At the intersection of love, loss and longing sits a house perched high up on a forested dune in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, the grownup version of a girl of the ’60s realized her dream of a long, lean mid-century modern house like the floorplans she had drawn during church decades before.
A widow since July 2015, I met Bob Friesen a year later. In short order, he joined me and my two-year-old hounds, Patsy and Urban, to become a tightknit foursome. We soon discovered that we shared a special fondness for the regional boutique hotel experience, particularly if the design skewed mid-century or industrial modern. We debated about whether to continue these jaunts, buy a teardrop camper or purchase a weekend home.
In November 2019, following the death of my cherished papa in October, Bob and I sought solace at the Sanderling in Duck, pointing out every distinctive 1940s and ’50s-era flattop house to each other as we drove through Southern Shores. With childhood clam digging and other entrenched connections to the area, we suddenly found ourselves inside Southern Shores Realty inquiring about the availability of an iconic flattop designed by Frank Stick, the community’s original developer.
None were listed, but on the drive back to Virginia Beach, I had an epiphany: why not purchase land and build a flattop-inspired home for a 21st century lifestyle? One text, a couple of emails, and a few days later, we were touring properties from Duck to Southern Shores. As we drove toward the last, the rhythm of flickering autumn sunlight through the live oaks felt indescribably magical. Yet it was Bob’s query—“Is that water down there?”—that sealed the deal on this pie-shaped microcosm of the picturesque and historic Outer Banks whose storied landscape is enchanting, aspirational and restorative.
Not long after my first husband, Joe, died, I read an article in which noted architect Bobby McAlpine asserts, “The only real value of building a house is to increase the territory of your heart.” Indeed, when the landscape of the heart has been recontoured through love and loss, an urgent remapping follows, one that spills over into the surrounding space in search of a physical form to give shape to what had only been felt.
And Matt Neal of Neal Contracting proved to be the builder who could create a minimal and light-filled metaphor for the grief, gratitude, hope, healing and joy that had brought Bob and me to this place. Matt’s wife and business partner, Rachel, proclaimed early on that we were “in the same lane.” And we never stopped speeding along together—okay, sometimes we were stalled by COVID-19—until we arrived at our mutual destination.
And where exactly that was began with drawings in my sketchbook, a collaboration with Bob. We longed for a contemporary home of three bedrooms, as many baths and an outdoor shower that leaned heavily into mid- and industrial-modern design. It would have a low, streamlined profile, shed roof and connections to the natural world. And it would celebrate the people, places and passions that inspire us.
To his credit, Matt did not laugh. He loved our design of three offset, rectangular volumes plus a front porch, mini-courtyard and back patio whose 2,500 square feet responded to the character of our land. And he faithfully converted my hand drawings to proper plans, sharing recently that he took the deepest satisfaction in the ability to bring our vision to fruition.
Thereafter, every cabinet, vanity, closet and room I drew was met with the same support and ingenuity. Similarly, landscape designer John Rountree embraced my drawings of spare, cultivated plantings and geometric pavers nearest the house that gradually became more naturalized towards the woods. Sleek horizontal slat and cable fencing provides privacy, views and canine containment.
Months of site work to stabilize our 20-foot cliff with three retaining walls, global pandemic workforce delays and my insomnia worked in concert to ensure ample time to clarify our vision. On a Pinterest board that grew to 2004 pins in 75 categories, I collected and concocted all the components necessary to achieve an open, breathable space with a minimal, pared-down aesthetic—a little stark, yet inviting—and a rich, reduced harmony of colors and materials.
Gray concrete floors, white paint and tile and walnut slat walls and cabinetry establish the neutral palette repeated in our color blocked exterior. Dozens of leaf impressions in the concrete—the serendipitous result of pouring the slab on a windy winter day which led Bob to name our house Falling Leaves, an ode to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—dramatically striated woodgrain, and tiles that echo those motifs and materials lend warmth, character and cohesion to the design.
White tiles with graceful ripples bow to the nearby ocean and others with mid-mod geometry lend an updated vintage vibe.
Soaring 10-17’ ceilings and dozens of strategically placed windows create a treehouse aesthetic.
I shopped locally, online and everywhere in between to source unique furnishings and appointments for our home. Items I doggedly rescued from the curb were seamlessly integrated with Dollar Tree mugs, thrifted finds, an authentic Eames lounge chair and natural treasures gathered on my frequent long walks through the many preserved green spaces in our community.
Virtually all our indoor furnishings are either vintage antiques or the result of a design collaboration with Philip Goold of Goold Furniture and Design in Virginia Beach. Over the protracted months of building, I deepened my connection to our emerging home by painting pieces for nearly every room, most inspired by the land and the mystical energy of this place.
Bob—my husband since May 2021—and I relish everything about our near-weekly sojourns, even our 90-minute drive across bridges and bucolic farmland with Urban’s whines announcing our arrival. Treasured rituals and new discoveries permeate our lives at Falling Leaves where, as McAlpine affirms, “we find sanctuary in a place that mirrors our souls.”
Photos By Betsy DiJulio, Jonathan Pillow & David Uhrin
Falling Leaves” Home Credits
Subcontractors & Artisans Casework/Cabinetry: Tony Thomas, East Carolina Custom Cabinets; Trim Carpentry: Jeff Whitlow; Fencing: Mark Peters; Framing: Johnathan St. Leger, Jon Boy’s Construction Services; Landscaping: John Rountree, J. Appleseed Landscapes; Painting: Kitty Hawk Painting; Fireplace Finish: David Bancroft, Opus Stone; Site Work/Retaining Walls: Brown and Sons Excavating; Tile: Tony Collie, Beach House Flooring and Tile + Installers: Cory and Tiffany Casey; Window Treatments: r. Lusk Studios Mid-century Modern Antique Dealers Atomic Kitty, CoastalMod, Megamodern (Virginia Beach); Epoch Furnishings, Verve Home Furnishings, West End Antiques (Richmond)