You can’t improve upon the mountain beauty of Western North Carolina, but every day, people try. They carve out homesites on pristine ridges, patch the scars with mansions adorned with exotic woods and imported stone, and relax in their updated versions of paradise.
John and Marsha Warren of Cashiers know a better way. Their modest-size, rustic home, gently nestled into the meadow beneath the sheer stone face of 4,930-foot Whiteside Mountain, sprouts from the soil as naturally as the nearby rhododendrons and ferns. Native materials harvested from the property form the structure’s skin and bones. Thanks to careful planning, its beautiful setting will never be spoiled.
The house was born as a tiny cabin built from American chestnut logs by John’s grandfather (James E. Warren, Sr.) on 300 acres of family property in the 1930s. “It was his getaway cabin,” explains John. “He’d sneak away, drink martinis with his friends, and play cards.” After John’s grandfather died in 1952, the cabin sat lonely and deserted for nearly two decades. Upon graduating from college in 1971, John set about restoring it and moved in three years later.
Marsha first glimpsed the cabin a few years before she and John married in 1979. Its idyllic setting quickly worked its magic on her. “But I never imagined living in it,” she admits. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful cabin to camp out in.’ ”
Cramped quarters and the arrival of two children meant the home had to grow. Designer Tim Greene proposed a two-story addition featuring cedar shakes and chestnut paneling. “We wanted to respect the beauty and tradition of the original cabin,” says John.
Behind the main house, a new guest cabin crafted from poplar logs cut on-site echoes that look. When guests don’t fill its rooms, mountain music does. John plays guitar and banjo during frequent jams with his band, the Cashiers Music Company. With no nearby neighbors to disturb, tunes of bluegrass, jazz, ragtime, and blues float down the valley until the wee hours.
Inspired by His Surroundings
John and Marsha run a thriving landscaping company called Natural Landscapes. Though John majored in city planning, the mountain scenery teaches him now. “It helps not being so smart,” he jokes. “I don’t have too many of my own ideas, so I use nature for guidance. I look at streams and rocks and re-create that natural beauty.”
Rock walls he constructs look as if they’ve existed forever. “We don’t just lay rocks on top of the ground; we set 30% of the rock into the ground,” he explains. “Things don’t always have to be plumb and square. They have to look natural.”
Insensitive construction and rapid development in the Cashiers area concern the Warrens. “New houses provide jobs, but if we lose the scenic beauty, people will not want to come here,” warns John. Marsha adds, “Overdeveloped areas create erosion and affect water tables. If they just nestled in the houses and didn’t cut everything around them, it wouldn’t be so unsightly.”
As an example they hope many others will follow, the entire Warren family has taken a bold and enlightened step. They plan to place 132 acres of their property in a conservation easement with the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust. They’ll retain title to the land and get a significant tax break, while permanently protecting the site from unwise development.
“To me, it’s a win-win situation,” states John. “It’s a win for the environment and also the family, because we know future generations won’t change the original dream my grandfather had.”
"In Tune With Nature" is from the October 2008 issue of Southern Living.