James Taylor’s Childhood Home Was a Ghost of Itself, Until a New York Couple Saved It
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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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Concern about electric vehicles’ appeal is mounting as some customers show a reluctance to switch

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

“We thought we could build a million of them and sell them,” said LaRochelle, a vice president at Sheehy Auto Stores, which sells vehicles from a dozen brands in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The reality has been less positive. On Sheehy’s car lots, LaRochelle says there is a six- to 12-month supply of EVs, compared with a month of gasoline-powered vehicles.

With automakers set to release a barrage of new electric models in the coming years, concerns are mounting among auto retailers about whether the technology will have broader appeal given that many customers are still reluctant to make the switch.

Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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