Writer: Marimar McNaughton
Photography: Cothran Harris
A classic, coastal Carolina cottage with all of the trimmings — from gabled window dormers and eave brackets, to bright white columns and cedar shingles — outwardly exudes early 20th century lifesaving stations in its architectural symmetry and vernacular detailing. Inside is another story.
Nancy Mathis and Shawn Maher, a Washington, D.C. power couple, make the seven-hour pilgrimage from the cradle of democracy to a remote outpost off of North Carolina’s coast every November to observe the Thanksgiving holiday.
For the couple, their son Aidan, and lapdog Stewie, the annual feast is a four-day international fete with some dinner guests arriving from far-flung countries, like Germany, and other exotic places like Qatar. Plus there are always a handful of disenfranchised holiday orphans.
“There are the usual strays,” says Nancy Mathis, a former newscaster now president of her own consulting firm, First Take Communications, representing a wide array of banking interests and Native American and Middle Eastern causes.
The cooking includes participation in the Mathis-Maher turkey brining ritual.
“We collect the seawater, boil it, strain it and sea brine our turkey,” Mathis explains.
Houseguests also forage for wild bayberry leaves among the native plants that grow on Bald Head Island, from Southport, a short 30-minute ferry ride across the Cape Fear River.
The Mathis-Maher property on BHI’s South Beach faces the open Atlantic Ocean. To the west, the Cape Fear River joins the sea. To the east, windows frame views of Bald Head’s famed Captain Charlie’s Station, a trio of historic, once-manned lifesaving cottages near the island’s legendary shoals on the southeastern point.
“The first year we came down here, Aiden was 8,” Mathis says. “I said, ‘We need to get a house here.’ My husband said, ‘It’s too far from Washington, it’s too expensive, we’ll never use it, it’s too remote.’ Fast forward: Every year we came on vacation I spent at least a day looking at houses. …. I kept thinking, ‘If I buy this house I’m going to be rippin’ stuff out.’” A natural fast talker, Mathis’ native southern accent creeps into her fast-paced repartee. “I don’t like the cutesy, the anchors, the starfish … I’m going to be simplifying things, cleaner lines,” she declares.
The first year they rented a house for Thanksgiving she had her aha moment.
“We rented the house two doors down … and I woke up and said, ‘That’s it!’”
The timing was right: it was the bottom of the market; everything was for sale; there was no construction. By April the following year, Mathis and Maher had purchased the lot and drawn house plans with Wilmington, N.C. architect Cothran Harris, AIA — one of four pre-eminent Bald Head Island architects.
“We interviewed three architects and there was no question we were going to go with Cothran,” Mathis says. “When we walked the lot with Cothran I said, ‘This is the show out here, and what I want is a house that captures the show inside, and that maximizes the vistas,’” she says.
Mathis traveled to Bald Head once a month to meet with her architect and the team members had many phone consultations.
“It helps that we do a lot of these,” Harris explains. “It gets better every year with the exchange of PDFs. These days people are sending me their Houzz Ideabooks. We communicated well and it turned out well.”
“We got the windows about as big as we could. There’s not a lot of wall space in here. We wanted to maximize the show — ‘Bring the Show In’— was our mantra,” Mathis says.
Coffered ceilings, may feel somewhat formal for a beach house but, Mathis says, “I wanted to push the ceiling up to get this big expanse but if you push it all up it can sort of start to get stark looking, so I thought a little bit of detail. You have the height but you’d have — for lack of a better term — something that softened it.”
The floors are stained to match the color of the island terrain — a wet sand bed where beach grass blankets the landscape. Understated sea gray-greens and foam whites are in durable Sunbrella upholstery fabrics covering sofas and chairs. Turquoise color pops that turn up in surprising places — decorative accessories echoed in the open kitchen’s backsplashes — were inspired by a story Mathis read in Coastal Living that claimed turquoise was the new neutral.
Aside from a pile of beach finds — a blowfish carcass, a few twisted knots of driftwood and a scattering of tiny shells piled in a corner of the sideboard, there is a quartet of framed 1820s Dutch prints, a couple of oversized platters from the Turkish Market in D.C. and a set of hand-carved wooden napkin rings from a trip to Africa, but no knick-knacks per se.
“Because I run my own consulting business — literally my brain gets cluttered sometimes — and I come here and I don’t want to see a lot. I want to keep it that way because it is literally a place where I can come and relax and clear my mind. … I travel a ton and when I come here I plop down.”
When she does come for chunks of time, she keeps an office upstairs that doubles as a single guest suite.
“If I get up in the morning and exercise,” she says, “when it’s hot — because there’s nothing else to distract me but the view — I really can write probably — I won’t say twice as fast — but faster, because I don’t have the distractions I have at home. We are city dwellers. We have a four-floor house but it’s very vertical and it’s a center hall Colonial built in 1927 — completely different style, much more traditional. We sandwiched a pool in there, it’s big enough to swim laps, but this is a place where we can really bring the outside in.”
The daughter of a university dean and an English professor says, “I grew up in Charlotte and I just wanted a piece of North Carolina,” Mathis says. “So it’s called ‘Home Again,’ double entendre, because it’s our second home, and home again for me.”