Strange Tales of Duke Mansion

Before Charlotte became the Mecca of towering corporate fiefdoms and a world class city, it was the home of many eccentric citizens who failed to conform to customary behavior patterns. As a native of Charlotte, I was fortunate to have known a few of them.

These eccentric, odd, quaint and unique citizens are the foundation of Charlotte. Without them, Charlotte could not be the mighty city it is today. I hold the memories of them in my heart. They gave me laughter.

The esteem I hold for the city is built upon my acquaintance with these marvelous folks. Before they are forgotten in the busyness of life, it is time to recall how they shaped and anchored Charlotte preparing it for the future.

One couple I remember fondly, Claire and William (Bill) Allen, were the essence of quaint. In 1976, they rescued the Duke Mansion from what could have been a dire fate. If they had not stepped forward and purchased this magnificent mansion, it could have faced destruction.

Today, it is in the safe hands of the Lynnwood Foundation which is dedicated to maintaining and preserving this national historic site as a unique meeting facility and community gathering place.

In the 1970s, we lost many historic homes, but fortunately, the Allens set the mansion on a path of restoration. Once they occupied the mansion the Allens lived in a manner befitting the history of the home.

In order to understand how Claire and Bill were at that time the perfect owners of the mansion and lived up to the unique and eccentric heritage of the mansion we must explore the history of the Duke Mansion. The story begins with a father, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who doted on his daughter, Doris.

Step back in time to the era when it was possible to acquire vast fortunes. Buck Duke had accomplished this feat, when he built the Duke Mansion, he owned homes in Manhattan, Newport, and New Jersey. When he added the Duke Mansion to his list of homes it was with the intention of providing six-year-old, daughter, Doris with a genteel southern upbringing. He purchased what was then known as Lynnwood, an eight year old estate at 400 Hermitage Rd., in Charlotte’s prestigious new neighborhood known as Myers Park. However, as with the “best laid plans,” things went awry.

Business also brought him to the area, he needed to be close to the operations of his hydro-electric power company – today’s Duke Energy company — but his prime motivation in buying Lynnwood was to give Doris the benefit of growing up in his native North Carolina. Duke purchased parcels of land surrounding the estate between 1919 and 1922 transforming the already substantial home into a majestic mansion of 45 rooms and 12 baths. The Duke Mansion was the first of many grand homes in Charlotte designed in the Neo-Colonial style.

In the front lawn of the estate, as the crowning jewel, Buck installed a fountain that sent plumes of water as high as 150 feet, and was quite a local attraction. The fountain, his car, a Rolls-Royce, and his daughter, Doris, were his pride and joy.

Fountain View Street is off East Blvd. was so named because it afforded a view of the water spires from the Duke Mansion fountain.

However, Mrs. Buck Duke, the former Nanaline Holt Inman of Macon, Georgia, preferred her residence on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to the quiet righteousness of Charlotte. I guess back then it could be said that “what happened in New York stayed in New York.” Often when her mother traveled to New York, Doris remained behind with her father and received part of her early education at a private school in Charlotte.

But in 1925, when Doris was 12 years old, Buck Duke died. Quickly, Nanaline Duke sold Lynnwood to C. C. Coddington, a car dealer, and thus deprived Doris of the southern upbringing her devoted father had desired. Possibly, it is not a stretch to say that if Doris had remained in Charlotte her life could have been happier, but instead Doris married twice unsuccessfully and in the end, it was her final relationship with her bizarre butler, Bernard Lafferty, who wore his hair in a pony tail and catered to her every wish.

Except, unfortunately, he was accused of hastening her demise with a fatal overdose of morphine and Demerol — but not before she changed her will leaving her estate to him. Three years after Doris Duke died, Lafferty himself passed away, prompting an amusingly morbid tale in the in the Los Angeles press. Prior to his death, Bernard had agreed to a series of interviews with a reporter, but died rather inconveniently before the interviews were complete. The reporter resorted to a medium who contacted Lafferty on the “other side.” When asked if he ever say Doris in heaven, Lafferty replied that he did see her, but only from a distance because she was in a section reserved for the rich and famous. So apparently, you can take it with you.

The Duke Mansion is also haunted by Jon Avery who briefly owned the home. The story goes that his wife was permanently hospitalized due to mental illness; and during his tenure in the mansion he fell deeply in love with another woman. But his love was unrequited. One fateful night the woman, accompanied by a friend, went to the mansion to break off the relationship. When they opened the front door Jon Avery walked past them and spoke the words, “Dead or Alive.” Unknown to them, Avery had died a few days before due to an illness.

In 1929, the mansion was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Martin L. Cannon, one of the 10 children of James Cannon, founder of Concord’s Cannon Mills fortune. The Cannon’s named the home, “White Oaks.” (John F. Kennedy, the future president, attended their daughter’s wedding here in 1940.) Mr. and Mrs. Henry Lineberger of Belmont bought the mansion in 1957. In 1966, the house was almost destroyed by a fire, after which the Linebergers did an extensive restoration. After the death of Henry Lineberger, in 1976, the mansion entered its White Elephant stage.

It was around this time that my friends, Claire and Bill Allen bought the mansion for approximately $250,000, which was a steal for a 45-room home, even then. They moved into the main part of the house with their five dogs and many cats. Bill often told me that he owned the last dog in America named Rover and he adored the dog and all the other animals. In truth, they made PETA look timid.

