offer a glimpse into Outer Banks history
By Kipp Tabb | Correspondent
Sally and Stephen Gudas are sitting at their dining room table in their Southern Shores flat top home. What is now the dining room was at one time the front porch, so some of the classic features of the flat top are not there, although the walls are simple concrete blocks.
Looking into the living room, though, there is no doubt this is an original Frank Stick-designed flat top. The wood paneling is a rich, dark brown, typical of the juniper paneling and beams that were used in building the homes. There is no drywall, no basement, just a concrete block home with simple elegant lines.
At one time there were almost 300 of them in the town, but that was before property values soared, original owners passed away and in many cases families felt they had no choice but to sell the property.
There are, though 24 or 25 of these classic icons of design left, and almost half of them will be on the Southern Shores Flat Top Tour on Saturday, April 30.
For the owners, having a flat top is both a labor of love and a love affair. For Stephen Gudas that love affair began almost 40 years ago.
“I rented this in ‘85 fell in love with it,” he said. “We rented it from the owner in ‘95 and then 10 years later from him and then…we got it from him in 2009. And we’ve had it for 13 years now.”
The Gudas are not the only family who have fallen in love with a flat top. For John Price, an Outer Banks vacation had been part of his life from the 1960s and 70s when, “… I was fortunate enough…to get a permit to go past Duck in my dad’s 72 Kingswood wagon with my brother.”
At the time the paved road ended at the Currituck County line and permission was needed to go past the guardhouse at Pine Island and drive to Corolla. He and his wife were about to begin building on a sound front lot in Southern Shores when he saw a listing for a flat top beachfront property with more than one building.
“I showed her this listing and I said, ‘I can’t follow this listing. It’s got two kitchens, and it doesn’t add up.’ We got on the plane the next day, and we looked at it and said, ‘We’ve got to have this. We really like the flat top and preservation,” he said, adding, “You know, my wife and I are so happy to be here. We don’t rent. We’re starting to spend more time together here than we do in Ohio.”
The history of the flat top homes in many ways tells the story of Southern Shores.
The homes were designed by Frank Stick, one of the preeminent illustrators of sporting magazines in the first 25 years of the 20th century. From 1903, when he sold his first print to Sports Afield magazine until the 1920s, his depictions of outdoor life amid an American landscape were regularly featured in the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Field and Stream, and other publications.
By 1929, when he moved to the Outer Banks, he had grown tired of the grind of turning out illustrations on demand and was no longer producing art for publications. Living on the Outer Banks, Stick became involved in a number of activities. His passionate advocacy for a national park was instrumental in the creation of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
He also was involved in real estate and buying land. His largest land purchase by far was the 1947 purchase of 2,600 acres just north of Kitty Hawk. He paid $30,000 for the land.
His plan seemed simple. Word War II had just ended and he knew returning servicemen would start families, build careers and want to take vacations. He called his 2,600 acres “Southern Shores,” divided it into lots and tried selling the Outer Banks as a vacation destination.
Except no one was buying.
He teamed up with his son, David, who is perhaps best known as the author of “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and they came up with the idea of selling a lot with a home for $12,000.
The homes would be simple concrete structures, one story, with two or maybe three bedrooms. The design, according to an account David wrote for the Outer Banks History Center, was based on cinder block homes his father had seen while in Florida on a fishing expedition.
To make their plan work, father and son had to keep costs down. To do that they used the cheapest and most plentiful local wood they could find — juniper. Initially, in the quest to keep costs to an absolute minimum, they used sand from the beach for the concrete blocks. There are reports of shells embedded in the concrete in some of the very first flat top homes.
The homes were remarkably well made. Juniper naturally resists rot and is a very fragrant wood retaining its scent for some time. The concrete blocks have stood the test of time in the homes that are still standing.
The quality of the construction of the homes was part of the Frank Stick vision; in a 2004 interview his son said the homes were designed so that additions could be added and most were so well built a second floor was possible. Because of that, some flat tops have four or even five bedrooms. There are also a few that have added a second story.
But for the Gudas and Jones it’s the very simplicity of design that attracts them, the fact the homes are open and airy and a part of the fabric of the Outer Banks.
“People are nostalgic about it being a simpler time,” Sally said. “Everybody likes different things. When you build these big (homes)…you could be here for a whole week or even a month and not really experience what this place is about. But when you’re in a flat top you just get more. It’s definitely much more nature oriented than being hermetically sealed.”
The Southern Shores Flat Top Tour will be held Saturday April 30 from 1-5 p.m. Tickets are available the day of the tour only. For more information call 804-399-8342 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homes on the tour include:
218 Ocean Blvd., the Mackey Cottage
176 Ocean Blvd., the Price Cottages
170 Ocean Blvd., Pink Perfection (Edith Pipkin Cottage)
157 Ocean Blvd., Sea Breezes
23 Porpoise Run, Sokol-Clements Cottage
156 Wax Myrtle Trail, Clarke-Gudas Cottage
159 Wax Myrtle Trail, Falconer Cottage
69 Ocean Blvd., Sea Spray Cottage
43 Ocean Blvd., Powell-Harritt Cottage
40 Skyline Road, Beach Box Flat Top (Mitchell)
13 Skyline Road, Outer Banks Community Foundation