The Mystique of Figure Eight Island

BY Melanie Coefield

There’s a certain mystique surrounding Figure Eight Island. Some attribute this aura to the exclusive nature of this privately owned isle; after all not just anyone may glide across its bridge on a whim. Others say simply peering across Masons Inlet from the north end of Wrightsville Beach gives viewers a sense of serenity and curiosity mixed with mystery. What is it about this particular barrier island that makes it so special? So intriguing?

Those who were there at the birth of its private community status and those who now reside there full-time know its history and the stories they have to tell shed some light on what’s been called “North Carolina’s best kept secret for years.”

Figure Eight’s colonial past is much like the rest of the land spanning the East Coast. It was first acknowledged as a tract in a royal land grant given to James Moore in 1762. This was during the reign of King George III; the very King of England who lost control of the American colonies. The Moores must have had a rather chummy relationship with England’s reigning family as James’s brother Roger Moore was the first owner of Orton Plantation in Brunswick County.

From James Moore Figure Eight then passed to Cornelius Harnett in 1775 just as the colonies stood at the brink of revolution. Ironically for Great Britain’s monarch Harnett was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Twenty years later the island was included as a part of the Foy Plantation at Scotts Hill when it was sold at auction. The island remained in the Foy family as part of Poplar Grove Plantation for the next 160 years.

Fast forward to 1954 and a hurricane called Hazel. This vicious storm lashed the coast from Myrtle Beach to Topsail Beach leaving a path of death and destruction the likes of which North Carolinians had never before experienced. With more than 15 000 homes and structures completely destroyed and another 39 000 damaged living at the beach no longer held the same appeal to many.

“Everyone thought beach property was too risky and owners were anxious to unload it ” the late Wilmington mayor and prominent businessman Dan Cameron once said.

So Dan and his brother Bruce used the opportunity to purchase the parcel.

Longtime island resident Nola Nadeau (now deceased) in her book Figure Eight Revisited states that Bruce Cameron began the process of acquiring the property from the two owners of the land George Hutaff and the Foy family.

They paid $50 000 for the Foys’ portion. The real estate-savvy brothers then purchased two large areas of adjoining marshland for $25 000 apiece resulting in a total island purchase price of just $100 000 in 1955.

Even though Dan and Bruce Cameron managed to expediently put together a successful purchase of this 5-mile-long barrier island the property proceeded to lie dormant for the next 10 years. During that time the brothers joined forces with their cousin Raeford Trask and with investor Richard Wetherill to develop the real estate. The foursome named their venture the Island Development Company and got down to business. Their first task was choosing a name for their new acquisition. Over the years the island had been referred to as Woods Beach The Banks Foy Island and Figure Eight. They settled on Figure Eight a name indicating Rich’s Inlet Creek’s crooked paths in the marsh because it sounded intriguing.

The first obstacle for their newly formed Island Development Company to conquer was bridging the gap literally between the mainland and the island. To this point in time the only way to access the island was by boat. A bridge needed to be erected which meant that more land needed to be acquired. Dan Cameron approached Champion Davis the owner of right-of-way marshland off Porters Neck. Unfortunately Davis turned down an offer of partnership and other incentives from the Island Development Company.

Edgewater Club Road was now their only option and they were more successful this time. The Camerons purchased two small tracts from private owners and then managed to acquire a small parcel of land from the roughly 40 Edgewater Club members at that time. This piecemeal method afforded Figure Eight’s developers just enough land to form the crooked roadway that now leads to the island’s bridge. At the time however for the Camerons installing a bridge was the task at hand.

A government surplus barge served as pontoons to float a bridge that swung open for waterway traffic. That bridge and completing the causeway cost $150 000 — 50 percent more than what was paid for the entire island. Later in 1980 that bridge was replaced with a more modern but secondhand bridge from Port Royal Virginia. Though this upgrade occurred several years later its cost was 10 times that of the original apparatus: $1.5 million.

“What makes the island truly unique is the fact that it has a private bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway ” architect Ligon Flynn says. “There’s probably not more than one other situation like that on the entire Eastern Seaboard.”

The Camerons hired the Raleigh firm Richard Bell Associates to design Figure Eight’s development concept. Local architects John Oxenfeld and Haywood Newkirk Sr. were brought on to design the early houses. Prospective lot buyers were taken by boat to see the project in the early days. The first lots went for as little as $5 000.

Then on March 30 1971 the Camerons sold Figure Eight to Young M. Smith Jr. for $4 million. Smith’s company the Litchfield Plantation Company was already in the process of building a luxury condominium complex near Pawleys Island South Carolina. Thirty houses and 112 lots had been sold on Figure Eight when the change of ownership took place. Smith brought two architects Ligon Flynn and Henry Johnston in on the project. Smith also hired landscape architect Dick Bell to round out the team that would continue to carry out the Cameron brothers’ original vision and ultimately set the tone for Figure Eight.

Flynn and Johnston partners at the time and based out of Raleigh got busy drawing plans for the clubhouse marina building and multifamily structures. The marina building’s open contemporary design earned Ligon Flynn an honor award from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

A large part of carrying out the original vision entailed the strong desire to preserve Figure Eight’s natural beauty. An island known for its huge oaks and natural vegetation posed several challenges for architects Flynn and Johnston.

