessner
With a bemused expression, Eric Tomlinson explains how his house has caught the attention of various filmmakers over the years. One used it as the setting for a music video, “in which a girl rises out of a bed and ends up dancing on what looks like a car park,” Tomlinson says. Perhaps more dubiously, “It’s been in a horror movie, The Ridge,” he continues. “The ax-murderer rises up out of the pool!” He chuckles, acknowledging that at nighttime the “spooky” woods surrounding the house, set among 6 acres on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, are an easy inspiration for young creatives with vivid imaginations — and Tomlinson’s own grandchildren, who, he says with a sly twinkle, “are always finding ‘dead bodies’” on the property.
As he pads across the blond hardwood of the sleek, Modernist dwelling that he shares with his girlfriend, DeeDee Harrington, Tomlinson explains his own attraction to their abode.
“The impact of the house is nice when you come home,” he says.
True enough for anyone who puts in a hard day’s work, but when your job is one of Herculean proportions — in Tomlinson’s case, advancing the Twin City’s knowledge-based economy — home takes on greater meaning.
Since 2012, when he relocated from Atlanta, Tomlinson, D.Sc., Ph.D., has brought his vast experience in academia and the pharmaceutical industry to assume dual roles: As chief innovation officer of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, he is responsible for accelerating medical innovations from lab bench to marketplace; his second role is president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, the burgeoning downtown district of repurposed tobacco factories, trendy lofts, coffee shops, startups and public parks, where research, business, education and design intersect. Tomlinson is also a professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake’s School of Medicine, a recent tenant in Innovation Quarter. To say that the scientist/entrepreneur’s workdays are jam-packed would be a gross understatement.
Little wonder he finds the sight of his abode at day’s end so inviting.
Stretching across a leafy ridge where his and Harrington’s two rescue dogs, Snowy and Millie, like to roam, the house, with its striking tile-and-glass façade, commands the property; yet through those same window-walls, nature commands and softens its stark interior. Harrington finds this feature particularly appealing and, as a physician’s liaison at Thrive Integrated Health, a local holistic medical practice, she appreciates its therapeutic value. “You feel like you can breathe,” Harrington says. “I like the privacy.”
Creating a relaxed ambience was the intention of house’s architect, Edwin Bouldin, responsible for preserving some of Winston-Salem’s most beloved landmarks. In the late 1970s he developed the master plan for converting the utility buildings on the Reynolda estate into the upscale shopping enclave Reynolda Village. And in 1980, Bouldin was called on to restore Graylyn, the Norman-style estate that once belonged to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company executive Bowman Gray, after it sustained substantial damage to its upper story in a fire.
In 1984 he designed the house, called Shallowford Cliffs, for two male clients “who wanted . . . maximum views of the wooded site.” Recently reflecting on the genesis of it, he adds that “most projects begin diagrammatically or as a simple conceptual drawing on trash or the back of an envelope. This project was unique in that very little changed from the initial sketches.” Bouldin employed a linear layout: The main level is anchored by two master bedrooms at one end of the house, a guest suite and study at the other; for these sections he chose commercial split-face masonry to “bookend” the ubercontemporary glass-and-tile middle section, consisting of the kitchen, living area and a swimming pool encased in glass, much like a greenhouse. A lower level contains a spacious garage, “one of the selling points,” says Harrington, who was a real estate broker in Atlanta and still holds her license. “There’s so much storage, you don’t see anything; two cars and that’s it.”
It’s but one example of the cleverness of Bouldin’s design that has garnered wider acclaim. In 1990, AIA North Carolina deemed the house worthy of its Excellence in Architecture Honor Award. Citing “a marvelous clarity of vision,” AIA’s jury remarked: “The house is refreshingly modern, serene, elegantly sited, complex and beautiful.” Two years later, the North Carolina Museum of Art would concur, featuring it in its exhibition, From the Ground Up: Experiencing Architecture.
