A Haven Reborn
by Samantha Thompson Hatem
You can see the temptation pulling at Kate Tillman Brown as she stands on the dock looking out over the glassy Pungo River.
Years ago, she would have rounded up her friends, suited up, and headed out in her dad’s Boston Whaler for a long day of skiing on some of North Carolina’s prettiest waters. But today, Brown has different plans for this river. She hopes it can help lure people to Belhaven not just to water ski, but to fish, hunt, relax, go antiquing, have a great meal, or, most importantly, stay a night or two at her family’s newly renovated River Forest Manor and Marina.
“It’s a gorgeous house,” Brown says. “It’s meant to celebrate life’s more important occasions.”
If you’ve been to Belhaven, about two hours east of Raleigh, you’ve no doubt seen this majestic beauty on the edge of town with its sweeping views of the Pungo, Pantego Creek and, way out in the distance, the Pamlico River and Sound. Built on four acres along the Pantego Creek in 1904, the 13,000 square-foot historic manor has nine bedrooms, 11 fireplaces, and dramatic ionic columns on the wide front porch, making it a stunning backdrop for brides seeking the quintessential, picturesque Southern wedding.
Brown’s father, Brantley Tillman, a Raleigh developer best known for the Food Lion shopping centers he’s developed throughout the Mid-Atlantic, bought River Forest out of bankruptcy in 2014 for $600,000. The roof leaked. Some of the floors were ready to collapse. The kitchen wasn’t operable.
Tillman says it wasn’t a moment too soon: “If we hadn’t bought it when we did, I don’t know if we’d been able to save it.” Since then, he and Brown have led painstaking efforts to restore the manor and marina, saving what they could, like the ornate period chandeliers and original fabric wallpaper, and repurposing others, like the tennis court, now an outdoor reception space.
When the River Forest reopened last summer, just in time to welcome late-season brides, hundreds of people flocked to the opening party, eager to see the manor restored to its heyday, back when it still had the power to draw celebrities like James Cagney, Harvey Firestone, Walter Cronkite, and Twiggy. Then a bustling inn, marina, and restaurant, known up and down the coast for its “smorgasbord” Sunday buffet, River Forest had helped put Belhaven on the map. For boaters, it was a must-stop when traveling the Intracoastal Waterway, the perfect overnight layover en route to Oriental or the Alligator River.
But bad management, lack of upkeep, and the Great Recession took its toll. By 2011, boat traffic had slowed to a trickle, and the restaurant and manor closed.
Belhaven has seen its fortunes change a number of times over the last century. When the inn was built, the town was known for the wood harvested nearby and the boxes made at local mills. When that business slowed, farming and then commercial fishing took over before falling on hard times.
Tillman, who grew up and met and married his wife Carol in Belhaven, saw promise in the place. Not just for the River Forest, but for the entire town, population 1,600. Tillman knew bringing the Manor and Marina back to life could mean redemption for Belhaven.
Today, thanks in part to Tillman and other natives, the town is resurging again, says Dianne Bowen, the president of the Belhaven Community Chamber of Commerce. She also credits young energetic retirees who’ve moved from bigger cities and want to share their business knowledge as well as invest in their new community.
“Belhaven has reinvented itself several times,” she says. “We’re on the cusp of a renaissance.”
Together with 14 partners with ties to the town, including a handful of childhood friends, Tillman spent 22 months restoring the marina and manor. Each partner brought not just equity but important skills. One was in construction. Another knew boating. One was a banker. Another knew how to navigate underground tanks.
Fortunately, they had good bones to work with. The manor had been built to last, commissioned in 1899 by lumber and railroad executive John Wilkinson. Some of the same Italian craftsman who built the Biltmore Estate in Ashville had also worked on the River Forest Manor, and it shows in its carved-oak mantels and finely detailed, hand-carved plasterwork, its Honduran mahogany wainscoting, its leaded glass windows.
After Wilkinson died, the manor was sold in 1933 to J.W. Hines of Rocky Mount, who sold it in 1947 to Axson Smith, a Belhaven resident. Smith changed the name to the River Forest Manor and turned it into the inn, restaurant, and marina beloved for so many years.
