May 19, 2010

Serendipity:  Relocated, renovated,
redecorated, and ready for the rest of its life


Serendipity, the Hatteras Island beach house that has captured the imagination of the public, started a new life this week on the seashore in Rodanthe.

It has been relocated, renovated, and redecorated.

The house, which was threatened with collapsing into the encroaching Atlantic Ocean during many storms in recent years, has always interested islanders and visitors, but it became somewhat of an icon when it starred as the “Inn at Rodanthe” in the 2008 romance film, “Nights in Rodanthe,” featuring Richard Gere and Diane Lane.

Hundreds of fans have made the pilgrimage to Rodanthe to photograph it and have hoped that it could be saved.

The house has fascinated both islanders and visitors since it was built in the Mirlo Beach subdivision in 1988 by Roger Meekins of Manteo.

It was one of the first big oceanfront houses built on the island, though it is not all that large by today’s standards. There are bigger and more impressive houses.

But Serendipity with its tall, narrow construction and towers was the first house that people saw as they headed south on Hatteras Island through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

It bordered the refuge with a breathtaking view of the Atlantic and the undeveloped seashore to its north.

However, it was also located in one of the most rapidly eroding beaches on Hatteras, and it has been pounded by the ocean in storms and hurricanes in recent years.

Islanders and visitors would call or e-mail each other after recent storms to ask, “Is Serendipity still there?”

It always was.  Roger Meekins built it well and sunk its pilings 14 feet into the sand and set them in concrete.

The house did not fall into the ocean, but was often an island, surrounded by the pounding surf.

Ironically, a northeaster that arrived shortly after the Hollywood crew that came to film the movie, which includes a dramatic hurricane, damaged many of the decks and other enhancements that the movie company made to the house for the filming.

A northeaster last November that ripped up the highway just north of Serendipity led indirectly to the house’s new life.

Pounded by the storm, its decks, steps, and septic system torn up, the house was declared a nuisance by Dare County. It had to be moved or torn down.

Owners Michael and Susan Creasy, who bought Serendipity in 2003, just before Hurricane Isabel, could not afford to move the house, which they had put up for sale several years ago.

That is when Ben and Debbie Huss stepped in.

In April, 2009, Ben and Debbie Huss were among the tourists who came to Hatteras to see the house after they saw the movie.

“I was just like everyone else,” Huss said in an interview last year, “wondering when I could rent it."

By then, of course, the cottage looked nothing like it did in the film. All of the extras that the filmmakers added had to be removed since the owners did not have permits for the extras. Gone were the decks with their white trim and the shutters as deep blue as the sea.

Nor had the house been in shape to be rented in some months.

“We just had to save it,” said Huss, who has a bail bonding business and furniture store in Newton.

So they called the owners.

He says they had been working toward buying the house in stops and starts and that discussions became more serious after last November’s storm.

Huss, who is 60, said his wife finally had enough and told him just to go for it.

“She told me, ‘You’ve always been a dreamer’.

“I’m just an old redneck guy who has taken chances all my life….In the bail bond business, I’ve taken a chance on people all through my life.”

The Husses bought the house and got the people on board they would need to save Serendipity.

On the morning of Monday, Jan. 18, Jim Matyiko of Expert Houses Movers, whose family company moved the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in 1999, moved Serendipity not quite a mile down Highway 12 to a lot on East Beacon Road.

Mike Price, a family friend and commercial developer in western North Carolina, took over from there as the project manager through the renovations.

Serendipity’s new home is not an oceanfront lot -- not yet at least.  There are several lots in front of it that are probably unbuildable.

The house does not have that view of the unspoiled refuge to its north, but it still has a spectacular and commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean.

Price and Ben Huss went to work on the exterior of the house, while Debbie and her interior decorator Rebecca Ennis went to work on the interior.

We went to see the finished product last week, just two days before the first renters arrived.

A husband and wife from Raleigh were outside the house, taking photos of it.  They are among the dozen or so tourists who show up every day, Huss said, to see the Inn at Rodanthe. Another couple were taking photos when we left.

The house has returned to its movie-star status, complete with the Inn at Rodanthe sign on one of its towers.  The outside has been spruced up and decks with white railings and those blue shutters have been added. 

From the outside, it looks just as it did when Hollywood came to Hatteras.

Inside the Husses set out to re-create the movie also.

Only the movie’s exteriors were actually filmed on Hatteras – at Serendipity, the highway, the ferry, the beach, the Rodanthe pier.

The interiors were filmed in a Wilmington, N.C., movie studio and at a beach house on Topsail Island.

However, that didn’t stop Ben and Debbie Huss from conjuring up some movie magic on the inside.

Four rooms in the house were redecorated to resemble the movie set – the kitchen, the “den” or living area, and two bedrooms – the Richard Gere bedroom and the Diane Lane bedroom.

The six-bedroom house is not your average oceanfront castle and it wasn’t meant to be.

It doesn’t have those huge living areas and wide expanses of windows that you see in other houses on the ocean.

Instead it has its own character of rooms and nooks and crannies spread over four floors and into a tower.

When you enter on the first floor, one of the first things you notice is the overwhelming scent of cedar, not just any cedar, but Spanish cedar that Roger Meekins bought in Brazil and had shipped to a mill in Elizabeth City where it was cut into the lumber that would be used on the interior.

