by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Travis Long
Maybe Boylan Heights owes its creative spirit to close quarters. Living there means knowing one’s neighbors, and those neighbors tend to be creative types with eclectic interests. The neighborhood, which spans just six blocks, is a peninsula of habitability bordered to the west by Central Prison, to the south by the traffic of Western Boulevard, and to the north by a set of train tracks, traversed by the Boylan Avenue Bridge.
On pleasant evenings, folks sit on the deep porches of bungalows, old Victorians, and cedar shingled cottages on narrow lots, or stroll the sidewalks beneath tunnels of mature crepe myrtles and gnarled oaks. A few weeks before Christmas, these porches become temporary galleries and shops during the annual Boylan Heights ArtWalk.
But the artistic vibe buzzes throughout the year, particularly in the small shops and galleries that rim the residential core. The most active is Rebus Works, a gallery and framing studio beside the bridge that also serves as the venue for a farmers’ market, food truck rodeos, and pay-by-donation yoga classes. And on the other side of the neighborhood, on Dupont Circle, is a strip of industrial buildings where a handful of craftsmen stay quietly busy at the furniture and woodworking business of Eidolon Designs.
When design achieves elegance, the fingerprints of its architect all but disappear, remaining visible to only the keenest eyes. For the couple behind Eidolon Designs, the achievement of this elegance has become second nature, fueled by the balance they strike in both their personal and professional lives.
It is manifested in a wide range of their creations – from the intricate millwork of The Raleigh Times’ restaurant and bar’s restored façade downtown, to a glowing cantilevered desk that seems to float in the lobby of the Grifols pharmaceutical company’s new RTP office. Mike Parker and Ann Cowperthwaite have mastered the art of turning clients’ wildest dreams into masterpieces that make imagination not only tangible but also functional.
“Everything we do requires special attention to the details for the space, for the function and for the style of the client,” Parker says.
All of these projects come together in 4,000 square feet of studio space tucked into a strip of industrial buildings on the edge of Boylan Heights. The old neighborhood rises to the shop’s back while downtown Raleigh’s growing skyline stands before it.
“The city – you open the door, and there it is,” Parker said.
The studio space is also where Parker and Cowperthwaite came together. Their partnership was sparked and bolstered by the community where it began, amid the entrepreneurs, artisans and neighbors who give Boylan Heights its singular character.
Parker had been working in the neighborhood for about a decade, in the building where Rebus Works is now, before he moved his millwork business to the space on Dupont Circle.
Cowperthwaite, meantime, moved in to an old house nearby with her children after a divorce. It wasn’t the most obvious place to start anew. The property had been carved up and rented to folks who were regularly in trouble with the law before a group of neighbors purchased the property and sold it to Cowperthwaite. She made it her home, and found studio space on Dupont Circle, next to Parker’s, for her work as a sculptor.
Eventually, their lives melded, and they became partners in love as well as business.
Like their neighbors, Parker and Cowperthwaite rise to creative challenges. Their work and their relationship both depend on an understanding of how things fit together. They say the secret to their partnership is a deep understanding of – and respect for – one another’s strengths and rough edges. They know when to collaborate, when to yield, and when to get out of one another’s way.
It helps that they knew each other for a long time before they began working together. “We both had a healthy respect for what the other one did, and we knew we were good at different things,” Cowperthwaite said.
Together, they are unmatched. Do you want a kitchen island with faucets that disappear from view when they’re not in use? Or a zebra wood drop-leaf dining table that curves into itself when the leaves are down? Or maybe you need frosted glass consoles in which patrons can plug their hand-held devices – consoles that hide a network of cables that connect those devices to the vast resources of the most progressive library built so far this century. That’s what N.C. State’s Hunt Library sought from Eidolon. And the team delivered, creating pieces so seamlessly designed that their simplicity at first stumped the library’s IT team. After the installation, the IT folks asked Parker to explain how their fancy cabinets worked.
“There’s really nothing to say, guys, you just have to know where the door is,” Parker told them. And then someone in the back pipes up with, “There’s a door?”
Neither Cowperthwaite nor Parker could have known how their individual lives would merge. Cowperthwaite was a single mother and an artist, with a master’s in fine art in sculpture. Before she met Parker, her professional life was a patchwork of skills and talent – a marketing job at IBM, work as a paralegal, teaching art classes at N.C. State. She was in and out of the studio at odd hours, doing commissioned work when she could find the chance.
Parker was, and remains, singularly focused and devoted to regimen. Work began at 8 a.m. Fifteen-minute breaks occurred at regular intervals. Lunch was at noon. Everything done according to schedule and exacting standards.
“I used to marvel at his unbelievable dedication to schedule,” Ann says. “How does this guy do this?”
Mike’s dedication to craftsmanship was among the qualities that swayed her heart.
“That’s one thing that made it easy for me to fall in love with him when it all happened,” she said.
Eidolon’s small group of dedicated craftsmen helps keep the operation going as well.
“Everyone in this shop – we let their talents shine also,” Parker said. “Everyone is constantly attending to different details.”
Parker and Cowperthwaite work with each person in the shop for about three years to train them in the Eidolon approach. It’s all about intentional craftsmanship, precision, and learning to listen to the clients.
Parker said sometimes the architects lay the lines down, leaving Eidolon to have to walk between them. Sometimes individuals seek their creative flourishes, and sometimes a client wants the team to recreate and restore without leaving a trace of its work.
Working in a community where so many people speak the language of creativity and understand the process and demands of running a small operation such as theirs has been a part of their success. It’s a rare quality of Boylan Heights, that isn’t immediately obvious to outsiders. Cowperthwaite realized it early on. When she moved her family here after her divorce, her son, a teen-ager at the time, was less than thrilled by the change. After all, the neighborhood is more an eccentric aunt than a cool cousin. The old houses are charming, but not opulent, and it’s easy to understand how a teen-ager could miss the beauty of the place at first. But it grew on him.
Among the neighborhood’s endearing traditions is the graduation party it throws for high school students, where each is asked to speak. Cowperthwaite said her heart thrilled to hear son affirm her choice when he addressed the group.
“He said ‘When my mom moved us over to this neighborhood, I wasn’t too crazy about it, but this is the best place to be raised.’ ”