Not least of all by Tillman. Though he left Belhaven to raise a family and grow his career in Raleigh, he had a second home in the town, where the family spent summers and holidays. Brown, who still lives in Raleigh, remembers bridge clubs at the River Forest, celebrating Mother’s Day at the manor’s Sunday buffet and, of course, water skiing out of the marina.
Meantime, Tillman was working to help Food Lion expand its footprint with new stores. Eleven years ago, Brown joined the family business as vice president of development, and she credits those years working with her dad and his mentoring to helping her prepare to tackle this latest project. “He taught me that it’s all about relationships and track record,” Brown says.
She’s banking on those skills to help her build back the River Forest. She wants brides, of course. It was restored with them in mind, with a catering kitchen and an entire floor of flawlessly decorated rooms situated to accommodate a long aisle of bridesmaids. Brown also thinks the manor is ideal for corporate and board retreats, college reunions, rehearsal dinners, milestone birthday parties, girls’ weekends, or just couples and families looking to get away and relax.
There are nine guest rooms in the main house, six of which were original to the home. All are named for local flowers. The Queen Anne’s Lace room has two matching double beds, both original to the home. The Gardenia room has an adjoining bathroom with an original oversized claw foot tub overlooking the front portico. The Magnolia suite has stunning views of the water. There’s also a bungalow off to the side of the manor house with three adjoining guest suites, all named for nearby bodies of water.
Behind the manor is the marina, with 30 long-term rental and transient boat slips that can accommodate crafts up to 150 feet. The marina office has a wide two-story deck, perfect for evening cocktails. Above the marina office is another guest suite with its own deck overlooking the Pungo River and Pantego Creek.
Tillman credits a doubling in boat traffic at the marina to the new dock master, Henry Boyd III, one of the River Forest partners. In all, the partnership spent $1.65 million to restore the entire property. Most all of the work was done by locals, something that was important to Tillman and Brown. In return, many contractors took ownership in the project, taking care to see the town’s beloved River Forest was restored to last another 100 years.
“When you are working on something that has a historical meaning to people, everyone wants to take ownership in it,” Brown said. “We all hope this place will endure long after we’re all gone.”
WHEN YOU GO
Belhaven may be a small Eastern North Carolina town, but with three bodies of water nearby and an emerging food scene, it’s worth the drive.
“You will never have a better experience coming to Belhaven than you will now,” says Teresa Van Staalduinen, the owner of Spoon River Artworks and Market, a local farm-to-fork restaurant, with a killer Bloody Mary, that’s getting plenty of buzz for its seasonally changing menu and decor. “We’re more eager than most places to have people come visit.”
Van Staalduinen is so bullish on Belhaven’s future, she’s bought six more buildings in downtown Belhaven, including one that will allow her to expand Spoon River with a bar and room for private dining, which is in increasing demand.
Restaurants like Van Staalduinen’s are driving much of the town’s resurgence, says Dianne Bowen, the president of the Belhaven Community Chamber of Commerce. Get a pizza at The Tavern at Jack’s Neck. Share a peck of fresh steamed oysters at Georgie’s Sport and Oyster Bar [458 Pamlico St., 252-943-2102]. Or eat breakfast any time of day at Gingerbread Bakery & O’Neals Snack Bar [278 Main St., 252-944-0099].
The renovated River Forest Manor and Marina is also helping drive business in the town as boaters rediscover Belhaven as an overnight destination along the Intracoastal Waterway.
“No one ever would have thought Belhaven would become a restaurant destination, but we are,” Bowen says. “We have wonderful restaurants here.”
Burning off those restaurant calories is easy to do exploring the area, either by water or land. Charter a boat to go fishing or simply to explore Ocracoke, a two-hour boat ride away. Lake Mattamuskeet is a 30-minute drive for bird watchers. And there’s plenty of hunting: The River Forest Manor can find you a guide. Take a drive to explore nearby Bath, North Carolina’s first town, or Oriental, the state’s unofficial “sailing capital.”
Or do what River Forest owner Kate Brown suggests: Relax on one of the manor’s many porches, decks, or docks.“It’s a perfect place to come and vacation and get away from the hustle and bustle to enjoy life and nature,” she says. “Belhaven really does have a lot of charm. It’s a small town. Everyone speaks to you.”