The Revival of Highland Pines House

30 Sep 2021

Airy, light-filled rooms set off a simpler, modern embrace of living

By Ray Owen  »  Photos by Brandon Williams

Near the crest of a hill in east Southern Pines is Highland Pines House, built in 1913 as part of the initial development of Weymouth Heights subdivision by the Boyd family. This “resort cottage” was designed by Aymar Embury II, architect of the grand Highland Pines Inn, which once stood atop the hill in this now quiet section of town.

Over the past year the property has been carefully reinvigorated by Roberta Holinko, an entertainment industry
set decorator.

Born in Connecticut, Holinko moved to Manhattan when she was 17 to attend Parsons School of Design. Upon graduation, she worked for global fashion brands like Perry Ellis and Claiborne, and she was always traveling. After a friend suggested she might like being a set decorator, she decided to give it a shot at age 27.

In time, she worked for Mel Bourne, a three-time Academy Award-nominated production designer, and she went on to decorate sets for feature films, such as Sleepless In Seattle and The Devil’s Advocate, and for television her more recent work includes the series pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime Video. It was her interest in horses that attracted her to Southern Pines.

She grew up around horses and started riding to show in her twenties, initially competing as a jumper. Two years ago she took up dressage and bought a small house in Southern Pines. “I really wanted to be in an equestrian community,” she says. “So I purchased a little cottage, really loved it, and then decided to get the bigger house.”

While horses first brought her to town, she really likes the people: “Everyone’s extremely friendly and it’s a very diverse community of individuals from different backgrounds. I’ve met a lot of people in the military, and in New York, you would never meet anybody in the military. It’s like working for a big corporation.
They do all sorts of things, which I never really realized.”

When she acquired Highland Pines House, it had shades in every window and lots of drapery, a style that worked with lots of heavy antiques. “I just took all of that out,” explains Holinko. “I painted everything white, painted the exterior a light gray, and decorated with modern art. It’s a very comfortable house, all on one floor with a wonderful porch to sit out on.”

The Colonial Revival house has an irregular plan and odd-shaped rooms, creating a unique and attractive house that includes fine interior paneling and handsome hardware.

“I used a lot of Scandinavian furniture and modern pieces – it’s sparse but not too sparse. I like that it’s nice and airy. I have what I need without a lot of clutter. What’s nice, for an old house it has plenty of closets. I didn’t really do that much to the kitchen. I just took down some of the cabinets, made open shelves, put in some new countertops, and Farrow & Ball wallpaper.”

The house has a park-like setting with mature trees and kumquats, and six different types of hydrangeas and roses. “I love gardening,” says Holinko. “I didn’t have to add a lot of greenery because it was there. Maybe the hedges and fences are what attracted me to property – it’s secluded and private. When people come over, they can’t figure out how to get into the house!”

As a set decorator, Holinko is responsible for procuring everything down to the switch plates and hardware for the doors. “I have to know a lot about art,” she says. “You have to know different styles, where to get it, where to rent it, what you can use, what you can’t. It’s really a collaborative effort. I work with a production designer, director of photography and the director.”

“I shop at a lot of auction houses and basically everywhere. You never know what you’re going to need or something somebody will request – I basically can find anything in a day. Then you have the budget and you’re always under constraints no matter how big it is. You have a million dollars, and they need a million two. You have to try and satisfy everybody’s wants.”

“You have to be able to get it done, to run everything in and take it out. I’ve done it for 28 years. I have sources everywhere to get things quickly. Sometimes you’re just doing seedy bars, hospital rooms and police stations, and at other points you’re doing very high-end. You have to understand any kind of genre and learn about architecture and period styles.”

“I would say my personal style is minimalist because I don’t want a lot of stuff. I think that’s kind of common – lots of people are getting rid of things. At this point, I like to keep things clean, updated but I do like to mix some antiques in – a bit eclectic but not like crazy cat lady eclectic. I’m just exposed to so many different styles at work, and I’ve traveled a lot.”

Decorative pieces she really likes in her home include a “womb chair” in her bedroom near the fireplace, which is great for lounging and reading. There’s also a wonderful piece of tramp art she got in Memphis while working on The Client, and work by painter and printmaker Ellsworth Kelly, a Sally Mann photograph, and original posters by Shepard Fairey.

“I don’t really have favorite colors,” says Holinko. “I think having good light sources are more important – having a lot of light coming in through windows and doors. I have shades in my bedrooms but other than that, I have no window treatments. It really just collects a lot of dust. Behind the fences and hedge, the house is very
private – you really can’t see in.”

“Instagram inspires me,” she says with a laugh. “I like to know what young people are doing. How they’re approaching life through design is really interesting, and I’m finding they seem to need less than we did 20 years ago. They like less stuff so they’re not tied to one place as much. There’s also huge interest in reusing clothing or furniture, which I find really exciting.”

Holinko’s embrace of the places, people and trends she’s exposed to adds the warmth and charm to the Highland Pines House she now calls home.

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