A tribute to the Flat Tops of Southern Shores 

By on November 19, 2023

Flat Top Southern Shores by Bobby Wiltshire (Dare Arts)

Dare Arts exhibit harkens back to a simpler era

By Mary Ellen Riddle | Outer Banks Voice

Artwork of vintage Southern Shores Flat Top cottages cover the wooden walls of the old courthouse in the downtown Manteo home to Dare Arts. Sixteen works of art—paintings, photographs, and mixed media works—are flanked by 15 architectural drawings of the 1950s-60’s-era homes which were designed by artist and developer Frank Stick. Together, the images help tell the story of a time when life seemed simpler, and, in the case of the Flat Tops, when homes were built with practicality in mind.

Multiple artists employ a realistic style capturing the beauty and simplicity of Stick’s Flat Tops using jewel tones on shutters and soffits contrasted against whitewashed exteriors.

Bobby Wiltshire was inspired by a view of a Flat Top to create his watercolor. “I was coming up on Ocean Blvd. from Skyline Road when the strong sunlight and dark shadows caught my eye,” he said. He took a photo from his truck. “I could see the finished painting in my mind.” He chose a rich mauve to color his Flat Top, which is set in the coastal landscape against a pale blue sky.

Other artists created more personal interpretations working, like Stick with his architecture, outside the box. At first, Duck artist Fred Vallade was unsure when Dare Arts approached him about creating an image of a Flat Top. Painting houses just wasn’t his thing. But he decided to do a triptych combining images of three Flat Tops with wrinkled Tyvek to bring together realism and abstraction and add texture and bright color to the images. As a result, his Flat Tops are nestled into bold landscapes.

“I had no idea in what direction I was going to go,” says Vallade. “The more I thought about it, the more I got confused.” Then he remembered Frank Stick had a modernist solution to a specific design condition. “The light bulb turned on,” says Vallade. “My work is contemporary and modernistic, so there is some correlation here.”

Triptych by Fred Vallade (Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle)

The story of Southern Shores Flat Top cottages inspired the curiosity of architects Chris Nason and Steven Reiss. The architectural panels in the exhibit were created under Nason’s direction. For the duo, the exhibit is designed to draw attention to a book project on the Flat Tops – a joint effort by them. It arises, in part, from a seven-year journey—The Southern Shores Flat Top Documentation Initiative, created by Nason to document 30 Flat Tops.

Over the years, Nason, an architect at Beacon Architecture in Kill Devil Hills and his team responded to calls from realtors to measure Flat Top cottages ready to be torn down. Homeowners started hearing about it, and so Nason and interns at the firm began measuring their homes for them. It was a labor of love for Nason who is enamored with Stick’s architectural style.

“We never, we never charged them any fees,” said Nason. The documentation was given to the homeowners and donated to the Outer Banks History Center and the state’s archives. In turn, the homeowners could use the documentation to have their homes declared Historic Landmarks.

Wes Haskett, Deputy Town Manager/Planning Director in Southern Shores said there are currently five Flat Tops listed as designated Historic Landmarks. “The intent is to preserve their historical, architectural, and cultural value,” noted Haskett. “As an incentive, owners of designated Historic Landmarks receive a 50% reduction in ad valorem taxes.”

Reiss, who lives in the Northern Neck of Viginia, was aware of the Flat Tops in North Carolina but had never studied them in depth.

“In 2022, I went to the Flat Tops house tour in the Outer Banks and spoke to several of the owners,” he said. The owners’ passion about their houses had a significant impact on him. Reiss learned about Nason’s project and met with him with the idea of authoring a book on the Flat Tops.

“We felt that as architects, and with my background on small architecturally significant houses, and Chris’ extensive work on the existing Flat Tops, that we would make a good collaborative team as co-authors on the book,” Reiss added. With the inspiration for the book in mind, Nason and Reiss reached out to the Outer Banks History Center, which was started by Frank Stick’s son David.

“Earlier this year Nason and Reiss approached the [Friends of the Outer Banks History Center] Board and requested if we would be willing to be the non-profit through which donations and grant funding would be received and paid out for the composition and printing of the book,” said John Havel, chair of the Friends of the Outer Banks History Center. They entered into the agreement. In exchange, said Nason, they are going to give proceeds from the book to the History Center.

The Flat Top story began years ago when Stick—who championed many conservation causes including the creation of the first national seashore—created the Flat Tops development in Southern Shores. Characteristics of his architecture were the flat roofs, a structure built of blocks, at first made from local sand and an extended overhang and whitewashed interior, both intended to keep the home cool.

There was no air conditioning, said Nason, noting that “This was a glorified form of camping.”

The beauty of Stick’s homes and how they fit well in the landscape are highlighted in the exhibit. It is fitting as Stick was known not only for his architecture but known nationally as an artist who sold his first illustration to Sports Afield magazine while still in his teens. His paintings appeared in a number of magazines including Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and Field and Stream.

Chris Nason from Beacon Architecture/ (Photo by Mary Ellen Riddle)

Panel headlines in the exhibit such as “Houses of the Atomic Age,” “The Bride’s House of 1950,” and “Planned for Outdoor Living,” bring the era and climate of Stick’s functional style front and center. The panel creators researched 1950s ads and actual Southern Shores marketing material to create these ads, using period illustrations and wording pared with Flat Top floor plans from the project.

“So, it was a more creative approach to just showing architectural prints,” Nason observed. “We thought it brought a little more pizzazz to it.”

The Dare Arts Exhibit will be on display through Dec. 16, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.—5 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Nason’s team created a website that can be viewed at flattopsobx.com.



  • Charles

    Good for all involved! Too frequently documentation follows the end of an era.

    Sunday, Nov 19 @ 11:09 am
  • Dan-O

    When we will get to see “Saga in Oils”? The retrospective of the uniqueness, charm & timelessness of Saga architecture?

    Monday, Nov 20 @ 8:09 am