Walker World: From Fishing Shack to Artistic Eco-Mansion
by Joel Finsel
You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?"
George Bernard Shaw
Blossom Ferry Road is paved for about half the distance to the house before it turns to gravel and then dirt. You cross a railroad track. Homes thin out as the forest thickens. Just past a white trailer is a Palmetto palm with a pile of stones and a sign with an arrow pointing left. In blue, yellow and purple letters, it reads: Walker World.
After the turn, the road thins down to a single lane. The forest opens onto a clearing. Curiously, there’s a park bench and a streetlamp. The urban tableau seems totally foreign to the terrain. It reminds me of the fake Prada store (described as “a pop architectural land art project”) in the desert outside Marfa, Texas.
Across the road is an open shelter, almost like a lean-to, but overflowing with salvaged building materials: columns, shutters, sheets of metal. Shells of old boats and cars line the road like an American Picker's dream. I count half a dozen antique Mercedes, a school bus, a pair of Air Streams, and a carport with an upside-down sport-fishing boat for a roof. One car is actually the front end of a Mercedes welded to the back end of another. Allen Walker, the owner/builder, called it his limo.
To the left of the long driveway was a garage made mostly out of glass, with a sleeping loft. Walker hasn’t settled on a name yet but a contender was “Garage-Mahal.” Next door was a three-story playhouse with the guts of a piano mounted upside down. There were climbing ropes, a brass pole, and swings. I passed an open-air garage. My tires crackled as my car inched forward. The path came to an end at a paved circle surrounded by gardens. There was an entire patio set up as a chess board, with pieces as high as my thighs. I parked next to an old Army jeep, a stone’s throw from the Northeast Cape Fear River, finding it difficult not to smile as I took in the house.
This sprawling artistic lodge sprouted from the seed of a single-room cabin. If you look hard at the front door of the house as it appears today, you can still see the outline of the original shack. Walker keeps an old photograph of it pinned to the wall in his kitchen. It looks as if it had been built of Lincoln Logs. There’s a refrigerator on the porch. “It had a collapsed cabinet for a kitchen,” Walker said, “as if hobos had been living there.”
Walker was no stranger to remote places. Born and raised in an old historic Wilmington home, he says he really “grew up” in a tobacco barn on a 200-acre farm in Pitt County. He remembers watching, as a young boy, while his father lifted the old barn onto a trailer and moved it a half-mile closer to the creek. About a dozen farmers came from all over the area to see the spectacle. Walker remembers looking on and feeling like there was nothing he couldn’t do.
After high school he took a job on a framing crew but retired after a few weeks to be his own boss. He moved into the barn full time and built a loft, then added a kitchen and a bathroom. The back deck stood thirty feet above the swamp. Cypress knees knuckled up from below. Once the barn was ready, he filled it with paintings made during breaks from ECU classes. He bought a piano with a little light inside he could turn on, to keep moisture from damaging the strings. One day the bulb ignited something flammable, and when Allen returned from class, there was nothing but a burnt hole in the swamp where his house had been.
In 1999 he heard about a weird old cabin about ten miles north of Wilmington that might be for sale. The owner’s name was Hoke Bullock. He had a long, white beard, and a seaplane dock on the river, from which he would fly back and forth to his home in Raleigh. Walker had actually heard of the place before. One of the only neighboring houses belonged to a friend of his, an underwater archaeologist named Wesley K. Hall (part of the team that recovered the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine from Charleston Harbor). One day Walker got a call from Hall saying that the old man, Hoke Bullock, had died. The cabin belonged to his son now. Walker drove to Raleigh with a thousand dollars in cash, hoping to persuade Bullock’s son to sell. He promised to deliver the rest of the money within a month and wound up getting the entire ten-acre plot for $100,000.
Most of his friends expected he would tear down the derelict structure and build something that was, in the words of a neighbor, “worth living in,” but Walker had other ideas. He says that nearly every one of his neighbors has, at some point in the last fifteen years, called the law on him. “But once the house began to take shape,” he adds, “they started to come around."
Today, inside there are unexpected “interventions” at every turn. It’s a creative reinterpretation of a house. You open the door to an antique player-piano blasting out show tunes. The giant dried flower-stalk of a Century plant (a strange organism that flowers only once every ten or twenty years) rises three stories high, almost touching the ceiling. Suspended from the main beam that runs overhead is a 60-foot, upside-down rowing scull. The boat is too long for the house—it sticks through a hole in the front of the house, like a horn.
As Walker showed me around, I was struck by how much local history had come together in the house. Excluding the materials used in plumbing and wiring, everything in the place had been reclaimed. Many of the windows were salvaged from the famed Lumina Pavilion at Wrightsville Beach. Old bottles incorporated into the wall gave the appearance of stained-glass. An aluminum airplane prop was mounted under a street sign for Soaring Spirit Drive. One mirror had been salvaged from the set of The Crow. Out back stood a huge deck made from the docks of the old Southport and Bald Head Island marinas. Straight ahead, a deep water slip. To the left was a rope-swing platform, dangerously high-looking, for swinging out into the river. My visit took place on one of the coldest days of the year, but Walker said that he would jump into the river if I wanted (this was before he had any idea I wanted to write an article about him). I had the sense that day of having stumbled on the Holy Fool's southeastern retreat—not completely polished, but a decidedly great place to start a second childhood.
Recently Walker has started opening the place up to people. He lists it on Airbnb for $400 a night. He rents it to groups who need a space for weekend outings. He has a vision of turning it into a part-time “organic artist retreat.” I asked Walker if all of these plans meant that he considered the house “finished.” Walker answered, “I never expect to be finished.” Finishing, he said, isn’t something he even wants. For him, it’s all about “not losing” the sheer pleasure that can be found in "doing something for fun."
“I could have paid someone to build a house out here,” he said, “but then I would have had to go to work to pay for it. Instead, I built something from garbage.”
To many, his approach to building would seem backward. Instead of drawing up a plan and then buying the necessary materials, he flips it around. Only after he finds the materials (“or the material finds me,” he says) does the structure begin to take shape. Only then do a pair of discarded patio doors change into huge light-pouring windows. In Walker’s world, form creates function.
“I built this place for my children,” he tells me. He has three by an ex-wife, a nine-year-old girl and seven-year-old twins (a boy and girl). He says that although they’re still too young to participate in creating the house, their perspective—“seeing the world through their eyes”—has helped bring the structure to life. It’s a place where grown-ups are invited to act like children again. A place to paint, cook, fish, write poetry, swim, relax.
People have begun to notice. Last summer, in France, the novelist Frédérique Deghelt was scrolling through the “most eccentric houses” on Airbnb, and spotted Walker’s World. She wound up bringing her family over from France for a month, and later based a character in one of her novels on Walker. He became a 70-year-old man who helps guide a woman through a difficult time.
“I knew that Frédérique’s husband enjoyed playing the piano,” Walker said, “so one day I bought an old concert grand and smuggled it onto the boat when they weren’t watching, just for them, and covered it with a sheet. Later that day we went up the river a few miles, cooking dinner on the grill and drinking wine. At sunset, I told them I had a surprise and pulled off the sheet. You would have thought I had pulled up a trunk full of buried treasure.”