But, in a nod to Le Corbusier, Bouldin says he designed the house as “a machine for living.” As Tomlinson and Harrington discovered when they bought it in 2013, its bones have held up well. “Usually, a house shifts,” Harrington notes, but according to their house inspector, it hadn’t moved. Even so, it had sat virtually unoccupied after its second owners sold it, and some things needed immediate attention: namely, water damage to the guest bedroom from a line that feeds a waterfall feature in back of the house. And the front yard desperately needed some landscaping.
Overgrown, the front looked dreary, the original concrete steps leading to the entrance, severe. Tomlinson and Harrington relied on the expertise of Saura Farm Nursery & Landscaping in Pinnacle, North Carolina (now closed), to brighten the space. The landscapists removed several trees, opening up the view of the house from the street, and planted a garden of various exotics, dwarf shrubs, conifers, a Japanese maple, all laid out in sections or “little rooms,” as Tomlinson calls them. Out came the concrete steps, and in their place, large stepping-stones. The plantings and rocks set the stage for the house’s dramatic rise against a screen of hardwoods on the ridge behind, but help to tone down its imposing angles; they also complement the neat pebbles and fern border of the adjacent Zen garden installed by the previous owners.
The Zen-like ambience pervades the interior of the house, owing not only to the natural surroundings visible through its glass walls, but also to the minimalist style its inhabitants prefer. Tomlinson has gravitated to the spare look, “because it’s the exact opposite of how I grew up,” he says, referring to his roots in Liverpool, England. “I grew up as a child in a very modest house full of stuff,” he recalls. “My mom was always cleaning up stuff.” So when he and Harrington moved into this house, they divested themselves of a good number of their belongings — all but a stack of books, the contents of the kitchen. “Because after all, what does stuff do? It bogs you down. Do you really need 25 T-shirts?” Tomlinson posits. “I’m OK with mementos.” And indeed, on the walls of his study are family photographs from an earlier married life, framed diplomas, a colorful canvas of his grandchildren’s handprints, a photo collage of places and people, one of whom looks startlingly familiar. A closer glance reveals it to be David Bowie as his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. “I saw him a couple of times in the ’70s,” Tomlinson says, pausing before he admits to imitating the glam rocker’s signature fire-engine red hair and stripes back in the day.
A biography of the late musician takes a prominent place among a handful of volumes — histories and biographies, mostly — that did survive Tomlinson’s and Harrington’s purge of personal effects. Alongside some glass pieces and a drone (a Christmas gift that Tomlinson says he’s still getting the hang of), the books are the only objects occupying the floating shelves. They are new to the sweeping living room that was once hemmed in by a large, metallic TV console, and whose walls were covered in mirrors and Hessian cloth. The couple opened up the space when they made the decision to remodel the kitchen two years ago.
“Eric and I spent a year talking about how we wanted to do it,” Harrington remembers. “Every time somebody came over, we asked, ‘What can we do better?’” A friend suggested removing a bar that once stood between the kitchen and dining room. They added it to a list of other concerns: the narrow space between the kitchen counter and blocky square island. “And then we ripped it out with a vengeance!” says Tomlinson gleefully. Harrington credits him for looking beyond the old configuration and visualizing the new, which includes an elongated island, a wider working space between it and the counter, plus integrated appliances in neutral tones.
They engaged Buddy Glasscoe and Susan Bradford, the husband-and-wife team of Timberwolf Designs, to handle the renovation. Bradford, who oversees the design side of the business, found her clients “a joy” to work with. “Eric was very into the details, and made sure things lined up,” she recalls. “The subs and the guys who installed the cabinets really enjoyed it, because they loved making everything linear.” Overall, she deems the project “a whole lot of fun, because it had to do with the feel of the space [of the house].”
In the midst of the renovation, Harrington and Tomlinson decided to invite Bouldin to have a gander at the changes they’d made. His assessment? “Shallowford has found an owner attuned to its complexities and elegance,” he observes.
