By AMANDA J. MILLER / Staff
©The Atlanta Journal - Constitution
The bowels of the Duke Mansion once had space for 14 cars.
When James Buchanan "Buck" Duke owned the place in the early 1920s, it was outfitted with a carwash, auto service area and gas pump, though it's doubtful that the founder of American Tobacco Co. and Duke Power, for whom Duke University is named, filled his own tank.
Living like the rich and famous on an overnight trip, we thought it too common to ask.
Well, actually, we were in one of the lowest-priced rooms of the 20 in the mansion, formally known as the Duke Mansion Historic Inn and Meeting Place, now a bed-and-breakfast and corporate retreat.
But even in a third-floor, dormer-window "treetop room," only large enough for a queen bed, desk, easy chair and TV, we felt as special as the guests staying in the Dukes' former spacious bedrooms, with their king beds and French doors leading to private screened sleeping porches. Perhaps even as privileged as the guests in the best room in the house --- the one honeymooners choose --- not only spacious with a king bed, but also with a Roman spa tub and shower for two.
Though the Dukes and their daughter Doris slept in grander quarters than we did in this 32,000-square-foot home, they walked the same beautiful grounds. And perhaps felt the same sense of peace visitors do today.
Their old homeplace was built in Colonial Revival style in 1915 by Zeb Taylor, but Buck Duke tripled its size. The home has changed hands several times since Duke died in 1925, and its grounds have shrunk from 14 acres to 4.5. At one time, the home was split into condominiums, but it was rescued by Rick and Dee Ray, founders of Raycom Sports, in 1989. They restored it, and eventually sold it to the Lynnwood Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that has maintained the home since 1996.
The home, on the National Register of Historic Places, welcomes corporate gatherings, charity functions, family reunions, business travelers or couples and families looking for a special getaway. The inn is operated as a nonprofit with all of the proceeds being used to preserve it.
The mansion is a monument to elegant and lavish living, with a staff worthy of its mega-rich former owners:
- A houseman, polishing the marble entryway when we checked in, recommended we stroll the grounds and the surrounding neighborhood of upscale homes set amid giant trees surrounding Myers Park. Within walking distance are antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, clothing boutiques and restaurants. The mansion is two miles from uptown Charlotte and four miles from Southpark Mall.
- The afternoon desk clerk overheard us oohing over the chandeliered ballroom, big enough to accommodate 100, and lamenting that we couldn't try it out. He popped a CD into the room's elaborate stereo system and left us to our private dancing.
- A staffer serving cocktails to lawyers gathered for a corporate retreat
- in the mansion's solarium asked if we'd like one, then suggested we might enjoy it in the library, where games and videos are available to guests.
- The night desk clerk discussed the merits of several restaurants in all price ranges for our evening meal. We opted for the Providence Cafe, a trendy restaurant with an eclectic selection and fun atmosphere, because it was within walking distance. (Try the grilled yellowfin tuna with a honey tamari glaze, Asian slaw and jasmine rice cake, and steamed broccoli for $16.95, or slow-roasted prime rib with whipped red potatoes and steamed asparagus, with au jus and horsey sauce, petit $15.95, or large $18.95.)
- Groundskeeper John Neville took us on a tour of the estate, showing us the 14-car basement and the flowers, shrubs and trees he tends, including a tulip poplar that is one of the historic Treasure Trees in Mecklenburg County. Neville also grows a garden for executive chef John Morey. Heirloom tomatoes, squash, spinach, eggplant and other vegetables and herbs go straight from the garden into dishes prepared for group functions and for breakfasts. In spring and summer, a packet of herbs from Neville's garden is placed in each guest room, along with a recipe.
- Dan and Delia McMullen of Charlotte were celebrating their 12th anniversary the same weekend we visited with an overnight getaway from their 6- and 8-year-olds. We shared a table in the library for a full, any-way-you-want-it breakfast --- pancakes, waffles, eggs Benedict, eggs-over-easy, omelets, cottage fries, fruit, a dizzying array of choices, plus wonderful cheddar biscuits.
The McMullens had stayed in a second-floor room that was originally part of the home's guest wing, and toasted their anniversary with gin and tonics on their screened porch.
"On our honeymoon in Barbados, we drank gin and tonics on our balcony, so this was a nice reminder of that time," Delia McMullen said later. "It was a perfect retreat within our own city and a special way to celebrate our 12th anniversary. We truly felt like we were guests in an elegant Southern home."
Just the way the Dukes, who were noted for their hospitality, would have wanted.
IF YOU GO
Charlotte is about 240 miles from downtown Atlanta, about a 3 1/2- to four-hour drive. Take I-85 north to Exit 34, N.C. 27 east toward downtown. To visit the Duke Mansion, merge onto Freedom Drive, which becomes South Clarkson Street; then merge onto I-277 north/U.S. 74 east and take the 2A Exit (N.C. 16 South/Kenilworth Avenue/Third Street/Fourth Street); take the Kenilworth Avenue ramp and turn right, then left on East Morehead Street, which becomes Queens Road. Turn left onto South Edgehill Road to Hermitage Road. Information
The Duke Mansion, 400 Hermitage Road, Charlotte, NC 28207.
1.888.202.1009; www.dukemansion.com. Rates $169-$249, includes full breakfast; rooms have fine linens and robes, a dedicated data port, personal voice-mail, and a television with a VCR; 24-hour front desk; accessible rooms for people with disabilities; entire inn is nonsmoking. Check for spring and summer specials; when we visited in July, our room was $125.
Providence Cafe, 110 Perrin Place, Charlotte, NC 28207. 704-376-2008;
www.providencecafe.com. Appetizers $2.50-$10.95; salads, $5.50-$9.95; entrees, $13.95-$21.95; desserts, $4.95; extensive wine list, speciality martinis and specialty coffees.
Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau, 500 S. College St. Suite 300,
Charlotte, NC 28202. 800.722.1994; www.charlottecvb.org