James Taylor’s Childhood Home Was a Ghost of Itself, Until a New York Couple Saved It | Kanebridge News
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James Taylor’s Childhood Home Was a Ghost of Itself, Until a New York Couple Saved It

The North Carolina property was in bad shape when its current owners bought it for $1.66 million, but a $2 million renovation brought the Midcentury Modern back to life

Wed, Nov 16, 2022 8:46amGrey Clock 4 min

In the song “Copperline,” James Taylor sings about the Morgan Creek neighborhood where he grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., lamenting the overdevelopment that has since changed the area. “I tried to go back, as if I could, all spec houses and plywood, tore up and tore up good,” the song goes.

The lyrics refer to “the McMansions speculators tend to drop everywhere,” Mr. Taylor explained in an email.

But thanks to its current owners, James Keith Brown, 60, a senior adviser at global-investment firm Coatue Management, and Eric G. Diefenbach, 63, an attorney, Mr. Taylor’s own childhood home still stands—and its lot of nearly 25 acres hasn’t become the site of a subdivision.

The couple, who are art collectors and museum supporters, bought the rundown, seven-bedroom, 3,172-square-foot, 1950s wood-and-glass Midcentury Modern home at an auction in July 2016 for $1.66 million. They then spent about $2 million on a restoration and renovation, finishing in the spring of 2021.

“We thought it was important to preserve the legacy of the Taylors,” says Mr. Brown. “Besides, it’s a beautiful house.”

The home was the vision of Mr. Taylor’s mother, Gertrude “Trudy” Taylor. She took the lead in its design, Mr. Taylor says, and was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Designing, building, decorating and landscaping that house was her creative outlet,” he says of his mother. “The house was a declaration of her uniqueness and, by association, our otherness. I remember being proud of it.”

The fundamental aim of the renovation is to honor the original design, says Matthew Griffith, a founding principal of a Raleigh-based architecture practice called in situ studio. Mr. Griffith says his firm focused on making the house “how it was supposed to be,” by uniting the work of its original architects: the celebrated Midcentury Modernist George Matsumoto, then the dean of the School of Design at North Carolina State University, and renowned Durham architect John Latimer.

Mr. Griffith says they didn’t change the footprint of the main two-story structure, focusing instead on creating a cohesion between the front and back by redoing the siding and windows, and adding skylights. They reworked the floor plan to make it a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house by breaking up some rooms and expanding others.

Outside, a partial deck was made to wrap around the whole house. An existing guesthouse, which was prefabricated, was replaced with a 786-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom custom-built version with a family room and a kitchen that mimics the one in the main house. A swimming pool and a pool house was added to one side of the yard.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Diefenbach live in a prewar co-op on West 72 Street in Manhattan, which they created out of three apartments and filled with art, including works by Franz Ackermann and Olafur Eliasson. The couple also owns an 8,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom, art-filled modern house on 11 acres in Ridgefield, Conn., where Mr. Diefenbach is on the board of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Mr. Diefenbach says updating and reusing beautiful vintage architecture was one appeal of restoring the Taylor home. “We had been looking for another platform for art and the house was ideal,” he says.

Another impetus for buying the house was to be close to family, says Mr. Brown, who grew up in Siler City, where his mother still lives. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1984, where he has served on numerous boards and committees. They have 36 nieces and nephews, 16 of whom live near the Morgan Creek house. Mr. Brown says he has happy memories of North Carolina and missed being close to his relatives.

Mr. Taylor’s memories of growing up in North Carolina are more ambiguous. His family moved from Boston to Chapel Hill in 1951 when his father, Isaac “Ike” Taylor, a Harvard-trained physician, accepted a position with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But just when the house was finished, around 1955, his father volunteered to be a medical officer for the Navy in Antarctica. During his two years there, Trudy Taylor became increasingly alienated from the politics and culture of North Carolina, which became a “major dynamic in all of our lives,” Mr. Taylor says.

“She refused to put down roots and constantly impressed upon us the idea that civilized life was elsewhere (to the north),” he says. “Her constant, epic work of tending and shaping the landscape around the house was not only her labor of love but a fierce proclamation of her unique independence. We got it.”

Ike Taylor returned to North Carolina from Antarctica an alcoholic, straining his marriage and his relationship with his children, Mr. Taylor recounts in his audio memoir, “Break Shot: My First 21 Years.” His parents divorced and sold the house in 1974.

