To Be Frank

Frank Harmon’s longstanding Saturday-morning tradition of coffee in the garden is an opportunity to chat and connect with longtime friends.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Liz Condo

Behind a muted pink stone wall adorned with jasmine, rich conversations and hot coffee flow. Tall, breezy live oaks shade a sandy courtyard area populated with miscellaneous folding chairs and a round table. Bluebirds sing, crinum lilies bloom and velvety white gardenias perfume the air. Here’s where you’ll find Frank Harmon and his friends most Saturday mornings, partaking in a rare ritual that encourages mindful discussion and connection. 

Harmon and his late wife Judy designed this home and garden on Brooks Avenue as their sanctuary back in the early 1990s. And while the esteemed modernist architect has traveled the world creating award-winning spaces and giving lectures, it’s here in Raleigh that Harmon has created his most meaningful relationships, within arguably his most important design. 

About 20 years ago, Frank and Judy started this tradition of having coffee with friends at Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street. Judy, who passed away in 2013, was a landscape architect who loved to gather with colleagues and friends on Saturdays to discuss her projects.

After her passing, the tradition continued as a link to her, the space they created together and their circle of friends. “There was never a doubt if it would keep going,” says Harmon. When Cup A Joe had to change its setup during the pandemic, Harmon moved the gathering to his garden, a 200-foot long landscape on the north side of his home. Today, the gathering attracts a familiar crowd of Raleigh architects, musicians, professors and intellectuals of all stripes.

On one summer morning, as people trickled in, a guest joked, “It’s a shame Frank has no friends!” The quip was met with laughter. Dozens of folks have attended over the years, but there’s a core group of about eight that are usually there. (Sometimes there are other very important guests — nesting bluebirds — so the gatherings are moved from the courtyard to the pool deck.) 

Among the regulars are Nilda Cosco and her husband, Robin Moore, both co-directors and founders of the Natural Learning Initiative, a group that researches and promotes the benefits of youth spending time outdoors. Cosco is an associate professor at NC State who moved here from Argentina more than 20 years ago. These gatherings make her feel at home. “I love and miss Argentina, the community, the friends, the people, the freedom to talk and express. That’s why I like this group,” she says. 

There’s Bruce Emery, a musician and prolific music writer who often brings his vintage guitar to strum. “I came out of left field, really,” he says, laughing, pointing out that he’s one of the few not involved in academics, horticulture or architecture. “I met Frank when he and Judy came to a swing class in the ‘90s. They were fun to watch, they had great rhythm,” he says. 

Rachel Wooten, a psychologist; Dan Neil, an automobile columnist at The Wall Street Journal; and Julieta Sherk, a horticulture professor at NC State, are other regulars. Beyond this core group are people who have been invited along the way, like Elliot Honeycutt, an aspiring architect here for the sage advice the group has to offer his generation. “It offers something I think is lacking in our culture, which is long-form conversation with other people, without distraction.”

Another regular is climate activist Tim Martin. He has occupied their thoughts lately, as he could be headed to federal prison soon for damaging a work of art in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Listening to the group’s discussion, a listener gets glimpses of Raleigh years ago, like architect Tina Govan’s son’s “creek boys” days, as she refers to the years her children played barefoot. Guests share what it’s like to live in other countries, their views on current events at home and abroad. Honeycutt recalls a lengthy conversation one Saturday, when one of Harmon’s former teaching assistants, who was originally from India, discussed her perspective on transportation here.

“She was talking about how in India transportation is a very social thing, as opposed to here in the United States, where traveling by car is something you do by yourself,” says Honeycutt. They tell stories of loss and of life — Harmon’s son and daughter-in-law welcomed his first grandchild, a girl, this year. They’re joined by relatives, visiting colleagues and former students, anyone who happens to be passing through. 

In spite of the broad list of genuine friendships Harmon has formed throughout his life, the gatherings stay intimate, which is what Harmon prefers. “I find eight people is a good group,” he says. “Twelve people are wonderful too. It just breaks down the conversation into subgroups.” 

“The way Frank facilitates conversations is really special. He has a similar approach to social interactions as he does architecture; he sees things from a lot of different perspectives simultaneously,” says Honeycutt. Harmon sees his job as making sure everyone gets a chance to share: “I’m a teacher. If someone hasn’t been speaking up, I let them know it’s safe. I think the reason it’s kept going as long as it has is because everybody gets to speak and everybody listens.”

The gathering, in its longevity and attractiveness to others, is a reminder of the value and art of good conversation, and of the friendship that fosters. “My friends are my most important resource and pleasure,” says Harmon. “Seeing them each week so we can keep in touch is a special part of my life.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.