The artful life of Eliza Kraft Olander

Giant whirligigs by North Carolina artist Vollis Simpson dot a meadow at Olander’s 55-acre North Raleigh retreat.

by Liza Roberts

photographs by Jimmy Williams

Her friends joke that they should have their passports stamped when they enter Eliza Kraft Olander’s universe. It’s not hard to see why. She lives in a world of another kind.

It’s a place where whimsy and sophistication live side-by-side. Where gigantic Dr. Seuss-style flower sculptures bloom, and Thomas Sayre earth castings tower out of a sweeping meadow. Where a life-sized T. rex made of scrap metal glowers across a graceful, winding driveway, and classical statuary adorns a rose garden.

Here, a geometrically precise meditation maze is painstakingly mowed into a shady field, 20-foot whirligigs spin in the wind, and a chicken coop looks for all the world like a tiny Chartres Cathedral.

Edgar Allan Poe’s own gothic bookcase lives here, under the same roof as a sparkling, amethyst-encrusted fireplace inspired by a dream. So do works of art by Picasso and Chagall, and dazzling chandeliers made just for Olander by the artist Jay Strongwater.

Art of all sorts is clearly at home here, and it’s a good place to be a plant, too. She babies many carefully tended gardens where weeds are sometimes considered an unexpected gift, and where sculptures made from oil cans peek from behind the hydrangeas.

In Olander’s world, there are no rules. The high, the low, and the fanciful live happily side-by-side, bound by one thing: Olander is charmed by all of it, and she wants you to be, too.

Olander’s world is substantial in size – 55 North Raleigh acres – as well as in scope, encompassing the universes not only of art and gardening, but also philanthropy, music, wine connoisseurship, and an ever-expanding circle of friends and admirers.

They all come to her, and why not? There is always something to see and something brewing at Olander’s. It usually involves wine and fundraising.

Olander personally gives more than $1 million to charity every year, and she raises more, often with events at her home. “Charitable work is my heart and soul,” she says.

She is the force behind the Triangle Wine Experience, a wine event and auction that has raised millions for Raleigh’s Frankie Lemmon School for children with developmental disabilities. She and the chef Ashley Christensen, a close friend, have together raised more than $1 million for various charities in the last decade through wine and food events, Olander says.

She has also had a vital role in turning Raleigh’s Band Together into the fundraising juggernaut it is today, raising more than $500,000 a year for local nonprofits. Also a longtime and substantial supporter of the YMCA, Olander is proud to point out that the Kraft Family YMCA in Apex is named in honor of her parents.

Olander has the resources to give because she earned them. Together with her former husband, Michael Olander, Eliza created a $100-million restaurant business of Applebee’s and Burger King franchises. Now, with beau Brian McHenry by her side, Olander devotes herself to giving back. It’s a way of living that began 15 years ago, Olander says, when she took stock of her life.

“I researched who I was, what I had done. And I realized that I had been in the right place at the right time. I fell into building a really good business and living like I do today. So I had to ask myself: When you die, who have you loved, and who has loved you? Do you leave behind something that does good? Or are you just moving forward without thinking? I decided I had to accomplish things on purpose. I realized that my mission in life was to help others. It had to be that way.”