“The north end of the island has so-called maritime forests ” Ligon Flynn explains. “There are live oaks there on those dunes that have to be 150 years old. They’re very large.”

Because the island’s north end was adorned with an abundance of thick natural vegetation including yaupon wax myrtle red cedar and twisted live oaks Johnston needed to develop house plans that would enhance the natural beauty rather than distract from it.

“To save some of the oaks ” adds then-partner Henry Johnston “we put the living room on the top floor of a three-story house which was unheard of at that time. But we were determined not to lose the vegetation.”

Hence the birth of the “treehouse” design for which the architects and Figure Eight are so well known. In 1974 Johnston designed his first “treehouse” for Dave Phillips and John Corpening. He designed another one adjacent to the first at 289 Beach Road N. known as the Flynt house. This second design garnered Johnston an award from the N.C. Chapter of American Institute of Architects.

“It’s a great struggle today ” Johnston says “because the value of the land is so great that naturally people want to build a structure that would be commensurate with the expenditure of funds for the land. It gets harder to preserve as much as you can.”

Today Realtor and Figure Eight resident Bunnie Bachman owns one of those special treehouses on the northern end. “It is built on ridges not sand dunes ” Bachman explains. “They’re made of mud and clay. The house only takes up 10 percent of the lot and has amazing views.”

While Figure Eight enjoyed early success in home and lot sales in the early ’70s the recession hit Litchfield Plantation hard and its subsidiary Figure Eight Development Company went into bankruptcy in 1974. After two open auctions were held on the county courthouse steps in 1975 Continental Illinois emerged as the island’s new mortgage holder.

The Figure Eight Homeowners’ Association now owns the island. It hired its first full-time administrator in 1982 and after several short-term managers Art Poineau served as administrator for 20 years. David Kellam has held the position since 2001. His parents built one of the early homes on the island and his first job nearly 40 years ago was painting the inside of the original pontoon bridge. Kellam remembers that when he was a boy on the island there was no development on the north end. “You came across the bridge and went south ” he says. But it was to the north in those early days that Kellam gravitated to play on the dunes and fish. Today he has a strong environmental perspective when it comes to the management of Figure Eight. “Figure Eight has always prided itself on doing the right things for the right reasons ” Kellam says. “Protection of the marshes and ecosystems has always been critical for us. The shellfish and baitfish have always been of the utmost importance.” This constant concern for the protection of the water quality and the fisheries while developing working relationships with the county and community have helped make Figure Eight the magical island it is.

Over the years Figure Eight’s placid low-key nature has attracted a great number of exciting and noteworthy celebrities. When Dino De Laurentiis first started his Wilmington studio in 1983 Hollywood stars were drawn to the solitude and privacy of the island. George C. Scott walked his two huge mastiffs on the beach every day while filming Firestarter. Robert Wagner and Jill St. John even dined at the Yacht Club one Saturday night. Other famous visitors included Dustin Hoffman Gene Hackman Debra Winger Nick Nolte Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin to name a few. Even Vice President Al Gore vacationed there with wife Tipper and two of their children in 1997.

Figure Eight has endured quite a history from royal decrees of ownership to visitors from Hollywood’s “royalty.”

The island boasts more than 450 homes today. Thanks in large part to the vision that the Camerons first established and Litchfield Plantation Company respected and shared Figure Eight reigns as a glittering jewel on the Carolina coast. And while it may no longer be a secret Figure Eight’s owners will seek to ensure this precious place is “best kept.”

Figure Eight Five-O

In 1974 a peculiar drug smuggling incident occurred at Figure Eight. Henry Johnston was the island’s project manager at the time and recalls the episode well.

“A young attorney from the Midwest rented two houses on the island ” Figure Eight architect Henry Johnston begins his tale “and they brought a 42-foot boat it was a sports fisherman called the Fishwisher and put it in the marina. The bridge keeper’s security guys called me and said ‘You know these guys are running these boats in the middle of the night. They come up to the bridge with no lights on.’”

“One thing I noticed ” Johnston continues “was that they used the pay phone outside my office instead of telephoning from their house. I’d be over there late at night working maybe 10 or 11 o’clock terrible conditions rain and here was somebody using a pay phone. Things just didn’t make sense. So I called customs and got the recorder left a message.”

Jack Dolan a customs officer in Wilmington got back with Johnston and advised him to keep up surveillance. During New Year’s weekend Johnston noticed several young men dragging large bundles from the shore into the attorney’s rented house.

Johnston had an idea. “I told the security guys that night when I went off the island ‘Guys if you see any suspicious activity just open the bridge. Tell them it’s broken and call me ’” he says. “Unfortunately they forgot to tell the guys at the shift change. Early that morning these pickup trucks with campers appeared as guests of those people came on the island and all that dope went off.”

In August of 1974 however a federal grand jury indicted 15 people in connection with the smuggling of 14 000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia. Six of the 15 were convicted and sentenced to jail time.