Mountain Magic in Highlands, North Carolina

Award-winning architect Norman D. Askins and his wife, Joane, invite us into their labor of love in Highlands, North Carolina—a cottage they transformed from a dark and dated house into a charming and light-filled retreat.

Story by Susan Sully
Norman D. Askins Highlands Cottage Exterior
Photo: Helen Norman

Almost everything about the 1940s mountain house Norman Askins discovered 23 years ago delighted him. The unusual site with a secluded meadow in front and wide mountain views behind, the charming cottage details, and the long front hall with interesting vistas all captivated his eye. Shortcomings such as dull gray shingles, dark pine walls and floors, and dated decor called Norman to do what he loves most. "It was a wreck when I first saw it, but the bones were there," he says. When he brought his wife, decorator Joane Askins, to the house years later, they joined forces, combining their talents to bring out the home's charm.

Neglected for years, the cottage's shingles and front porch had begun to rot, and the interior was dark and dreary. Among Norman's first improvements: replacing the porch with a much prettier one and then repairing the shingles and painting them a warm shade of brown (Iron Mountain by Benjamin Moore). "The new dark paint blends better with the landscape and sets off the white trim, enhancing the house's cottage character," he explains.

Out in the garden, Norman wanted to heighten the connection between the house and the landscape. First, he cleared 20 trees to make way for his terraced garden plan, which was going to be a Southern play on formal, 19th-century-style gardening. He designed a rectangular lawn that opens into a lushly planted semicircle, both defined and embellished with plenty of boxwoods. "I'd been dying for a boxwood garden for a long time," says Norman. Sun-loving, colorful perennials and roses threaten to burst the boundaries of his winding hedges and well-pruned mounds (both boxwood, of course). In the center, obelisks add elegance and whimsy to the terraced hillside. "This is my version of French-style gardening," says Norman. "It's 'Redneck Baroque'—a formal idea played out in a country way."

Inside, Norman and Joane had just as much work to do. They covered knotty pine paneling that had turned orange with age with several coats of white paint (mostly Edgecomb Gray by Benjamin Moore). Then they applied a sheer, pale glaze to the original wide oak floors. "Our goal was to lighten the interior and freshen it up visually," says Norman. "White paint will do wonders."

Intended to set off the dramatic views framed by large windows, the interior palette ranges from soft ivory to pale gray to shades of blue and green, inspired in part by a collection of English Worcester china that hangs on the dining room walls. Although the origins of the furnishings and decorative details range widely—blue-and-white delft tile, Chinese ceramics, French antiques, and Persian carpets—their colors reflect the woodland hues and cloud-strewn sky of the immediate surroundings. They are also united by a subtle but prevailing Northern European sensibility. Joane was inspired by the airy feel of Swedish style and chose light-colored, painted furniture that has delicate lines and doesn't take up too much space. "We wanted to keep things simple yet layered," she says, "to let the outside do most of the talking."

Each room demonstrates creative space-saving solutions, which are often necessary in a cottage home. A round table and small antique "fancy" chairs make the most of the small dining room's square shape. A pair of pantries next to the new (yet old-fashioned) kitchen frees up wallspace for arrangements of antique pewter and copper pans, and a narrow table allows room for rush-back wing chairs beside the window. A pretty French daybed in the living room provides a nice place to curl up and read, as well as extra seating for parties.

The largest room in the house is the long screened porch that replaced an aging deck. With a rustic stone fireplace flanked by a dining table on one side and a rattan-and-chintz seating area on the other, it's a multipurpose space with a view of the mountains, encouraging the couple and their guests to unwind and relax. "When you get to Highlands, you leave all of your troubles at the bottom of the hill," Norman says. "It's a nurturing place that allows you to be whatever you want to be."