SOUTHERN SHORES, N.C. (AP) — Architect Chris Nason drove slowly through Southern Shores spotting the occasional flattop cottage.
The aging icons of the 1950s and 1960s were starkly small next to large, multistory beach homes next door. The exteriors of concrete block were painted pink, white and beige with trims in jewel colors of deep blue or green.
“I would love to get in that one,” Nason said. “And that’s an interesting one, too. It’s much bigger than you think.”
And so it went for about a half-hour.
Nason, of Beacon Architecture and Design in Kill Devil Hills, has enthusiastically taken on a quest to document each of the quickly disappearing homes designed by Outer Banks artist Frank Stick. In 1947, Stick paid $30,000 for 2,600 acres that became the origins of the town of Southern Shores, according to the website of North Carolina Modernist Houses.
At one time, there were about 75 flattops in Southern Shores on both sides of N.C. 12, according to prevailing estimates. Now there are around 30, depending on which ones get counted. Some owners have added pitched roofs, so the cottages are no longer flattops.
Many still have interior walls of juniper paneling and exposed ceiling beams. The roofs were made with a wide overhang to help cast shade in the afternoon sun. Brightly painted wooden shutters match the exterior trim and, at the same time, protect windows from hurricane winds.
The cement block exteriors were made from local sand and were topped with flat roofs that blended into the undulating, sandy landscape. Cottages ranged from under 1,000 square feet with one bedroom and one bath to more spacious versions on the oceanfront with three or four bedrooms in 2,000 square feet or more.
The first one went up in the late 1940s with great views of the ocean before large dunes and high-rise beach houses took over the horizon.
Nason and a team of interns will measure the cottages inside and out, make drawings, photograph them and trace deed histories to their origins.
“Before the wrecking ball comes,” he said.
Nason recorded eight homes in the last two years without compensation, earning him a community service award from the American Institute for Architects. Two of those eight houses already have been torn down, he said.
Friends of the Outer Banks History Center will award a grant to document 23 remaining houses, said Lewis Forrest, chairman of the friends group, which has asked other organizations to contribute. The cost over two years will reach just over $13,000. There is no charge to the homeowners.
“It’s impossible to overstate the urgency of this project,” Forrest said.
When finished, the records will go to the Outer Banks History Center, the Southern Shores Historic Landmark Commission, N.C. Modernist Houses and the Library of Congress.
Offices for the Outer Banks Community Foundation are housed in a 1950s-era Stick-designed cottage. The staff embraces it, but it’s an acquired taste, said Lorelei Costa, the foundation’s executive director.
The flat roofs can leak without careful maintenance. There is no attic. Pounding rain can drown out a conversation, Costa said. Dampness can seep into a box of cereal in the back of a cabinet on an exterior wall, she said.
“But people love them all the same,” she said.
Steve and Sally Gudas meticulously maintain their flattop, sticking with the original construction, quirks and all.’
The Gudas organize tours of the historic cottages and keep up a Facebook page with hopes of persuading other owners to keep these emblems of the old Outer Banks.
Flattops on the oceanfront are the most endangered, Gudas said.
The original cottages were constructed small for a single family without swimming pools or other modern conveniences. They sit close to the ground and are susceptible to flooding.
The high-end rental values of oceanfront property have led to demolition of the cottages in favor of enormous homes set on pilings — with modern kitchens and theater rooms — that can hold several families at once.
“When they are listed for sale, it is almost a death notice,” Gudas said.