Top of the World

On a hot day last June, Buddy Glasscoe stood on the porch of his Lewisville home, greeting a stream of visitors, some from as far away as Raleigh and Charlotte, who filed through his brand-new dwelling perched atop a woodsy knoll.

As the mellow strains of wind chimes intoned from a passing breeze, he explained, “The kids who used to play here called it ‘Top of the World.’” And certainly, the occasion was a high point for the easygoing designer, builder, craftsman and owner of Timberwolf Designs, and for his wife and business partner, Susan Bradford, who designs kitchens and baths under her own handle, Susan Bradford Designs. Their home was one of the stops on a tour organized by the Triangle-based nonprofit and champion of the Modern aesthetic, North Carolina Modernist Houses.

Its founder, George Smart, had been a fan of Buddy’s, having taken note of another Timberwolf house on the tour, the nearby Kyle Shatterly house. “It’s exceptional. He’s bringing Modernism to Lewisville,” Smart observes. “You don’t see houses like this in rural areas, and you don’t see many contractors who are into this kind of design.” 

“We like Modern, Post-Modern and Mid-Century,” says Buddy, praising the work of Winston-Salem architect Adam Sebastian and his colleagues at STITCH Design Shop, along with another Twin City architect, Quinn Pillsworth. “He introduced us to Modern,” Susan says of Pillsworth, recalling that from the time she arrived in Winston-Salem in the mid-1990s until the rise of STITCH in the last five years, the architectural style hadn’t yet gathered steam. By 2008, she and Buddy had hopes of increasing its footprint by collaborating with Pillsworth on a mixed-use project — until the Great Recession foiled their plans. But that was also about the same time that they constructed the Shatterly house, which caught the eye of George Smart.

At that time, the couple was happily ensconced in their Craftsman-style house not far from Graylyn and SECCA, on Vernon Avenue, “which we loved and said we’d never move from,” says Susan with her infectious laugh. They’d added 1,600 square feet to the original 1,000-square-foot structure, where they’d raised a blended family. There was only one drawback, says Buddy: “We didn’t have a level backyard,” a requisite for a pool. “Our neighbors had a pool, we love pools,” he adds. Given that the nest was emptying out, with their sons grown up and making their way in the world and raising their own families, the couple entertained the idea of moving and started looking for places in town with either a pool or a lot big enough to accommodate one. But there was none to be had.

Susan, meanwhile, had been in the habit of taking their two dogs, Pappy, a Pudelpointer, and Ziggy, an aging Jack Russell, to a friend’s parcel of land tucked in a woodsy area of Lewisville. “It was cornfield,” she says of the undeveloped knoll, an ideal spot for the two dogs to run and play. And, as it turned out, an ideal spot where the couple could spend their golden years. They bought the land from their friend and started dreaming about the dwelling that they consider, like all the others they’ve built, “another work of art.” Or as Buddy says more precisely, “a sculpture.”

“We wanted clean lines. We wanted to simplify,” says Susan. “In our other house we lived in three rooms: the kitchen, the room off the kitchen and the bedroom. So we were like, ‘When we build a house, we don’t need anything more than this.’” They established that an open floor plan would work best. Light would determine its exact configuration and the placement of the house.

“We designed this house by, ‘OK, what do we want to wake up to? Where do we sit?’” Buddy explains. “So we would come out here with the dogs and sit, and figure out lighting.”

“All hours of the day,” recalls Susan, “we’d come out and sit on this knoll.” The couple considered where they’d like the sun’s rays to penetrate the house as it made its daily arc across the sky. Their reasons were aesthetic — the sky views and as Susan says, “to warm up your soul” — but also practical. “For heating and energy reasons,” she explains. “The goal when we built this house was to make it as low-maintenance, sustainable and energy efficient as possible for aging here. So that we wouldn’t have continuing rising costs of living on a monthly basis.”

Maintenance was another consideration. “If we’re blessed to live another 30, 40 years, what do we want to have to take care of? And what’s going to be solid?” Buddy posits.

