Two Edenton Landmarks: One Resourceful Family

By Diane Lea


It is deep summer and a thin plume of dust rises from the gravel lane leading to Poplar Neck Plantation, just southeast of Downtown Edenton. Behind white board fences, sleek cattle graze on either side of the poplar-flanked lane. The Greek Revival plantation house, dating from 1853, is surrounded by a complement of structures indicating a working farm and a hospitable family. Indeed, Simon (known as Cy) and Nancy Rich have owned and worked the 300-acre property for more than 30 years. They reared their five children there and now, while commuting to busy careers at Duke University (Duke Divinity School for Nancy and the Nicholas School of the Environment for Cy), the Rich family has made Poplar Neck Plantation the focus of their passion for the conservation of history, architecture, land and natural resources.

“We have the second largest solar power installation in the state,” says Nancy, as she walks the gravel paths from the boxwood garden to the stately old home. She gives a nod in the direction of six large arrays of solar panels that are part of the farm’s alternative energy system.

But there is conservation of another irreplaceable resource, historic architecture, evident when entering the plantation house, with a breeze maximizing double galleries on the front and rear elevations. It is evident they have retained Poplar Neck with few changes. Nancy notes that except for adding bathrooms, closets, a simple kitchen in the original Keeping Room and a few bookcases, Poplar Neck looks much as it did when it was built for its first owner, Suzanna Jordan Armistead Moore, widow of Chowan Superior Court Judge Augustus Moore. The Moores occupied the Barker-Moore House on South Broad Street in Edenton; their descendants owned it until 1952 when it was moved to the waterfront and was adapted as the Edenton Visitor Center. Upon Augustus’ death in 1851, Suzanna chose to leave the Barker-Moore House and build her new home on land that Moore had purchased in 1835, commenting that Edenton was too worldly a place in which to bring up her seven children unassisted.

“We purchased Poplar Neck from Benbury Wood and Virginia Hall Wood in 1975, just as they were preparing to restore Greenfield Plantation, a home and working farm that has remained in the Wood family for over 200 years,” Nancy adds. “Both the Wood family and Cy and I respected the symmetry of the house, which is organized around a 12-foot by 50-foot center hall with four rooms above and four rooms down. Even the staircase is symmetrically placed, so that you see a portion of the transom window over the rear entrance in the stairwell wall.”

The Riches took 10 months to refurbish the house, rebuilding fireplaces, replastering walls and refinishing floors, all the while marveling at the quality of construction from cypress and heart pine wood. While resituating the pocket doors between the double parlors, workmen discovered historical treasure in the door tracks.

“There was a ship’s manifest for the schooner Mary Browning dated 1803 and a letter written to Henrietta Moore, one of Suzanna Moore’s daughters, by a classmate at Miss Willard’s Seminary in Troy, NY. It appears that Henrietta had returned home and her friend was chiding her for perhaps having fallen in love with a handsome beau.”

Delightful Living

The dining room is one of the most delightful rooms in the house. The elegant columned woodwork surrounding the doors and windows, described by Minard Lefever in the 1835 book The Beauties of Modern Architecture, shows to great advantage. The room also contains many of the Rich family’s most prized furnishings, including an Irish hunt table obtained from friends and former owners Benbury and Virginia Wood — and the 500-pound 1750 two-piece Philadelphia corner cupboard unearthed in a shop in Virginia. Another favorite piece is a handcrafted buffet built by local artisan Ben Hobbs.

“One of our greatest joys has been working with Ben Hobbs,” says Nancy. “In addition to being a fine furniture maker, he is knowledgeable about timber frame construction and early building technologies.”

As the Rich family settled into life with grown children and grandchildren, they decided to remodel the third floor of the house as two comfortable guest rooms and a bath. “We used good salvaged heart pine for the floors, plastered the walls and added a cedar-lined hall closet,” says Rich. “The addition of the two additional guest rooms gave Cy and me the opportunity to re-install the pocket doors removed from our master bedroom when baths and closets were added. Now, we have a bathroom-sitting room with fireplace and a master bedroom suite served by the original pocket doors.”

Though the kitchen house located behind the main house remained until the 1920s, none of the original outbuildings have survived. The barn dates from the period of ownership by the Wood family, and the guest house is an old Texaco service station dating from around 1903 that they moved and adapted to a guest cottage — complete with the original service counter doing duty as a kitchen island for the refrigerator-freezer. Of greatest appeal and utility among the new accessory buildings is the summer house, the creation of son Simon, built as a project while he was living at the farm just after college. The small gabled structure overlooks the pool and features a screened porch where the senior Rich family members take their meals in the summer.

“The porch has a divided galley kitchen, with a dishwasher and sink on one side of the interior door and a refrigerator on the other. There is a small room with a bath beyond the porch. It is now my office and the best one I’ve ever had,” says Nancy.