As kitchen re-dos go, this one was unusually quick and painless. “It was a project we could live with,” Harrington says.
“We created a kitchen in the utility closet,” Tomlinson adds. “A hotplate. It was like being students again . . . It was cool for about a week.”
“Then it was like, ‘Let’s just eat out!’” Harrington laughs.
No need to eat out now, especially when Tomlinson brings his talent for innovation to the kitchen.
“Eric cooks a lot,” Harrington says. “We entertain every weekend. My mom comes every Sunday.” The small pass-through, another feature of the kitchen remodel, allows him to keep one eye on pans simmering with halibut or a go-to specialty, Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for lamb shanks, and another on the large flat-screen TV. “So he can watch soccer,” Harrington explains, especially when his favorites, Manchester United or Liverpool, take the field.
The flat-screen occupies a third of the large central room or “lounge-y area,” to use Tomlison’s phrase. Its interior glass wall overlooks the pool (sans ax murderer) and Zen garden beyond. Harrington likes the space “because the dogs are allowed in.” She stoops to stroke Snowy, the bull terrier-husky-shepherd mix, while Millie stretches out on the shag rug after a morning of digging, barely managing a lazy thump of her tail.
The focal point of the room is a large, freestanding glass fireplace, flanked by fat columns wrapped in aluminum card. “They’re heavy stone,” Tomlinson says of the structures that extend down to the crawl space of the house. “They’d cost a fortune to take out . . . But look at my dining room table that I bought many years ago in Miami!” He points to the long, glass-topped piece — supported by four cylindrical, metallic legs.
Across from it is a sitting area where the TV console once stood. Now an open, airy space with club chairs and sofas, it is perfectly suited for conversation or, in winter, enjoying the “massive flame” of the gas fireplace, as Harrington describes it (although with dual geothermal heating and cooling systems, a fire hardly seems necessary), or taking in the views through the back window wall. This opens onto a deck overlooking rhododendron and the screen of hardwoods extending to the distant ridge opposite, and just adjacent, the graceful waterfall feature, another contribution of the owners who laid the Zen garden. “The waterfall is beautiful and nice to relax and to entertain to,” Tomlinson says, quietly observing the gurgling flow that winds around mossy rocks and ferns beneath.
Sadly, the koi it once carried did not survive, but a feeding station for the fish, installed outside guest bedroom door, remains. Tomlinson and Harrington will use these quarters while they embark on another remodeling project: reconfiguring the two master bedrooms and baths.
Their original plan was to spruce things up a bit, perhaps with new fixtures. But when they sought the opinion of the designers at STITCH — the shop that designed Bailey Park in Innovation Quarter, the ARTivity on the Green downtown and a cluster of contemporary homes in the West Salem neighborhood — they got an unexpected verdict. The designers “didn’t think it was grand enough for the house,” Tomlinson says, even though one of the baths had been upgraded. But its layout is tight: Set side by side are a walk-in closet, then a vanity, then shower and tub (this, with a view to the outdoors and mirrors positioned at its head and foot, creating a bizarre fun-house effect). At one point, the couple thought about tearing out the bedrooms and installing a spa, but ultimately, it seemed a little too grand. Instead, with Timberwolf working its magic again, they will rebuild the existing suites, combining the two baths and closets into one, and reducing the size of one of the bedrooms, which will have its own bath and closet. “The project will take longer, because we’ll have to tear out concrete floors and move plumbing,” says Bradford. Meaning, months instead of weeks.
Even so, Tomlinson and Harrington will carry on without fuss or flap. They’ll camp out in the guest suite for the duration, storing clothes and other belongings on temporary shelving in Tomlinson’s study (“I really don’t use it,” he confesses).
No doubt, the two will continue to entertain on a grand scale, and why not? For this time of year, the woods are as lush as they are lovely and, yes, dark and deep, illuminated with the intermittent flash of fireflies and stardust . . . you know, the stuff of space oddities . . . and memories.
Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship, O.Henry magazine.