Arts, architecture, culture abound on the Crystal Coast

From gallery showings to theater productions to historic buildings, the arts, culture, and architecture scene attracts residents and visitors to Carteret County.

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Abbey Slattery
, WRAL Digital Solutions
This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.

Carteret County stretches for almost one hundred miles up and down the North Carolina coast and is home to dozens of towns and unincorporated communities. For residents, the arts and culture scene is one of the Crystal Coast's biggest uniting factors.

"It's a challenge with a 90-mile long county to interest everyone," said Lee Lumpkin, president of the Arts Council of Carteret County. "But arts are so critical to the vibrancy of any community, and we have seen a lot of community interest in our programs from all parts of the county."

At the Arts Council of Carteret County, Lumpkin and his colleagues work as partners with the North Carolina Arts Council, supporting local artists with funding and enhancing the arts and culture community in Carteret County. While Lumpkin has a background in law and previously worked as an attorney and judge, he and his wife found themselves drawn to the arts community.

While the county is often thought of as a retirement destination, the county’s arts and culture attract full-time residents across the spectrum, including many who are still working. The arts are a magnet for tourists also.

"Many of our artists have retired to Carteret County in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and that has freed them to spend more time with their art. We have some really accomplished people here, some of whom are well-known regionally and even nationally," said Lumpkin. "We present our own art shows and we have a major annual event around Valentine's Day called Art from the Heart — we held our 30th event this past spring. It runs about two and a half weeks and the Arts Council sponsors it."

"We include four counties — Carteret, Craven, Pamlico, and Onslow counties — and we usually have about 200 artists from those counties with maybe 425 pieces of artwork for sale. We present our students' show alongside that and usually there are about 1,200 pieces of student artwork presented," he continued. "It's a huge event and I think it's considered one of the largest of its type in eastern North Carolina. We usually have an acclaimed North Carolina artist from outside our region to judge the competition."

In addition to art shows, the county is also home to a vibrant local theater scene, thanks to the group at Carteret Community Theater. The cast regularly puts on Broadway shows and special performances — including a particularly lively performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show — in the renovated old Morehead Theater in Downtown Morehead City, which is currently undergoing renovations. The theater also serves as a regular venue for local musicians like the Carolina East Singers.

The visual and performing arts are just one part of the multifaceted culture scene in Carteret County. For Josh Lyle, owner of Lyle Contracting Solutions and a former civil engineer, the architecture of the Crystal Coast builds upon the already rich artistic and cultural environment.

"My genuine feeling is, I don't care if people look at a building in 100 years and say they love it — I just want them to see the building in 100 years and for it to evoke feelings, whether those are good or bad," said Lyle. "Sometimes I look at buildings and I think, 'It's making me feel something, and I can't decide if I love it or hate it.' That's good architecture right there."

While the Crystal Coast has been buzzing with new construction projects that showcase modern designs, many of the buildings across Carteret County are notable for their historic architecture, from the dramatic pergola of the Beaufort Courthouse to the Florentine Renaissance style of the Morehead City Municipal Building.

Other buildings not only help cultivate the county’s culture, but also contain it — including the historic exhibits in the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum in Harkers Island and the Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center in Beaufort. The former, which offers a historical and hands-on look at “Down East” traditions, mimics the style of a hunting cabin with rich wooden beams and exposed brick walls. The latter, an ode to Beaufort's maritime history, is unlike any other building on the downtown waterfront, with a barn structure and large doors made for launching boats on the water and docking incoming vessels.

With such a strong emphasis on history in the county's culture, many new construction projects have made it a point to preserve and incorporate that culture. A prime example can be seen at the Fort Macon Visitor's Center, which, while built recently, took architectural cues from its centuries-old counterpart, mimicking its iconic angular shape.

More recently, the Carteret Health Care addition was made to merge a modern design with the historic culture of the area. For the hospital, the careful attention to the atmosphere and design has made the expansion a piece of art all its own — and even the patients have taken notice.

"When I was working on the hospital addition, the CEO at the time, Dick Brvenik, had done a similar large addition renovation at another hospital, and hospitals have all these ratings, scores, and feedback from patients. He said that the patient rating of the quality of service that they were providing went up dramatically after the new addition was complete," said Lyle. "He said, 'There was zero change in our quality of service. We had the same staff, using the same tools, and the same service. The only difference was they were doing it in a nicer building.' Their ratings of quality of service went up because of a nicer building. That was when he said, 'That's when I realized that structures matter.'"

For Lyle, there's one analogy that sums up the importance of cultivating a built environment, whether climbing up the 207 steps of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse or taking a stroll to look at the old homes on the Beaufort waterfront.

"The analogy that I like to use is about when your iPhone charging cable breaks — because they always break. If you had to go to a Radio Shack and buy that $40 Apple phone cable and you walk into a dingy, old Radio Shack with gray carpet and red paint, it's just blah. Or, you can go to the Apple Store. You walk into the Apple Store — its tall ceilings, its bright lights, its shiny floors, there's all these iPads and devices. They have nice music playing. You spend the same money, and you walk out with a smile on your face," said Lyle. "What was the difference? The difference was the built environment. The structures that we're in matter. It impacts us. When you have the choice to be around attractive buildings, it makes you happier."

That holistic approach to creating an ideal environment in which to live echoes throughout the Crystal Coast, and many of the same architecturally significant buildings that Lyle mentions are also home to the art exhibits, theatre and music performances, and community events that Lumpkin highlights.

For many coastal communities, there's a struggle to maintain an active and engaged community during the shoulder seasons. For arts and culture lovers on the Crystal Coast, however, there's no shortage of things to do year-round, and each event and performance provides an opportunity to explore a new corner of the community.

"The county is 90 miles long, so you won't find our arts community as centralized as you would in Charleston or somewhere like that. However, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to find some of the artwork that's being presented," said Lumpkin. "We're making a real effort to make this a destination place for the arts. It may not quite compare with Santa Fe or Charleston, but for the purposes that we are here for — for tourists and full-time residents — the arts are really important and I think everybody recognizes that."

This article was written for our sponsor, Crystal Coast Economic Development Foundation.

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