On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon earlier this month, I leaned over the second floor balcony at the beach house known as Serendipity and watched a steady stream of excited visitors come through the door for a house tour.
They were wide-eyed and full of anticipation. Many carried cameras, ready to capture the moment, their first glimpse inside the cottage that competes only with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for the title of the most beloved landmark on the island.
The occasion this weekend was the Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation’s holiday house tour.
The tour was the first time the public had an opportunity to see the inside of the house they had so admired from the outside.
Some 220 Serendipity fans came through the house on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5. They came from Hatteras, but also from the northern beaches, eastern North Carolina towns, and the cities of Hampton Roads.
The guest book for the tour includes addresses from the North Carolina towns of Wanchese, Manteo, New Bern, Wilmington, Kill Devil Hills, Hertford, Elizabeth City, and Ahoskie and the Virginia cities of Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Suffolk.
I wondered that afternoon, as I have many times before, why this beach house Serendipity has so captured the imagination of the public.
It’s not a historic house. In fact, it is just 22 years old, built in 1988 by Roger Meekins of Manteo.
It’s not the biggest or the fanciest beach cottage on the island. In fact, it pales by comparison to some of the larger McMansions just down the highway.
Most of the folks touring Serendipity came to know it and love it because of a movie, the 2008 feature film “Nights in Rodanthe,” based on a Nicholas Sparks novel and starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane.
In that movie, it was known as the Inn at Rodanthe and was completely redone on the outside by the Hollywood folks.
Curiously, though Richard and Diane were there at the house to shoot exteriors, none of the interiors of the house was filmed there. That happened down around Wilmington, N.C.
So, while there is a Richard Gere “blue bedroom,” an almost exact replica of the movie set, right down to the wallpaper and antique bed, Richard never slept there.
None of that seemed to matter, though, for the fans on the tour. They just wanted to see the house and see the areas that replicated the movie sets. And if they couldn’t have their pictures taken with Richard and Diane, they were more than thrilled to have a photo snapped with Serendipity’s new owners, Ben and Debbie Huss of Newton, N.C.
In fact, that day Ben seemed every bit the star as he led folks through the house, up its narrow stairs, and into its charming rooms and nooks and crannies.
Movie set or not, the house has charm. And charisma. And it sure has staying power.
I think it’s fair to say that Serendipity has captured the public’s imagination since it was first built at the Mirlo Beach subdivision in Rodanthe in 1988.
It was, until this year, the northernmost house in the subdivision and all of Hatteras Island. Located adjacent to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, the vista to the north was all ocean and dunes and sandy beaches – which is I’m sure what got the attention of the movie makers.
And, back in 1988, it was one of the largest houses on the island, the first of many really big “cottages” that have gotten only larger over the years.
It is tall and straight with towers, gabled roof lines, and many decks.
It was a special kind of sentinel for islanders returning home from a trip or visitors making their annual pilgrimages to the seashore beaches.
When the shoreline started eroding at Mirlo Beach, and especially in front of Serendipity, folks were sure it would fall into the ocean.
After each storm, islanders would ask, “Is Serendipity still there?”
And it always was, though at times the ocean washed past it and into Highway 12. The raging storm tides have ripped more stairs off that house than a person can count. In fact, a storm during the 2007 filming of “Nights in Rodanthe” tore off the stairs and some of the other cosmetic touches done by the Hollywood folks.
After the movie, all the special effects, including those signature, bright blue hurricane shutters, were removed and Serendipity was ravaged by storm after storm as the ocean crept ever closer.
It became famous in photographs in this and other newspapers during every storm surge.
It was in a pretty sorry state and condemned by Dare County when Ben and Debbie Huss first saw the house in 2009.
It was just about a year ago that I got a call from Newton, where Ben Huss and his wife own a furniture store and he is a bail bondsman.
“I’m calling for my boss who wants to talk to you about a story,” the man on the line told me.
I was just about to eat my reheated lunch and asked if I could return the call in a few minutes.
