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MANSIONGlOBAL.COM — James Taylor’s Childhood Home Was a Ghost of Itself, Until a New York Couple Saved It

By Nancy Keates

In the song “Copperline,” James Taylor sings about the Morgan Creek neighborhood where he grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., lamenting the overdevelopment that has since changed the area. “I tried to go back, as if I could, all spec houses and plywood, tore up and tore up good,” the song goes.

The lyrics refer to “the McMansions speculators tend to drop everywhere,” Mr. Taylor explained in an email.

But thanks to its current owners, James Keith Brown, 60, a senior adviser at global-investment firm Coatue Management, and Eric G. Diefenbach, 63, an attorney, Mr. Taylor’s own childhood home still stands—and its lot of nearly 25 acres hasn’t become the site of a subdivision.

The couple, who are art collectors and museum supporters, bought the rundown, seven-bedroom, 3,172-square-foot, 1950s wood-and-glass Midcentury Modern home at an auction in July 2016 for $1.66 million. They then spent about $2 million on a restoration and renovation, finishing in the spring of 2021.

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“We thought it was important to preserve the legacy of the Taylors,” says Mr. Brown. “Besides, it’s a beautiful house.”

The home was the vision of Mr. Taylor’s mother, Gertrude “Trudy” Taylor. She took the lead in its design, Mr. Taylor says, and was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Eric G. Diefenbach, 63, an attorney and art collector, and James Keith Brown, 60, a senior adviser at global-investment firm Coatue Management, bought the house in an auction in July 2016.
Kate Thompson for The Wall Street Journal
“Designing, building, decorating and landscaping that house was her creative outlet,” he says of his mother. “The house was a declaration of her uniqueness and, by association, our otherness. I remember being proud of it.”

The fundamental aim of the renovation is to honor the original design, says Matthew Griffith, a founding principal of a Raleigh-based architecture practice called in situ studio. Mr. Griffith says his firm focused on making the house “how it was supposed to be,” by uniting the work of its original architects: the celebrated Midcentury Modernist George Matsumoto, then the dean of the School of Design at North Carolina State University, and renowned Durham architect John Latimer.

Mr. Griffith says they didn’t change the footprint of the main two-story structure, focusing instead on creating a cohesion between the front and back by redoing the siding and windows, and adding skylights. They reworked the floor plan to make it a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house by breaking up some rooms and expanding others.

Outside, a partial deck was made to wrap around the whole house. An existing guesthouse, which was prefabricated, was replaced with a 786-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom custom-built version with a family room and a kitchen that mimics the one in the main house. A swimming pool and a pool house was added to one side of the yard.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Diefenbach live in a prewar co-op on West 72nd Street in Manhattan, which they created out of three apartments and filled with art, including works by Franz Ackermann and Olafur Eliasson. The couple also owns an 8,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom, art-filled modern house on 11 acres in Ridgefield, Conn., where Mr. Diefenbach is on the board of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Mr. Diefenbach says updating and reusing beautiful vintage architecture was one appeal of restoring the Taylor home. “We had been looking for another platform for art and the house was ideal,” he says.

Another impetus for buying the house was to be close to family, says Mr. Brown, who grew up in Siler City, where his mother still lives. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1984, where he has served on numerous boards and committees. They have 36 nieces and nephews, 16 of whom live near the Morgan Creek house. Mr. Brown says he has happy memories of North Carolina and missed being close to his relatives.

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When the home went up for a sealed-bid auction in 2016, it was in bad shape, with termite damage and a dilapidated roof, says Sarah Sonke, owner of ModHomes Realty and AuctionFirst, who took this photo of James Taylor’s initials carved in a wood railing.
MidHomes Realty and AuctionFirst
Mr. Taylor’s memories of growing up in North Carolina are more ambiguous. His family moved from Boston to Chapel Hill in 1951 when his father, Isaac “Ike” Taylor, a Harvard-trained physician, accepted a position with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But just when the house was finished, around 1955, his father volunteered to be a medical officer for the Navy in Antarctica. During his two years there, Trudy Taylor became increasingly alienated from the politics and culture of North Carolina, which became a “major dynamic in all of our lives,” Mr. Taylor says.

“She refused to put down roots and constantly impressed upon us the idea that civilized life was elsewhere (to the north),” he says. “Her constant, epic work of tending and shaping the landscape around the house was not only her labor of love but a fierce proclamation of her unique independence. We got it.”

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Ike Taylor returned to North Carolina from Antarctica an alcoholic, straining his marriage and his relationship with his children, Mr. Taylor recounts in his audio memoir, “Break Shot: My First 21 Years.” His parents divorced and sold the house in 1974.

When the home went up for a sealed-bid auction in June 2016, it was in bad shape, with termite damage and a dilapidated roof, says Sarah Sonke, owner of ModHomes Realty and AuctionFirst. She says the house had been vacant for some time but wasn’t officially on the market; developers were aware of it and had made lowball offers with the intent to take down the home to build multifamily units. Ms. Sonke says she was hired by the seller, whose parents had been living there before they died, to find a buyer who would keep the house and property intact.

George Smart, the executive director of NCModernist, a nonprofit that documents preserves, and promotes modern architecture in North Carolina, organized a tour of the house before the auction that attracted some 1,300 people, including many who wanted to play guitar on the deck. Ms. Sonke said locals stopped by with stories and memories about the Taylor family.

Musician and artist Kate Taylor, Mr. Taylor’s sister, says she is grateful for the restoration. The home was instrumental in her development and that of her siblings, including James, Livingston, Hugh and Alex, who died in 1993, says Ms. Taylor.

Trudy Taylor let the kids “run and roam” on the property, encouraging them to play music and make art: “It was an ideal breeding ground for creativity,” she says. “Looking back on it now, I can see that it was extraordinary.”