When the home went up for a sealed-bid auction in June 2016, it was in bad shape, with termite damage and a dilapidated roof, says Sarah Sonke, owner of ModHomes Realty and AuctionFirst. She says the house had been vacant for some time but wasn’t officially on the market; developers were aware of it and had made lowball offers with the intent to take down the home to build multifamily units. Ms. Sonke says she was hired by the seller, whose parents had been living there before they died, to find a buyer who would keep the house and property intact.

George Smart, the executive director of NCModernist, a nonprofit that documents preserves, and promotes modern architecture in North Carolina, organized a tour of the house before the auction that attracted some 1,300 people, including many who wanted to play guitar on the deck. Ms. Sonke said locals stopped by with stories and memories about the Taylor family.

Musician and artist Kate Taylor, Mr. Taylor’s sister, says she is grateful for the restoration. The home was instrumental in her development and that of her siblings, including James, Livingston, Hugh and Alex, who died in 1993, says Ms. Taylor.

Trudy Taylor let the kids “run and roam” on the property, encouraging them to play music and make art: “It was an ideal breeding ground for creativity,” she says. “Looking back on it now, I can see that it was extraordinary.”


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The Lipstick Index Is Back

Sales of the cosmetic product are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak discretionary-goods environment

Fri, Nov 25, 2022 2 min

Masks off, lipstick index on.

In a gloomy economy, consumers might cut back on other discretionary purchases but will keep shelling out for small luxuries such as lipstick—or so goes the theory. “When lipstick sales go up, people don’t want to buy dresses,” Leonard Lauder, then-chairman of Estée Lauder who is widely credited for coming up with the so-called “lipstick index,” told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.

L’Oréal Chief Executive Nicolas Hieronimus called this out during the company’s earnings call in October, noting that a luxury lipstick or mascara is only €30, making it an “affordable treat.” Sales at L’Oréal rose 9.1% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier despite slower sales in China due to Covid-related lockdowns. Coty, maker of CoverGirl makeup, said organic sales grew 9% over the same period.

Beauty sales have also been a rare bright spot for retailers: Target said beauty category sales grew roughly 15% in its quarter ended Oct. 29 compared with a year earlier, with Ulta Beauty shops in Target tripling their total sales volume over that period.

While Macy’s namesake stores saw comparable-store sales decline last quarter, its beauty-focused Bluemercury chain saw same-store sales grow 14% last quarter compared with a year earlier. Kohl’s locations with Sephora are outperforming the rest of the department-store chain.

Of the 14 discretionary categories that market research firm NPD Group tracks, prestige beauty—products you might find at a department store or a Sephora—is the only category that is seeing unit sales growth year to date. And lipstick, which suffered during the masked-up pandemic, is making up for lost time.

Lipstick sales have grown 37% through October this year compared with a year earlier, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. That is an acceleration from the 31% growth seen during the same period last year. Lip product is the only major category within prestige beauty where sales are actually up compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Ms. Jensen.

Cosmetic companies have also called out strong sales in fragrances, calling it the “fragrance index.” Demand has been so robust that there is an industrywide fragrance component shortage, Coty said in a press release announcing third-quarter earnings earlier this month. CEO Sue Nabi said during the call that Coty hasn’t seen any kind of trade-down or slowdown, also noting that consumers are shifting away from gifting perfume to buying it for themselves.

“A big piece of it is just a shift in what wellness means to consumers,” NPD Group’s Ms. Jensen said. “Beauty is one of the few industries that are positioned to meet [consumers’] emotional need. It makes them feel good.”

While the lipstick effect could be observed in the recession in the early 2000s, that wasn’t the case during the 2007-09 recession, during which lipstick sales declined alongside other discretionary purchases. Part of this might have had to do with category-specific dynamics.

There was a lot of newness in the cosmetic industry in 2001, including lip gloss, a relatively nascent category back then. That tailwind simply wasn’t there starting in 2008, though nail polish turned out to be consumers’ small indulgence of choice in that period. This time around, consumers may be eager to show off a part of their face that was hidden behind a mask for so long during the pandemic.

In an otherwise bleak environment for companies selling discretionary goods, those in the business of selling cosmetics look well poised to come out of the holiday season looking freshened up.


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