In 2013 I discovered ‘urban exploring’. I was working as a portrait photographer then and a friend asked me to do a family shoot at the Rockefeller Estate. I had no idea there was one, much less two Rockefeller estates in the area! Over the next few years I made dozens of trips to the estate, photographing nearly all of the buildings and learning as much as i could about its history. Fort Bragg owns the property and now keeps the gates locked. (This article was originally published in FayToday in 2013)
In the winter of 1916 Percy Rockefeller, nephew of industrialist John Davidson Rockefeller, was visiting the Overhills Country Club nestled just outside of Fayetteville. The club was owned by the Kent – Jordan Company at the time and was slowly gaining interest from the wealthy East coast crowd. In 1921 Percy and William Averell Harriman, businessman and two-time presidential candidate, would form the Overhills Land Company for the purpose of managing the estate.
Rockefeller was an avid hunter and immediately began construction on a fox hunting compound with twin stables for kenneling dogs and horses and a large paddock for training purposes. Throughout the 20’s and 30’s the stables would be the starting point for the foxhunts which drew participants from up and down the east coast. When Rockefeller died in 1934 the fox hunts stopped and the horse stable was converted into a dairy barn. The dog kennels were mostly neglected and finally demolished in the late 1950’s. Today all that remains of the dog kennel is a rough cement outline of the foundation.
Harriman was an expert polo player and would convert a dairy barn, one of the oldest buildings on the estate, into polo stables for his prized ponies. Competitions were held pitting Harriman’s horses against local teams from Fort Bragg and Pinehurst on a polo field Harriman built near the world renowned golf course on the estate.
Throughout the 20’s and 30’s the estate flourished. The Birdsong Cottage was built in 1928 for Percy Rockefeller and his family. Historic bricks and ceramic roof tiles were salvaged from buildings in and around Charlotte for its construction. Outside the grand salon was a brick terrace and below the house was a four-car garage made of the same historic brick. The estate also boasted its own post office, a train depot, a hunting lodge, a fully stocked lake and a golf course designed by Scottish architect Donald J. Ross.
Percy Rockefeller and William Harriman had a falling out in the early 30’s and Harriman sold his interest and left the estate for good. The Great Depression took its toll and the last guests to enjoy the resort left in 1932. Percy died in 1934 and his wife died in 1937. Their children inherited the estate and their only son, Avery, took over managing the property on the family’s behalf. In the following years, thousands of acres were sold to raise revenue for new projects and to lessen costs. The focus shifted from sports and recreation to agriculture and the polo stables were once again used for dairy cows. Tenant farmers took up residence and the large palatial homes were razed and replaced with modern and modest homes. While the Rockefeller family continued to call Overhills home until the 1990’s, the enchanting world of luxury they had initially established was long gone by then. In 1997 more than 10 thousand acres were sold to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville’s connection to the notorious Rockefeller family would end.
Somehow Overhills never found a spot on the National Historic Registry and each year several more buildings collapse or burn. There’s no sign of the rail road tracks that once bisected the estate, or the animals which initially drew hunting guides to the land, or the opulent homes and clubhouses. In 2009, Fort Bragg representatives announced their intention to use the acreage for field training exercises. Both soldiers and trespassers use the playground of the rich and famous for war games, their discarded bullets scattered across the floor and bullet holes scar every door and wall. Fortunately, a small group of urban explorers have discovered the estate and are slowly and methodically photographing what’s left in the hope of preserving some small bit of its history.