Paintings, Peacocks, and Preservationists: Edenton, NC, Celebrates the National Trust

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by David Garber

When I first learned that Annie Gray Dixon, a 17-year-old high school junior from Edenton, North Carolina, was hosting a "Paint for Preservation" art auction garden party to raise money and memberships for the National Trust, my initial thought was "Wow, what a great idea!" followed quickly by "Wait a second, I think I know someone from Edenton -- I just might need to make a road trip out of this!"

Turns out that my friend, a Carolina expat now living in DC, grew up two doors down from the family hosting the event, that his parents were already planning to attend, and -- small town that Edenton is -- that word had spread and people were already hoping we'd come. Reasons enough for me to pack my camera and head on down.

Paint for Preservation's gracious hosts: Gray, Sambo, and Annie Gray Dixon.

Edenton is an anomaly of sorts: a prospering small town completely unconnected to any major metro region or highway. There's a 1940s airport on the outskirts of town with antique vehicles parked in the lot for visiting pilots. The Taylor, Edenton's local main street (which in their case is called Broad Street) movie theater, still sells tickets for seven bucks a pop -- five if you're a kid.

There's no CVS or Walgreen's on Broad Street, but instead you'll find Blount's Mutual Drugs, where the pharmacist, Jim Blount, knows his regulars by name. Whether going to dinner at 309 Bistro, grabbing coffee at Edenton Coffee House, or shopping for supplies at Byrum Hardware, you're likely to run into Jennifer Harriss, the local Main Street director, who checks into all the local businesses and is passionately working to help the town's business scene thrive.

And so on Saturday afternoon, after a windblown (read: AC was broken) drive, we arrived in Edenton: the charming postcard town best known to outsiders for its 18th century courthouse (the oldest continuously operating courthouse in America, mind you), plantation and seafaring history, small business culture, and dynamic social scene -- into which, I'd soon learn, the evening's preservation garden party was intricately woven. 

When I got to Beverly Hall, where Annie Gray grew up with her parents, Gray and Sambo, and her siblings, Arabella and Badham -- and where the past seven generations of their family have lived -- it felt like I was stepping back in time. Edenton is known for its old homes. But rather than renovate the character out of them, its residents -- many of whom have been there for generations -- are keen on preserving their homes' oldness: the patina that only comes from hundreds of years of wear, love, and only the most subtle of necessary updates.

The Dixon home, which was built in 1810 as a bank before being converted to a residence after then-President Andrew Jackson's veto of the State Bank Bill, still features the original bank vault in the family's living room.

The peacock, in his most fashionable garden party attire.

As you'll notice in the above slideshow, the party was hosted in the backyard, where guests perused a collection of donated paintings up for auction and caught up with friends and neighbors over light refreshments, and a peacock perched nobly alongside a central fountain. The first event of its kind in Edenton, Paint for Preservation was a major success.

After a few short talks from Annie Gray, her father Sambo (who serves on the National Trust Council), and Stephen Crochet (the National Trust's director of development for the Southern region), all of the paintings were bought at auction and 130 National Trust memberships were purchased. In total, the event raised over $17,000 for the National Trust. For a small (but passionate) small town, that's a lot of preservationists and an incredibly generous contribution to the preservation cause.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

General, Revitalization, Slideshows