Landmark Restoration

To meet Simon and discuss the next family renovation, take a left at the end of the lane and follow the Poplar Neck Road to the offices of Stevens Towing Company and the Edenton River Barge Company in Edenton’s revitalizing mill neighborhood, a tugboat and barge business that transports cargo up and down the eastern seaboard. It is easy to spot the offices: the building is the 1909 Edenton Peanut Mill, a five-story, approximately 66-foot square Italianate Revival structure adjacent to the railroad tracks. Simon, like his parents Cy and Nancy, is enthusiastic about historic preservation and resource conservation and found a very practical application for his talent by renovating the historic peanut mill. Using mostly local artisans, including Mike and Andy Faircloth of the Edenton Construction Company, Simon and Cy have adapted an early industrial building to serve the needs of several flourishing modern businesses.

“I grew up at Poplar Neck,” says Simon, “and every time my father and I drove into town, we’d pass the old derelict Edenton Peanut Mill and say how much we wished we could find a way to save it.” The building now serves their own enterprises, a large accounting firm, a fitness center and new tenant, the regional director’s office for Albemarle Health.

The impressive renovation, though accomplished in a record 24 months, was formidable. The low-hipped roof with projecting eaves was significantly deteriorated. What would become Simon’s fifth floor office was filled with snow during a freakish 2003 snowstorm. But Simon maintains that the heavy timber frame construction, the 3-foot thick walls that taper up from the base sheathed with sturdy brick pilasters — that rise four stories on each five-bay elevation — was built to last. “We consulted with Raleigh restoration architect Jerry Traub on the building’s design and inner structure,” says Simon. “Then my father and I worked through how to divide the floors into offices.”

What to do with the interior was most problematic. They wanted to retain as much of the old machine works as possible to show how the peanuts were processed by gravity flow, wending their way downward to the first floor where they were bagged and shipped. An additional challenge was finding suitable salvage materials of the weight and quality needed to mend and patch 19-foot-long pine timber beams, double grooved and interlocked for strength. Fortunately, Simon and Cy were able to acquire several truck loads of material from the Reidsville American Tobacco Warehouse when it was dismantled.

Today, the offices of Simon’s barge business and Cy’s varied interests contain the equivalent of a museum of historic industrial and building technology, a studio of innovative contemporary design — and an art gallery. The conference room is separated from the open floorplan reception area — with its massive mill machinery — by doors reflecting the design of the building’s original loading dock doors. New ductwork has been coated with a non-reflective paint, and the newly installed wooden walls are coated with a powder and water finish developed by local artisan Don Jordan. The energy efficient brushed aluminum lights by Peerless Lighting are candidates to win a lighting design award. Late 19th and early 20th century American prints and photographs line the walls, and several paintings of Edenton landscapes by contemporary Edenton artist Cam Waff are prominently displayed.

The space of accounting firm Sykes & Company, that has taken two floors of the Edenton Peanut Mill, features a stunning lobby incorporating the original drive shaft for the mill. Contractor and designer Don Herr worked closely with the Sykes group on the interior design and décor of the offices. A custom-made ensemble of Italian leather provides clients a comfortable sitting area, and an elegant conference room with stained glass and handcrafted interiors completes the setting. Not to be outdone, the first floor occupant, The Toning Mill, has a separate aerobics room in the space formerly occupied by the coal and peanut shell burning furnace. Specialized exercise equipment, a tasteful color scheme and another superb painting by Waff demonstrate that a quality gym doesn’t have to be aesthetically unappealing.

The Rich family — Nancy, Cy and Simon — have brought energy and drive to their passion for historic preservation and conservation. They are deeply committed to Poplar Neck Plantation, their home place, and to the future of Edenton and Chowan County.

SUMNERVILLE HOUSE

The Sumnerville House, an unusual gambrel-roofed residence constructed in 1791 for Thomas Sumner in Perquimans County, has been moved 19 miles to Chowan County and renovated. The home will serve as a real estate office and occasion setting for the development of the Mulberry Hill Golf Course and homesite project near Edenton. Situated on the grounds of historic Mulberry Hill, an early 19th century Federal-style residence located on the banks of the Albemarle Sound, the residence has been associated with Revolutionary Militia Col. James Blount, who owned Mulberry Hill at one time.

Raleigh attorney Tom Wood, developer of the golf course and homesites project, notes that Blount was a relative of Nancy Blount Sumner, who resided at Sumnerville. “It is even more interesting,” says Wood, “that the name James Blount is etched in one of the window panes of the Sumnerville House.” Wood, a historian, writer and historic preservationist, credits local craftsmen and artisans, Ben Hobbs, Don Jordan, Victor Cruz, Mike Ray and Judge Chris Bean, with restoring the house and sensitively adding a great room and kitchen. Worth Hare moved the house, an effort requiring dividing it into two parts and rejoining them on the site.