A Bridge To Sigh For: Venetian Design Inspires Stone Span

 

Stone bridge, 18' x 6', with elliptical arch

THE CHALLENGE - Because its front yard plunged nearly eight feet down from the street level on two sides, this house had no front walkway and a hard-to-find-front door. The overgrown front yard featured 60-year-old boxwoods, slouching dry-stack walls, a crumbling stone wall on the street, and a creek that sliced through it all. Flowers were out of the question.

THE SOLUTION - A bridge modeled after the legendary Bridge of Sighs in Venice  [Well no, but the arches are similar. - J.V.] formed the organizing structure for the new design. This solved the problem of the creek and lack of access to the front door. Additional structures included a retaining wall, steps from the street, a terraced flower bed and a landing at the base of the front steps.

THE ACTORS - Homeowners Jack Nichols and Carol Spruill; stone mason Joe Valles (backstory).

THE STORY - When Jack Nichols and Carol Spruill bought their house near Five Points in Raleigh in 1978, they faced the charms and challenges of owning an older home. Built in 1923, the stone house had all the typical troubles: "A crummy kitchen and an overgrown yard, for starters," Nichols says with a laugh. "The front yard was horribly overgrown, but I liked it. It reminded me of the mountains. Even nice things were overgrown," Spruill adds. "You couldn't even see the street." The yard was an amalgamation of moss and English ivy.

Nichols and Spruill knew that the front yard needed help, lots of it. Plus they had their own ideas and dreams. Their house sits on a corner lot, on a knoll. Because the front yard plunges downward nearly eight feet from both the left side and front streets, the builder put a walkway leading from the front door to the street on the right side of the house.

New granite retaining wall

The result? Visitors couldn't easily find the front door. Moreover, the overgrown boxwoods lining the walk were close to toppling over into the front yard.  That wasn't all. The original dry-stack stone walls that reinforced slopes needed repair.

A low stone wall running the length of the side street needed work. And Spruill wanted some space for flowers. Finally, a bridge over the creek that meandered across the front yard was needed if Spruill were to realize her vision of a front walkway. 

Nichols and Spruill wanted to use the same kind of stone as their house so that when everything was done, all the structures would blend. This requirement lent suspense to the project, since the quarries where the stone came from in the 1920's are now home to the Harris Teeter on Glenwood Avenue and to Crowley's on Dixie Trail. 

Not long after buying their home, Nichols and Spruill lucked into 20 tons of stone. A nearby house, built of the same stone, was being remodeled. Nichols bought the unused stone and stored it in his driveway until time came for the couple to focus on their yard.

 
"But with nooks and crannies for flowers, reclaimed air space for an arching 15-foot rhododendron and a Bridge of Sighs to boot -- the yard is on its way to being a work of art."

 

"I'm not sure exactly how long I had it -- maybe 10 to 12 years -- but I knew I would one day be glad I had it," he says. When that day arrived, Nichols and Spruill found Joe Valles, operator of European Stone Masonry, through landscaper Charles Dobbins.

Valles, a casualty of closing steel mills in Pittsburgh, learned the art of stone masonry and came to the Triangle in 1984 to launch his business. His father was a brick mason, and his grandfather (photo), an immigrant from Italy, a stone mason.

Steps leading from street to bridge

Was there a detailed plan? Not one that was, well, cast in stone. "I knew generally what I wanted,"  Spruill explains. "And we knew the problems we needed to solve, but we had to figure out the lines and angles as we went along. That's why it took us so long. There was a lot of collaboration."
 
Valles started with the retaining wall to support the boxwoods. It is a massive wall, one that Nichols and Spruill and Valles agree saved a big tree just outside the house when Hurricane Fran stormed through. "The weight of the wall kept the tree from falling over," Nichols says. "But you can see where the sidewalk cracked as the tree tried to fall."

Steps and bridge spanning creek

And during the storm, Valles worried about the wall. Would it survive or would it be smashed? "I was over here at first light to check," he says with a laugh. After building the wall, Valles added a terraced flower bed and, realizing Spruill's vision, concocted a planter where the new retaining wall joined the original stone wall. Along the way he repaired the original stone wall.

Fran contributed by clearing the overgrown yard. With several trees down, Nichols and Spruill could see where to place the bridge. Valles, inspired by the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, decided to build a replica.

"It was the first bridge I'd ever built," he says. It took him four months. To design the arch of the bridge, Valles drew and redrew a replica of the bridge on the sidewalk with chalk, making sure the span was just right. "I'd be down there working in all kinds of weather. When it rained, I could hear the creek rising."

Because the Wake County granite was a finite resource, Valles conserved it by using stone from the Western Boulevard Extension project underneath the bridge. Next came the steps leading from the front walk and street down in the yard. The steps curve to the left ever so slightly. "Not only that," Valles adds, "but the yard is not parallel to the street and the creek meanders across the yards, so to get everything lined up we had to draw and redraw the lines." 

Landing and walkway to front door

Once the bridge and steps were finished, Valles turned his attention to the stone landing coming down from the front door. "This was an afterthought, but as the project came together we knew we needed it," Nichols says. Finally, with the major structures in place, Valles connected them with stone walkways.
 
Then, with only four feet remaining, Valles ran out of stone. But good luck prevailed again."Eventually I found the stone," Valles says. "A house in Cary built with the same stone was being remodeled, and once again, not all of the stone was used. We got it." Did they ever grow weary of the project?

"Thankfully, it was outside, and when I needed to, I pretended that it was someone else's yard," Spruill says. And yes, Valles became a fixture in the neighborhood as much as any resident. "I was always here," he says -- from before Hurricane Fran struck in September 1996 until the last walkway was finished in 1998. Today, without his pickup parked curbside, some neighbors say the street feels empty.

"We're not finished yet," says Spruill. "It's hard to look at the yard and not see the challenges that remain." Well, that may be. But with nooks and crannies for flowers, reclaimed air space for an arching 15-foot rhododendron and a Bridge of Sighs to boot -- the yard is on its way to being a work of art.

This article appeared in the The News & Observer on February 27, 1999 and is republished here with permission by correspondent and author, Lynn Setzer.