At that time, I lived on Huntley Place, a street beside Myers Park Hardware. Before the home was purchased by the Allens, my children and many neighborhood children played about the lawns of the mansion. They hid in a hollow of an old oak tree that stood in the front lawn and played hide and seek around and about the house.

It was on a Sunday afternoon when the Allens had moved into the mansion when I was in search of my yellow striped cat, Beowulf, that I was to make their acquaintance.

When I knocked on the door and asked if I could search their premises for Beowulf, Claire gave me permission for the search and invited me inside for a drink. I found Beowulf; and eagerly returned to the mansion. When I arrived it was time to feed Claire’s favorite cat, whose name now escapes me, but the cat and its feeding was memorable. The poor cat had suffered a stroke and was physically challenged. Like Beowulf, he was a sweet yellow striped cat, but resulting from the stroke, he would list to the left and, mostly, walked in circles. She fed him in the enormous kitchen where many servants had once sliced and diced vegetables while preparing large meals on a huge chopping block; if the chopping block had been a table, it would have seated twelve guests. A brass foot railing ran along the bottom of the solid wooden block.

When it was time to feed the cat, Claire would carefully lift him up to the top of the block and set a plate of tuna in the middle of the chopping block. They had so many animals this was the only way the cat could eat in peace. Then we would sit nearby at a small table drinking cocktails while keeping close watch on the cat– listing to the left, circling the tuna until by fate and fortune he located his meal. Under Claire’s watchful gaze, the cat never toppled off, but it usually took him four to six long minutes before he bumped into his meal. He lived out his days on a circular journey to being well-fed.

Sunday cocktails with Claire and Bill became a habit. Their story was very romantic. When they were very young, Bill had fallen in love with Claire who was an opera singer. Once again, if memory serves me correctly, it was her leading role in the opera, Madame Butterfly, which stoked the flame of love in Bill’s heart. Many years later, when Claire returned from her operatic career in New York City, Bill was a widower. After a chance meeting, and a short courtship, they were married.

Often cocktails led into dinner; a short Sunday afternoon visit with them would often extended for hours; by the time the subject of dinner rolled around, the main course was still frozen. By the time dinner was ready, I often walked to dinner as unsteadily as Claire’s cat.

During my visits I met many other quaint citizens of Charlotte; one of them was a fiftyish female attorney who bragged to me that she had never lost a rape case. Later, I discovered that she always represented the accused (males). She was, however, a delightful guest. Her stories were always entertaining and very humorous, but she scared me.

However, during one Sunday dinner, she saved my life. Someone had said something funny; I laughed causing me to choke on a piece of steak. She jerked me up, slapped my back determinedly and dislodged the steak. Afterward, she admonished me that it would have been extremely rude of me to die during dinner; the fact being, the great tragedy of Bill’s life was that his first wife had choked to death during a meal at a dinner theatre. I am forever grateful to her that my death did not coincide with my final faux pas.

They also rented out sections of the house as apartments to an ever-changing array of tenants. Their occupant renters were sometimes unique. One couple, of whom they were very fond, was eagerly waiting on FDA approval of a patent for an invention that we now know as Krab. It is seen today in most grocery stores and some restaurants. I hope, somewhere, they are carrying on in the art of fine living in the tradition of Claire and Bill Allen.

The Allens loved to entertain and I enjoyed many lively parties there. During one party two of my friends, who shall remain nameless, stopped by looking for me after I had already departed. The next day, Claire reported to me that some of my motorcycle friends had stopped by and they were very delightful.

My favorite memory of those days is a Scottish themed party. They hired a bagpipe band and Scottish attire for the guests was encouraged. It was a beautiful site to see: about fifteen men in swinging plaid kilts marching down the large hallway escorted by five tail-wagging, barking dogs towards the living room. By request, undaunted by the barking, the bagpipers and entourage were to repeat their march several times. It was a night the Allens recalled with pride.

One of my last parties at the mansion was during the week-long festivities of the premier of the NASCAR movie, “Stroker Ace,” which starred Burt Reynolds. The Allens invited the guests for lunch where they were fed a traditional southern meal complete with fried chicken, potato salad, black-eyed peas, greens and many other traditional native dishes. Tea and Bloody Marys were served in blue mason jars. The meal was prepared by Ellen Davis who now owns the McNinch House, one of Charlotte’s finest restaurants. The Fincannon brothers, Craig and Mark, who are now extremely successful movie casting agents, sent invitations to the cast. It was a star-studded occasion. Jon Ponder and I were in charge of arranging the party and specifically, to oversee that the Allens would be standing when the guests departed. However, I am not sure any of us were totally vertical when the last guest departed. What I am sure of, to this day, is everyone involved recalls the flowing hospitality of the effervescent Allens.

Jim Nabors, one of the cast members, attended the party and arrived early to request a tour of the home. Jim Nabors, you may recall, played Gomer Pyle on the “Andy Griffith Show.” He was then a neighbor of Doris Duke in Honolulu. Doris had regaled him with stories of her youth in the mansion. She had specifically asked him to visit the mansion.

Unlike Doris Duke, the story of the Duke Mansion has a happy ending. It was later divided into condos, and eventually rescued by Rick and Dee Ray, owners of the Raycom media company. With Duke Power and others, they set up the Lynwood Foundation. They even have the fountain working again…

Ed’s note: Jon Ponder, my former partner in the now-defunct, but still imfamous, advertising agency, Haley, Garland & Lahr, assisted in the writing and complilation of this article. We probably made unintentional mistakes in our recollection of those days. But, that is to be expected. Jon lives in West Hollywood, but he still calls Charlotte his hometown.

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