Published December 2010
Jack and Sally Graham’s Second French Empire-inspired home, the result of a year’s worth of planning and another 19 months of construction, was still cluttered with boxes eight days after they’d moved into it.
Sally had spent the day – April 17, 2003 – unpacking before heading out about 5pm to visit her sister, who had just given birth the night before. A little more than an hour later, Jack was driving up to the house, which was the very first built in The Hills of Rosemont neighborhood near Southpoint.
He saw smoke.
As he drew closer, he came upon a slew of emergency vehicles and had to park a good distance from his house. Once it came into view, his worst fears were realized: the house was fully involved. A wicked windstorm made firefighting efforts futile. “They’d put it out on one side, and then the wind would whip up, and it would start again on the other side,” Jack recalls. “They finally gave up at 4am.”
Only a handful of objects were spared, despite firefighters trying hard to salvage books, paintings and trophies belonging to the Grahams’ two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, who at the time were away at college.
Also lost in the fire were two beloved Siamese cats. The Grahams had owned a pair of cats ever since their first day of marriage.
The fire, caused by a faulty gas line regulator valve, was devastating. But not dream-ending.
There never was any question that the Grahams would rebuild, in part because of their own doggedness and in part because, as Jack noted drily, “Who’s going to buy a smoke-damaged lot?” As distressing as the fire was, the Grahams did get one lucky break and one hopeful omen.
The break came because the fire happened when the house was new, meaning their insurance policy covered 100 percent of the costs. So Sally went through, item by item, replacing furniture, paintings, woodwork and more, then sending an invoice to the insurance company. “I’m detail-oriented,” Sally says, in a way that lets you know it might be a bit of an understatement. “Most people hate all this: ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve got to pick out a roof.’ But I love it. I even loved doing it the second time.”
The omen was, the Grahams say, a “gift from God.” They went hunting for a rental house in Hope Valley Farms to live in during reconstruction. They pulled into the first driveway only to see a Siamese cat. “Talk about divine intervention,” Sally says. “We told the realtor right away: ‘We’ll take the house.’”
It turned out the cat, C.J., belonged to the family next door. But that family was busy with young children, so C.J. sought out the Grahams for attention, which they were all too happy to dole out in spades. C.J. soon was spending his whole day at the Grahams’ home, and they later adopted the beautiful, sleek Siamese. “He’s our angel cat,” Sally says. Jack, Sally and C.J. moved into the new home in 2004. They were soon joined by another Siamese, Missy, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Winston. The energy and playfulness of the pets add a warmth to the home, balancing the grander elements. That makes them, among other things, furry little microcosms of the entire spirit of the place.
Scottish and Southern
Our visit to Dalkeith, the name given to the home in honor of the ancestral Scottish home of Jack’s family, came on a rainy Tuesday. Stepping outside for a minute to admire the rose garden just outside their master bedroom, I realized my shoes had gotten pretty wet. I hesitated to step back onto their plush white carpet. With a wave of her hand, Sally said nonchalantly, “Oh, don’t worry about it.”
It’s an attitude that leavens and lightens the home. There are cozy touches amid the Paris flea market antique furniture, the chandeliers hanging from nearly every ceiling, the Italian marble and the Brazilian cherry wood floors.
There’s the soft upholstered walls in the dining room. A custom-made pot rack that Sally designed in the kitchen. A sunroom complete with recliner and game table for Sally’s regular Mah jongg and bridge games. An expansive front porch that whispers Old South charm.
Sally loves to entertain friends and family, and she wants her home to feel like a place where a few drops of spilled wine aren’t cause for consternation.
She also took considerable pains – with the help of interior designer Thomas Long – to use color, artwork and more delicate furniture pieces to balance the blocky heft of other pieces.
“It’s a good combination of femininity and masculinity,” Sally says.
“There’s a bulk and a substantiveness to it, but with some feminine touches.”
Moving into the master bedroom, Sally notes the sturdy white columns supporting the entrance from the bedroom to the sunlit sitting room.
“These are the kinds of things that make the house seem invincible,” she says, giving one of the columns a pat with her hand. Then, she catches herself, and with a wry smile adds, “Of course, we know it isn’t.” DM