“No problem,” the man said, adding, “My boss just wants to talk with you about Serendipity. He is going to buy it and hire the people who moved the lighthouse to move it down the beach.”
I decided that was one call I would take right then. Lunch could wait.
So I talked to Ben Huss who told me last December that he was going to indeed do all those things – and do them the following month.
By then I was sure I had some sort of maniac or crazy person on the phone.
However, on a cold January day, I watched as Serendipity was jacked up by Expert House Movers, placed on a huge trailer, and carried to a new home by the ocean on Beacon Lane in Rodanthe.
It was an ending fit for a Hollywood film.
But the story didn’t end there. Ben and Debbie renovated the house inside and out. Outside they created an exact replica of the Inn at Rodanthe, and inside they copied many touches from the movie set, including vintage wallpaper ordered from New York City.
They started renting it last summer. And the people just kept coming to take pictures of the Inn at Rodanthe and have their pictures taken out front under the sign. You could just tell they really wanted to go inside – maybe to see if Richard and Diane were still there!
In October, Serendipity hosted its first wedding – an occasion worthy of the romance that folks attach to the house.
The Husses turned out not to be crazy people, but warm and generous and delightful people.
They felt welcomed into the island community and wanted to give something back.
Thus, they found themselves that weekend earlier this month the objects of adoration by Serendipity fans.
The couple had spent the better part of a week decking out Serendipity for its holiday public debut.
There was a big Christmas tree in an alcove off the living room on the first floor and a smaller tree in every one of the six bedrooms, right up to the “honeymoon” suite at the top. Lights were strung everywhere on the outside – and wreaths and ribbons.
The Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation board put out a spread on the big dining table of pumpkin bread, “hurricane” brownies, Aunt Doris’ apple cake, and cranberry cake.
“Nights in Rodanthe” was playing on various televisions.
On Saturday, the Husses’ good friend Jerry Rudisill donned a Santa suit and greeted guests with candy canes.
The Acoustaholics played music. Laura Thompson-Harrell played by herself on Saturday, and on Sunday she and her husband, Norman Harrell, played. They donated their time in memory of Laura's father who died of cancer.
The foundation, which provides financial assistance to Hatteras cancer patients, sold cookbooks and raffle tickets – for a weeklong stay at Serendipity in the off-season of 2011 or 2012.
The fundraiser brought in $5,450.
“Ben and Debbie Huss are some of the most wonderful, sincere and generous people I have ever met,” said foundation board member Donna Barnett. “It was an amazing experience! Oh behalf of HICF and our recipients, we would like to thank the Husses and everyone who came out to support us.”
“That was the most fun we have had in a long time,” Debbie Huss told Donna in an e-mail after the event. “And I appreciate you and the cancer foundation for doing the open house. I think I was so excited to see the money coming in for the foundation that I told Ben this has been the best Christmas ever for us. What a rewarding feeling it gave us to know we were a part of something so important.”
And the highlight of the tour weekend?
Why, romance, of course.
Anthony Beasley of Wanchese proposed to his girlfriend Sabrina Harlan of Asheboro, N.C., on the third floor balcony after they toured the house.
Beasley, who works for the North Carolina Department of Transportation in Manns Harbor, said he and Sabrina, a teacher, had been dating for about 18 months.
He said she was “hinting that she wanted me to do something special.”
So one day, Beasley was in Rodanthe and noticed some people reading a poster at Island Convenience. He went over to see what was going on and saw the information for the “Nights in Rodanthe” open house.
“I thought that would classify as something special,” Beasley said.
He said he mainly remembers that it was cold and windy on that third-floor balcony when Sabrina said “yes” and started shouting and waving her ring finger to folks on the beach.
The wedding is tentatively scheduled for June 24.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more Island Free Press stories on Serendipity:
To buy a ticket for the Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation’s raffle of one-week, off-season rental of Serendipity, go to the groups website, http://www.hicf.org