This article first appeared in My Outer Banks Home in 2007 by Angel Ellis Khoury
Marshes Light Expands Manteo Horizon
Since 1982, when townspeople adopted the motto “Come Sit on Our Front Porch; Let Us Tell You of the Dreams We Keep” as part of an ambitious revitalization for Manteo, this Roanoke Island town has seen its dreams come true. The view from the porch has been transformed.
A once deserted downtown is now filled with shops and restaurants, with residences located above. Historic homes have been renovated, and picket fences have returned to nearly every yard. New public spaces are filled with activity—boat docks, boardwalks, and a waterfront park with benches set beneath live oaks—in place of rotten pilings and dilapidated, abandoned buildings.
Across the creek, a barren spoil island is now home to Roanoke Island Festival Park and the representative 16th century ship Elizabeth II, built and berthed in Manteo, but able to sail to coastal ports, as North Carolina’s only moveable historic attraction. A new state maritime museum at the old boathouse brings families together to build a boat in a day, and youngsters learn to sail, with wet-sponge fights part of the lesson plan. On summer evenings, dance, music, and drama play out on a pavilion lawn with Roanoke Sound as part of the stage set.
It took a full 20 years to complete the 11 major components that brought $20 million in public and private investments to Manteo. Between 1980 and 2006, the tax base increased a whopping 5,581 percent, from $11.2 million to $625.2 million. How does a town manage that kind of growth while preserving a sense of place? How can it make 5,000 visitors a day feel welcome while still making its 1,000 residents feel at home?
Professional planners claim that an involved citizenry is why Manteo’s plan has succeeded, where so many others fail. This renaissance of a once dying town is the result of a public/private planning initiative that drew on the expertise of NC State University School of Design, Professor Randolph T. Hester, and planner James Rouse’s American City Corporation. But more importantly, it drew on the dreams and imagination of town residents, who attended design charettes, were interviewed by students on their front porches, or who completed surveys asking what they would like their town to become.
Twenty years later, deserted streets were no longer the problem. In 2002, residents complained they couldn’t find a place to park, traffic on the main highway was backed up to the bridge on busy summer days, and gated communities elsewhere on the island seemed to fly in the face of townspeople’s motto, envisioning porch-lined streets and a public waterfront that functions as the town’s giant front porch.
As it had done in the past, town commissioners reached out to the School of Design for help. Once more, residents and business owners filled out surveys, attended meetings, and worked with students and professors to create a plan for the next 20 years. As they dreamed of the future, citizens recognized it was time to preserve important elements of the past.
Townspeople were especially concerned about plans to sell a large tract of land bordering Shallowbag Bay that had been in the same family since the 1860s. Would there be wall-to-wall condos? Would a gated community sit condescendingly across the street from some of the oldest houses in the town? Would the new development, nearly the same size as the historic downtown, overshadow a townscape that had changed little in 100 years?
The entire town breathed a collective sigh of relief when a group of local residents bought the property, and did the unthinkable. They asked townspeople to help plan the new development.
The site became a School of Design project, but planning didn’t stop there. How would the development relate to the historic downtown? To the proposed new campus of College of the Albemarle? To the everyday town center on the main highway? Were there opportunities for street connectivity to address traffic concerns? A new master plan for the entire town, with a major development designed within the heart of town, was adopted in 2005 as another example of public/private partnerships and citizen input.
Once plans were in place, the owners sold their interest to Kitty Hawk Land Company, with more than 50 years’ experience developing properties on the Outer Banks and beyond. In the summer of 2006, construction began on what is being marketed as Marshes Light, named for the screwpile lighthouse that lies just off the point. With a mixture of single- and multi-family homes, shops, and a waterfront inn, the new neighborhood is designed to be seamless with the historic waterfront.
Residents and guests at Marshes Light will be able to walk along the new boardwalk bordered by boat slips and a public park, then continue along the existing boardwalk. There, the Maritime Museum’s collection of traditional workboats forms the core of its “floating museum.” Residents can look out their windows and see which weather flag is flying atop the historic US Weather Bureau storm-warning tower. Standing watch over the sound is the reconstruction of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, part of the museum complex, and the Elizabeth II rides at anchor across the creek. Shops, restaurants, galleries, and marina slips will flank the boardwalk in both the old and new parts of town.
While you could walk from Marshes Light to Roanoke Island Festival Park in just five minutes, a slower pace is more inviting. On the way to a summer performance at the park’s outdoor pavilion, you can stop for various necessities, from a picnic basket to a bottle of wine to a take-out dinner. You can even buy a vintage tablecloth on which to spread your feast as you watch the evening’s performance of music, dance, or drama, with Roanoke Sound as the backdrop.
Across the street from Marshes Light is the new campus of the College of the Albemarle’s School of Professional Crafts. Just beyond is the everyday town center, where banks, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and other services are conveniently located.
A 10-minute drive takes you to the North Carolina Aquarium, Elizabethan Gardens, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, and Waterside Theatre, where Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green’s outdoor drama The Lost Colony has been performed for the past 70 years.
It’s easy to understand why Manteo was chosen as a 2007 recipient of the Preserve America Presidential Award, recognizing the town’s “preservation of cultural and natural heritage assets, and the integration of these assets into contemporary community life, using innovative approaches to showcasing its historic resources,” according to the award criteria.
Marshes Light exemplifies the spirit of that effort. Not only does Marshes Light look across to some of the oldest houses in the town, one of its most historic homes is incorporated into the new neighborhood. Undergoing a meticulous restoration is the home of William T. Brinkley, who operated a herring and shad fishery beginning in the 1860s, and whose descendants later turned to dairy farming, delivering bottled milk up and down the Outer Banks. Parts of the house date to the 1820s, while the house as it stands today dates to the 1880s or 90s, according to architectural historian Peter Sandbeck. It was Brinkley who encouraged his sister and brother-in-law, Rosa and John Evans, to come to Manteo in 1873 to help build up a town around the new county seat established three years earlier.
Mirroring the old part of town, the new neighborhood will include shops and restaurants, with residences above. Along Fernando Street, the dividing line between past and present, new single-family homes are a reflection of the vernacular style found just across the street. The master plan calls for higher density residences to be sited around the marina basin, providing a gradual increase in scale. The condominiums, townhouses, and flats provide expansive views across Roanoke Sound to Outer Banks beaches, just 10 minutes away.
Perhaps the most beautiful location within the 14-acre site is the point that overlooks the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and the Elizabeth II. There, the Inn at Marshes Light will bring overnight guests to patronize the town’s shops and restaurants.
Today, the town’s motto is “Preserve. Prosper.” Even as brand-new homes stand up against the skyline, the simple, fine lines of the old Brinkley house are being slowly revealed. The Elizabeth II recalls the audacious determination of those who crossed an ocean in search of a new life on Roanoke Island nearly 425 years ago. The beam of the lighthouse reassures, even as the storm-tower lights warn of a change in the weather. Children jump off the docks, as they always have. There are no gates to divide townspeople from one another—only a few more porches, overlooking a few new streets, where people can sit, and tell of the dreams they keep.