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Better Home, Better Garden

Bob and Sylvia Ray’s home is the essence of a historic Haymount showplace – stately architectural lines, beautiful grounds that include a not-so-secret garden and a past linked to a fascinating woman who claimed “first lady of the land” status.

The house stands an imposing two-and-a-half stories high on the corner of Hillside Avenue and Brandt Lane, in the heart of the Haymount National Register District. Listed on the Fayetteville Historic Property Register, it was built by Mrs. Adeline Burr Davis Green, who was twice married to men of national prominence. Construction began in 1911. When it reaches its 100th birthday in a few years, there will be a big party to celebrate, Bob Ray said.

When Sylvia Ray discovered the house on the market, the large tulip tree in the side yard was in full bloom, she recalled. It is still among the first of the old trees and shrubs on the property to flower as spring approaches. She loved the charm of the older home, having grown up in a similar house in Kenansville.

“We were committed to living in Haymount,” she said, “and we loved the street.”

So, in 1976 at a time when many young families were choosing new subdivisions, the Rays and their two small children moved into the house, taking on not only its charm but its challenges.

More significant than its architectural importance is the home’s connection to the fascinating Mrs. Green, Bob said. She lived in the house until her death in 1931.

A native of Como, Ill., Adeline Burr was first married to David Davis, also from Illinois and for 15 years an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been nominated by his close friend Abraham Lincoln. Davis was administrator of Lincoln’s estate. He resigned from the bench to run successfully for the U.S. Senate in 1876. When Chester A. Arthur, a widower, became president in 1881 after the assassination of President Garfield, Davis, as president of the Senate, became acting vice president.

Also a widower, he proposed to Adeline in 1882. She agreed to marry him after he left public life, and he resigned from the Senate on March 3, 1883. President Arthur was among those sending letters of congratulations and gifts to the couple.

The wedding took place in Fayetteville on March 14, 1883, at Tokay, the home of Col. Wharton Green and his wife, Esther. Tokay was an estate with a large vineyard north of the town. Adeline, or Addie as she was also known, was 40, and her groom was 68.

As a young girl, Adeline became the companion of her well-to-do and socially prominent aunt, also named Adeline. They traveled widely, spending summers at White Sulphur Springs and Saratoga Springs and winters in Boston, New York City and Washington. It was during those travels that Adeline met her future husband. The two ladies often stayed at Tokay for extended periods. Esther, who was in poor health, was the older Adeline’s daughter from her first marriage, and Wharton was the son of her second husband, Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green.

The marriage of the prominent Judge Davis to the charming Miss Burr attracted a great deal of interest in Fayetteville as well as nationally. The New York Times sent a reporter to Fayetteville, and he wrote a detailed account of the event.

Although no record has been found to show that Adeline actually served as first lady, it seems to have been accepted as fact in Fayetteville. In her obituary in The Fayetteville Observer, she was described as “at one time the First Lady of the land” for President Arthur. It further states, “It is related that President Arthur wished her to preside over the White House and that she was the only woman who ever declined that honor.”

The Davises made their home in Bloomington, Ill., where the judge died on June 26, 1886, just three years after his marriage to Adeline. Wharton Green’s wife had died in June of 1883. Green, who had won a seat in Congress in 1882, and Adeline were married on Oct. 29, 1888, at Tokay in the same parlor where she wed Judge Davis. Green, who fought in the Civil War, served two terms in Congress. It’s said that he developed Tokay into the largest vineyard this side of the Rocky Mountains. He died in 1910.

Adeline was an interesting personality even without the title, and it’s well documented that she was admired by many distinguished people in her lifetime. She was the subject of a thesis written in 1959 by Jane Stroud Mellon, who was working toward a Master of Arts degree at Duke University. She wrote: “Few people in Fayetteville, North Carolina, remember Adeline Burr Davis Green. She does not deserve oblivion. Illinois-born and forty-three years a citizen of North Carolina, she was a beautiful and intelligent woman.”

Taking on the renovation of the house, which by 1976 was in a state of disrepair, was “a massive project, but a project of love,” said Bob. “An old house constantly has issues.”

The Rays maintained original features including the mantels and tile around the fireplaces, which still provide cozy warmth on cold days. The house is heated by the original radiators. The family lived in the house for nine years before air-conditioning was installed, but the high ceilings and shady exterior helped against the summer heat.

Brass light fixtures, originally gaslights, had become black with age and were taken down and cleaned to a beautiful finish. In the living room, the windows have been left unadorned to reveal the beauty of the old glass and to keep the view of the outside unobstructed. Traditional furnishings and antiques, some from Sylvia’s home in Kenansville, fill the spacious rooms.

Surrounded by an open-work brick fence, the grounds abound with camellias, boxwood and other old plants and trees. Among them is an American elm, said by an arborist to be the second largest in Fayetteville.

Although Bob, a lawyer, left the renovation of the house up to the pros – “I’m not very handy,” he said – he finds relaxation in planting and working in the beautiful garden at the rear of the house. “I don’t play golf and have no hobbies outside of work,” he said. “It keeps me out of trouble and gives me something to do.” Sylvia, who is director of the Women’s Center of Fayetteville, agrees that the garden is primarily her husband’s project.

The bones of the garden were in place when the couple bought the property, but it had become overgrown with “incredibly hardy and invasive plants,” Bob said. It is believed the formal walkways and the sandstone wall were designed by Fayetteville landscaper Gordon Butler during the 1940s when the William Griffin family lived there.

Although bloom begins in late winter with daffodils and other flowering bulbs, it is primarily a summer garden, peaking in May and June with a colorful burst of annuals and perennials. “I like color in the garden,” Bob said. He has found inspiration in visits to gardens throughout the world, and among his favorites is Sissinghurst Castle Garden. He likes that concept of “great informality within the formality of the walkways.” Irises, he said, are perhaps his favorite flower, and they are planted in abundance in the beds along with daylilies, another favorite, coleus, and a variety of other plants.

When the garden is in full bloom, the Rays often put out the “welcome” sign on the Brandt Lane gate. One day, as he was looking over the garden, Bob overheard a young man proposing to his girlfriend. Bob quickly retreated to give the couple privacy.

“We’re always happy for people to visit,” he said.