He told the new owners that if they sanded it slightly, it would bring back the lovely cedar scent, and, indeed it did.

In recreating the rooms from the movie, Price and the Husses worked from blown-up still photographs  -- and watched the film many times.  Ben claims he’s seen it 28 times.

The walls in the kitchen have been covered with the 75-year-old wallpaper that was used on the movie set.  Debbie says they found it at a restoration company in New York and it cost $75 a roll.  The cabinets have been redone with beaded-board doors and drawers and painted an aqua color – as in the movie.

Swinging doors in one of the entries into the kitchen were replicated from photos of the doors used in the movie.

Also in the kitchen is a small, old oak desk with a mirror above it – the original from the movie.

In the movie, a beaded “curtain” leads into another room.  Since Serendipity wasn’t laid out to accommodate this detail, the beads instead are part of a covering on one of the windows. 

Outside the living area on the deck is a waist-high planter box filled with shells – another detail from the film.

And just off the living area is an antique organ, again a replica of the one that appears, however briefly, in the movie.

It is clear that Ben and Debbie prize this detail, perhaps above all others.  It is a 1918 Adler organ, built in Louisville, Ky., that was given to them by their good friends, Jeanette and Gerald Ringley of Hickory, N.C.

The organ still works just fine, Debbie says. She tells a story about some tourists who came by to take photos of the house when they were working on it.  The Husses invited them inside.  One of the women had played an organ just like it many years ago in her church.  She sat down and proceeded to play old hymns on the old organ.

The organ is in the entry way to one of those nooks – a small sitting area with a loveseat and table.  On the table is an ornate decorative lamp from the movie.

Also on the first floor is a small, cozy screened porch, a bathroom and laundry and storage area.

A staircase off the living area leads to a second floor balcony with railings of that Spanish cedar.  Four bedrooms open onto the balcony.

One is the “Richard Gere” bedroom or the “blue room.”  Its walls are covered with the same deep blue wallpaper used in the movie and the centerpiece of the room is an 18th century ornate Victorian bed that Debbie found in Atlanta.

Ben tells the story of how he was dispatched to retrieve it in a pickup truck.  On the way back home, it started snowing and he had to stop and buy tarps to cover Debbie’s prized find.

On an antique dresser in the room is a vase of orchids – another touch from the film.

Across the hallway is the “Diane Lane” bedroom whose walls are covered with a flowering pussy willow paper similar to that in the movie.  The room is dominated by an antique white iron bed – just like in the movie.

Also on the second floor are a twin bedroom and the master bedroom with doors leading onto a deck overlooking the ocean.

Another flight of stairs leads to the third floor with another bedroom, bath, a wet bar that is really a kitchenette, and a small sitting area in a tower area with a vaulted ceiling.  A door off the bar area leads to yet another deck with spectacular views.

Finally, another flight of stairs takes you into the tower and what the Husses call the “honeymoon suite.”  It's a room completely done in shades of white, beige, and tan – with yet another terrific view of the ocean.

Ben Huss and Mike Price say that Serendipity was built so well that renovating it was really not a problem.

“It was really just refreshing it,” Ben says.

The house was raised several feet higher than it had been and the pilings were dug another two feet into the sand – from 14 feet to 16 feet.

Back in January, Mike Price estimated the cost of the project – buying the house, moving it, purchasing a new lot, and renovations – would cost about $750,000, depending, he said, on how much Debbie spent on interior decorating. Ben says the project came in “about” on budget.

Just a few weeks ago, Ben said the project was perhaps more of an undertaking than he anticipated and he wouldn’t be tackling another renovation anytime soon.

But last week, as he led visitors through Serendipity, he was more enthusiastic than ever.

Yes, he said, he’d take on another house “in a heartbeat.”

“This has really made an impact on our lives,” he says.  “It’s given us an appreciation for the old styles….I don’t much like change.”

Ben and Debbie are grateful, they say, to the people of Hatteras “who rolled out the red carpet” for them.

They have enjoyed meeting and talking to all the many tourists who still come by the house. 

Ben says he doesn’t worry that the admirers will bother the folks who have the house pretty well rented up until Thanksgiving.

“It is what it is,” he says.

And it is a house that is an icon now, perhaps the most photographed beach house on Hatteras Island.

The first renters are in the house this week.  Debbie says they are from West Virginia and she thinks they are celebrating a wedding anniversary.

As we got ready to leave Serendipity after the tour, we sat at the dining table with Ben.

Once more he says, as he did when I first talked to him, that he’s just an “old country boy” chasing his dream.

“And,” he said, pointing his finger for emphasis, “that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

Click Here To View Slide Show

Other Serendipity Articles:

Serendipity is returning to its movie-star status – March 19, 2010

Serendipity arrives at its new home in Rodanthe….with video and slide show – Jan. 18, 2010

Serendipity moves but not all the way to its new home with video and slide show – January 15, 2010

The deal is sealed and Serendipity will be on the move – Jan. 6, 2010

Serendipity has a suitor who proposes to move it and restore it – Dec. 18, 2009

The filming of ‘Nights in Rodanthe’: Hollywood came to Hatteras – Sept. 23, 2008

The mess at Mirlo Beach – Nov. 29, 2007

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