He and Susan decided on a post-and-beam structure, positioning it at an angle atop the knoll so that most of it faces east. The adobe-like stucco exterior of the house wouldn’t require painting and repainting — and absorbs the morning sun. An unusual butterfly roof, a last-minute decision, lends a welcoming vibe. “It’s kind of going, ‘Hello!’” says Susan, her ready laugh pealing through the living/dining area whose south- and west-window walls offer those sought-after sky views and let in an abundance of light.

“The sunsets are outrageous,” Buddy emphasizes, as a palette of rosy pinks and lavenders, with streaks of orange sherbet, sets over his shoulder while he relaxes in an armchair on a chilly day. A day on which the inside temperature has reached 77 degrees, thanks to the passive heat from the sun streaming through the windows, as well as a photovoltaic solar system that provides about 40 percent of the house’s energy. (A solar thermal system heats the water, with backup from electricity during the winter months.)

The warmth of the house is not only literal, but aestheti, as well, owing to its generous use of timber, a style that George Smart calls Mountain Modern. “We just like pretty wood,” says Susan, referring to her husband and business partner as “the wood guru.” The load-bearing beams of pine (which allow for the walls of windows) punctuate and brighten the white ceiling, and complement the floors of white oak. “Most folks don’t want it in their house because it’s got a lot of knots,” Buddy says. But, Susan notes, “It’s got a lot of character.” And then adds, “We were searching for that!” As wood goes, Buddy enjoys working with walnut when crafting pieces of furniture, such as the round, low-slung coffee table and an end table that maintains its natural, jagged contours. He’s instilled a love of woodworking in his son, Dustin, who fashioned the long dining room table — one of many sold under the aegis of his Burlington, Vermont–based business, Vermont Farm Table.

Echoing these pieces is the use of walnut in the kitchen, in the very center of the house, where Susan applied her design expertise. “I love to cook!” she enthuses. “And I love it when friends and family come over.” But, she adds, because the kitchen is so visually prominent, she wanted it to look inviting. And even though she and Buddy love the appearance and texture of wood, “We didn’t want it to feel kitschy or [look like] just a fad,” a pitfall, she believes, for clients who inquire about the latest trends. Her advice to them? “‘I don’t want a trend.’ I want something that’s going to look good forever.” Heeding her own advice, she chose not to place cabinets on the kitchen’s back wall, opting instead for rectangular, white glass bricks arranged in parallel rows, a technique known as straight lay. It adds coolness to the space, flanked by an adjacent wall mounted with glass-paneled cabinets and an integrated refrigerator in the same walnut hues. For the central island she selected a countertop in Marinace granite, whose rounded gray and black patterns resemble river rock. “The inspiration for the house was the natural elements,” Susan explains, “so we’ve got the wood, the glass (the watery look) . . . and the metal,” she says, pointing to the exhaust fan and light fixtures. Adding a humorous touch is the handle to the fridge door: a climbing bronze figure or “Manhandle,” made by a California artist.

It’s one of many whimsical and colorful pieces throughout the house that include a bright yellow sculpture of the sun mounted on the wall of the open porch just beyond the sliding glass doors. “That’s from our favorite vacation spot, Ocracoke Island,” Susan says, and indeed, hanging just outside the master bedroom is a photo collage, a panoramic view of Ocracoke’s Silver Lake Harbor, another creation of son Dustin’s. “All of our art means something or comes from somewhere,” Buddy explains, as he follows the circular layout of the rest of the house, past a central hallway (with cleverly concealed cupboards for storage) that connects to the front hallway, before entering the master bedroom. Here, on the wall opposite the doorway hangs a large, vivid canvas of a red rose, a Valentine’s Day gift to Susan. The bed that he built from 100-odd-year-old beams salvaged from a barn is situated adjacent to the western wall. “I’m a morning person so I really wanted the bedroom on the eastern side to capture light,” Susan says, explaining that they had to change the room’s placement to avoid having windows that overlooked their neighbors’ house. It turned out to be another happy deviation, like the butterfly roof: “The morning light, the sunlight bouncing off the western horizon is even more beautiful,” Susan notes, her easy laugh returning. “We thought we were compromising — it’s even better!”

