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Straw Valley Cafe: an oasis near the interstate

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Ormond Sanderson and Robert Black bend their heads over architectural sketches of their old home, perusing the pages as if they were leafing through a family album.

In a way, they are. Straw Valley, a rambling but elegant Scandinavian-modern home of their own design, is their baby, their only child. And until a few years ago, their child's future seemed bleak.

Fortunately, developer Scott Bednaz stumbled upon the place. He fell in love. Straw Valley became his baby, his obsession. And today it's the coolest cafe and wine bar you've probably never heard of.

It's not because the wine list will wow oenophiles; it is modest but growing. Straw Valley embodies the qualities of a great wine, a melding of history and tradition with innovation and craftsmanship to evoke a singular sense of place, embodying terroir as winemakers strive to do.

You'll have to hunt for Straw Valley Cafe, even though it's close to the intersection of U.S. 15-501 and Interstate 40 near New Hope Commons. Turn on New Hope Commons Drive. On your right will be a Barnes & Noble. On your left, just past the Bicycle Chain and a row of self-storage units, just when you think you must've made a wrong turn, you'll see it.

Sanderson and Black started building the place in 1959 after meeting while they were both teaching at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson. "Neither one of us wanted to be teachers, so we decided we'd come here and be artists," Sanderson said.

Black is a lean man with a trim, white beard and a deep voice, standing a head taller than Sanderson. Black made pottery. Sanderson speaks in a soothing Southern lilt and has the bright eyes of younger man. He worked in enamels. Together they spent decades creating and selling art from their studio while turning a clutch of 19th-century barns and outbuildings on Sanderson's family land into their unique home.

They dreamed up the floor plans, stuccoed the walls, crafted the blond wood screens and etched the glass walls. The remnants of the old dairy farm became a masterpiece steeped in mid-century design details.

I followed Sanderson through the place as he pointed them out. The white stucco walls keep the low-ceilinged rooms from seeming gloomy. In the front room, glossy ebony tiles, which Black fires on-site, create a sleek frame for a fireplace. Weathered wooden beams from the farm's old barns support the ceiling. The floor tiles, made of marble dust, are remnants the pair bought as scrap, left over from the construction of downtown Raleigh's legislative building. A massive 9-foot frieze of concrete studded with stones forms a fireplace mantel in a back room.

"We tried to keep everything very natural," Sanderson says. "That was sort of a mirror of our own work."

The artists built a name for themselves, and Straw Valley drew art lovers and shoppers. Aside from these visitors, Sanderson and Black spent decades in creative pastoral solace.

Then came I-40.

As real estate developers gobbled up the land at one of the busiest intersections in the state, the pair knew their home, their greatest creation, was endangered. Sanderson and Black spent years trying to find a buyer who would promise not to mow Straw Valley down and plant a Walmart on the rubble. They couldn't bear the thought after spending the better part of their lives pouring their artistic souls into the place. It hadn't been easy, trying to make a living with an arts-and-crafts studio, which, at the time, was in the middle of nowhere.

"Everybody thought we were crazy," Sanderson says.

Scott Bednaz laughs wryly. "Join the club."

Bednaz bought Straw Valley with elaborate plans to preserve the unique home and make it an all-inclusive wedding reception site, complete with clothing, spa and catering services. The recession made quick work of that dream, however, but Bednaz has regrouped.

He constructed a building that stands between the old home and U.S. 15-501. In it, the Straw Valley Café sits beside Once and Again Antiques.

The wine list has 24 options, 20 of them available by the glass, and includes picks from California, Italy and a generous number from North Carolina. Bednaz is working with a distributor to expand it. He also wants to schedule regular live music on the massive wooden patio.

He feels a familial connection to the place, and to Sanderson and Black. "They were close to renovating it the year I was born," Bednaz says. "I bought it the same year my son was born."

At Straw Valley Café, Wi-Fi users can sit beside the cafe's big picture window and gloat at the rush-hour traffic crawling by, or they can wander through the house and find a spot on a leather sofa, surrounded by Sanderson and Black's handiwork. And whether they know it or not, they'll be keeping the dreams of Straw Valley alive.

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