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What is the history of Landfall?

Ben Steelman

Wilmington’s oldest gated community — bounded by Eastwood Road, Military Cutoff, the Intracoastal Waterway and Howe Creek — dates from the 1980s.

The 2,200-acre tract was formerly known as Pembroke Jones Park, or Pembroke Park, after former owner Pembroke Jones (1858-1919), the millionaire rice broker and railroad investor. Jones used the heavily wooded property as a hunting preserve. In 1909, he built a large mansion, known as the “Lodge,” where he entertained gentleman friends from New York and local society. (His wife, Sarah Wharton Green Jones, or “Sadie,” entertained the ladies over at the “Bungalow” at Airlie.) Commutating between Wilmington and Newport, R.I., Pembroke and Sadie became a prominent and popular “Society” couple; some sources theorize that they inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The Lodge, which had been long abandoned, was destroyed by fire in 1955. Among the few remaining traces of the complex is the “Temple of Love,” a stone gazebo designed by Pembroke Jones’ son-in-law, the classicist architect John Russell Pope. (Pope later designed the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and some have seen the little temple as a sort of first draft for the bigger project.) Now a the center of a restored garden, the Temple long served as a semi-official Landfall emblem.

The concept of Landfall as a residential community was first raised in the 1970s when a Landfall Development Co. was founded by Anthony B. Akers, a New York lawyer, real estate developer and former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand under John F. Kennedy. Akers had married Jane Pope — John Russell Pope’s daughter and Pembroke Jones’ granddaughter — who had inherited the Pembroke Park property. Initial plans came to a halt, however, when Akers died suddenly on April 1, 1976, while staying at the Blockade Runner hotel on Wrightsville Beach.

The name “Landfall” came from the belief — at least among the developers — that Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano had landed on or near the site during his 1524 voyage up the Atlantic Seaboard for King Francis I of France. (The Landfall logo depicts Verrazano’s ship off the coast.)

Akers’ plans were revived a few years later, however, by Landfall Associates, a partnership of the Weyerhaeuser Co., Chapel Hill developer J.P. Goforth (who would go on to build the Landfall Shopping Center), and Frank Hawkins Kenan (1912-1996), a Durham businessman and philanthropist with strong family ties to the Wilmington area. The project was approved by New Hanover County officials in 1984, with construction well under way in 1986. The first clubhouse opened in May 1989.

Landfall offered two complete golf courses — one designed by Jack Nicklaus (and later expanded to 27 holes) and one designed by Pete Dye — as well as a sports center designed by tennis star Cliff Drysdale, with grass, clay and all-weather tennis courts, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a fitness center. A non-denominational Frank H. Kenan Chapel — available for weddings, memorial services, baptisms, concerts, Bibles studies and other appropriate uses — was completed on Arboretum Drive in July 2001.

By 1992, lots on Landfall were selling for $60,000, with home prices ranging from $225,000 to $1.2 million. As of 2008, home prices in the neighborhood ranged from $500,000 into the millions for choice properties facing the Waterway or one of the golf courses. At present, the complex encompasses more than 2,000 houses and lots.

Landfall’s exclusivity — an advertisement in national magazines in the early 1900s touted it as “The Best Guarded Secret on the East Coast” — drew some resentment from other area residents. Those ill feelings were mitigated by the founding, in 1996, of the Landfall Foundation, which donates funds to charities and non-profits in the Lower Cape Fear area. (Frank H. Kenan was an organizer and a major initial contributor.) To date, the Foundation has distributed more than $1.6 million, including $221,000 in 2008 alone.

Landfall became a source of controversy in 1995 — drawing attention as far as Newsweek magazine — when residents complained that wild deer were grazing in gardens and devouring expensive ornamental plants. Plans to permit bow hunters on the property to cull the deer populations drew widespread protests and were subsequently canceled.

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