She spun her design magic on the maser bath, keeping it simple, but distinctive: a garden tub, a walk-in shower, a double vanity with two glass bowls as sinks, to keep the watery-looking theme going. The modest-sized guest bath, across from the eastern-facing guest bedrooms, reveals more of her inventiveness: an entire wall, covered, floor-to-ceiling in a patchwork of tiles in rich blue, soft grays mixed with ones bearing Oriental scenes one might see on Chinese or Japanese screens or parchment paintings. “I just fell in love with the pattern,” Susan says, explaining that it serves a dual purpose of giving the small space some dimension.

“She laid it out on the floor, too,” Buddy adds, a footnote that elicits another laugh from Susan, who acknowledges the irony of arranging the tiles so they would appear to have been randomly placed.

The two guest bedrooms, like the guest bath, are modest. “Since it’s just the two of us, we took the square footage that people put in their bedrooms and put it in our living room,” Buddy explains. But the rooms are comfortable, owing to his efficient use of space. “In all the rooms we have these little niches,” Susan notes, pointing to a cubbyhole above the closet doors that allows for more storage.

Along the hallways leading back to the living area are more works of art — a child’s painting of brilliant red-and-green flowers in a shower of blue raindrops (the artist was Susan’s son Ryan), another of a couple lounging  on a wide beach, given to Buddy and Susan as an anniversary gift. Two impressionistic landscapes by the late, local and nationally renowned artist Frank Rowland adorn the hallway by the front door. “I took an oil painting class from him,” Susan says, admiring his paintings’ hues in muted greens, grays and purples. “He was just a neat person. It’s a shame he passed.” Her own work from the class hangs on the other side of the front door, a small canvas of a wide green field and a pond. She is modest about her achievement, calling it “a reminder of a fun class I took. And the potential’s there if I pick up a brush again.”

Pausing by the front door, Susan traces her finger along a scratch on its elongated stained glass panel. “Somebody fell into it a couple of weeks ago,” she says. Buddy picks up the thread: “Our friend who was quite the talented chef was here cooking for several of us, and it was dark. And he went to the car and he came back and we heard this ‘Blam!’ He had tripped on this step. We’ll get it fixed some day,” he says, looking at the scratch.

Or perhaps not. For the slight imperfection is now part of the house’s provenance, a reminder of life’s fleeting moments, and, in spite of the mishap that caused it, somehow fitting, given the circular design in the glass panel with a blue swirl splashed across it — the circle of life. It was a creation of another friend, Brad Brown of Salem Stained Glass, who, as if by telepathy, produced the circle design quite literally at the moment Buddy and Susan conceived of it. “We’ve had relationships with all these artisans and craftsmen. [Buddy’s] been doing this almost 30 years, so [he’s] had relationships all along. I’ve had relationships with them 16 years, sometimes longer,”Susan says.

The same holds true for the paintings they commissioned their friend Mel Steel, of Reidsville: a Kandinsky-esque abstract on the south wall of the living room, and a realistic oil pastel of a street scene evoking Winston-Salem’s downtown summer music series when it first was held in the early 2000s on Fourth Street. “We’d go there and dance,” explains Buddy. “We love to dance,” Susan emphasizes, reminiscing about the “beautiful blend” of people who would flock to the concerts. In the foreground of the canvas depicting a band and an odd assortment of folks are Buddy and Susan, locked in a dance step; he is shown smiling; her head is thrown back in laughter.

The summer music series is more contained these days, with the explosion of growth downtown. But Buddy and Susan won’t lack for diversion: The saltwater pool that they have longed for is under construction just beyond the porch and the smiling Ocracoke sun overlooking the western horizon. The promise of lounging and swimming on long, hot days is just within reach. For now, as the last of another “outrageous” sunset wanes, Buddy pours some wine, and he and Susan raise their glasses. “Cheers,” he says, “Or as we say here: Top of the World to you.”  h

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship, O.Henry magazine.

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