Remembering a friend, neighbor, and NoDa pioneer

Longtime NoDa resident Graham Smith passed away in November. Graham and his wife, Audrey, bought their house in 1997 on the corner of Alexander and 35th, and from their perch on that corner became a fixture of NoDa’s artistic village lifestyle. Both Graham and Audrey made a living as professional stage actors and used NoDa as their home base between traveling the world as working actors.

I was fortunate to stay in their house, which was built in 1900, for two months during a renovation of our house. Graham and I knew each other from NoDa’s neighborhood association, and he joined our pick-up softball games at North Charlotte Park as the oldest player on the team. Graham was always youthful and energetic as he took part in our neighborhood, and after spending time at their house I wanted pay homage to his creative drive, his spirit, and his legacy as a resident of NoDa.

Audrey recalled when she and Graham first visited NoDa in the early and mid-90s. Their friend Betsy owned St. Ruby’s Coffee shop (which was one of the first businesses to open in a renovated mill house fronting N. Davidson Street in the ‘90s). When Graham and Audrey saw how their friends had renovated a home on Holt and Academy, they were inspired to do the same to the house on 35th – which was condemned and due to be demolished if they did not purchase it. Audrey said of their friends on Holt, “They were just as poor as we were, and they did it, so we could probably do it!”

Audrey admitted that Graham came from an academic family (young Graham got into acting in the early ‘60s as a part of his father’s touring magic act called Saucy Sorcery), and when they bought the 35th Street house he didn’t own any tools and had very little experience with building. “The house was covered in asphalt roofing shingles and the doors were blocked, so we had to climb into our new house through the dining room window,” Audrey recalled.

Over 23 years, Graham taught himself how to care for his family and his historic home by watching YouTube videos and trial and error. Always the showman, Graham built secret doors and hung picture frames on the fence, adorned the property with teapots and crystals, flowers, and most recently built a stage and lookout onto Alexander for their new puppy, Early. If you walk by Early’s Lookout on Alexander today, you can say hello to their whimsical and artistic garden backyard and Early. Longtime residents may remember this same fence with a black and red birdhouse that read See Rock City. “In the beginning people thought we were selling crack because of that birdhouse,” Audrey laughed about past days in NoDa.

“Graham would stand in the backyard and stare at the sky and get ideas for the house and yard,” Audrey told me. Their backyard is an abnormally large canvas, allowing Graham and Audrey to construct all kinds of structures with movable tables on pulleys, secret compartments, and metal sculptures and windmills. Audrey was told that Rosewood Plantation (Tryon & 36th) used their corner land before North Charlotte as a paupers graveyard and, although they have never found any gravestones, no one chose to build a house there in the early days of North Charlotte. Today, their home is part of the Ghosts & Legends tour, and Audrey is happy to be caretaking the ongoing story of this historic plot of land.

As professional traveling actors, Graham and Audrey weren’t always together in NoDa. One may have been home, while the other was starring in a six-week Shakespearean play at Florida Repository Theater, for instance. But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 brought Graham and Audrey together in NoDa for an extended period at the end of Graham’s life. They adopted Early, and picked up projects around their home as they had been doing for 23 years. They also focused their efforts on the 2020 election, donating their thespian earnings to social justice, Biden, and the Democratic Party. Graham didn’t live to see the results, suddenly passing the day before the election, but Audrey said she celebrated with their neighborhood for both of them.

Cheers to Graham Smith, our friend and neighbor, a creative spirit, a pathfinder, pioneer, and celebrated performer.