The first developer called in 1980, but the Witherspoon family said no.
“We didn’t see any need. We were happy here,” said David Pike, chief executive officer of Witherspoon Rose Culture and son-in-law of its founders. “Our customers knew where we were. They could get to us easily.”
Groups of developers continued to come in waves every five years or so, trying to persuade the family to sell the eight acres that houses the 62-year-old family business.
Over the years, the eight acres evolved into an oasis as shopping centers, parking lots, restaurants, hotels and office buildings paved over the overgrown farmland surrounding the property off U.S. 15-501.
For years, the family held out – until now.
Now Witherspoon’s second- and third-generation owners are packing up the property at 3312 Watkins Road, where founders Bob and Thelma Witherspoon raised their two daughters as they built a business. Witherspoon’s owners now tend about 80,000 rose bushes in three states.
The business is moving down the road, about a mile away as the crow flies, to 4800 Garrett Road on 4.5 acres that once housed the Yates Baptist Association.
The Witherspoons founded Witherspoon Rose Culture in Durham in 1951. In 1954, they bought five acres and later bought another three.
“Bob wanted to have a living catalog,” Pike said.
That allows people to see the true color of the yellow blooms with red edges known as Betty Boop, gauge the height of the compact bush known as Showbiz, and smell the clusters of blooms put out by the White Licorice variety.
Pike’s wife, Rhonda Pike, described growing up on the property as living out in the country off a dirt road before there was an Interstate 40 and U.S. 15-501. She was free to climb trees and ride her bikes on the farmland.
“The beauty of the sun setting over the rose garden was just magnificent,” she said.
Thelma Witherspoon, who died in July 2015, lived on the property until 2007.
David Pike and his son Taylor run the business today. The company’s 60 employees sell and care for roses in nearly 2,600 gardens across the Carolinas and Virginia.
In 1990, the Witherspoons developed a formal garden on the property with benches, a gazebo, and 1,300 rose bushes.
The garden was designed to look out onto a vista to the south.
“It used to be you would look straight through there, and you just saw green trees,” said Pike, 61.
The view shifted in 2002 when developers started to move dirt to build Patterson Place shopping center. Now, instead of a vista, there’s a Kohl’s.
Pike started working at the business in 1979 when his in-laws explored downsizing as they neared retirement age and neither of their daughters wanted to be involved in the business.
Pike, a Campbell University graduate, wasn’t happy as an assistant manager at Roses in Greenville. He started at Witherspoon as a helper (as in help pick that hose up over here, help check someone out over there).
“They were very patient with me,” he said. “Teaching me everything from the ground up.”
Taylor Pike, now the company’s chief operating officer, started mowing the grass at age 13 and working full time in May 2002.
Some roses are developed for their colors. Some for their ability to produce, and others for their lack of thorns. Some roses are mainly for smelling, while others are grown because they stay pretty after being cut and put in vases.
But one rose has a special Witherspoon story.
Bob Witherspoon died on Aug. 1, 2002. On Aug. 15, 2002, he would have turned 82. On that day, Pike went to cut a Tiffany variety for his wife.
But instead of finding a pink Tiffany rose with a touch of yellow, he found a white one.
“It threw me,” Pike said. He thought it might be a sport, a plant mutation.
When he brought it inside to his wife, Rhonda Pike couldn’t believe it. When it continued to produce the white roses, she considered it a miracle.
“Most people would say that a sport is a mutation, but for us, it’s not,” David Pike said. “It is, but it was a gift from God that he gave us. “
They sent some of bush’s wood to a grower in California, who determined it was a mutation that would sustain over time.
“He determined it had never happened to the Tiffany before,” Pike said.
They named it the R.K. Witherspoon rose.
“That is the way he signed his name,” Pike said.
The family’s content with the location started to erode in the early 2000s as the abandoned farmland began to be developed into the Patterson Place shopping center, and the intersection of Watkins and Mt. Moriah Road closed.
“It really made it more challenging for customers to get here,” Pike said.
Visitors to the property decreased, and they closed a once vibrant 10-year-old gift shop.
When developers added another road – Witherspoon Boulevard – it helped, Pike said, but traffic shifts and other challenges followed each phase of development.
Before builders put stucco on new buildings, they cover it with sheets of a Styrofoam-like material that they shave down.
“It was like it was snowing here,” Pike said. “It was getting on all the flowers and all over the grass. And that happened with each phase.”
Once a machine moving dirt caught fire, and black smoke invaded a bridal shower.
“I went ballistic,” Pike said.
Another time, workers knocked down pine trees on the property.
“I said ‘What are you doing,’ ” Pike said. “They said ‘We were told the clear up to the fence line.’ ”
And then there were the days when construction workers would park equipment in the driveway, sometimes blocking it.
“We’ve been disregarded as property owners,” he said. “We don’t have any rights.”
Last year, they considered renovating the Witherspoons’ former house, which had been turned into an office, and bringing it up to code.
“It was going to be more cost effective to move than to renovate,” Pike said.
Witherspoon Rose Culture is selling the 1,300 rose bushes on its property for $45 each to benefit Transitions LifeCare, formerly Hospice of Wake County. The family plans to start moving in December and open in the new location in January.
Rhonda Pike feels like she has already said goodbye to the property as the landscape shifted, changing their life and their relationship with the property.
David Pike said it’s still going to be hard to leave.
“I know when that day comes, we’ll be fighting back the tears,” Pike said. “It is going to be quite a challenge to turn away and not go there anymore. A lot of good memories.”
What’s next for the property
Witherspoon Rose Culture sold its eights acres for $5.3 million to Chapel Hill real estate developers who plan to build a mixed-use development.
LRC VII LLC bought the property, which was valued at $1.39 million by Durham County during the 2016 reevaluation.
The company’s partners include Louis Gonzalez and his son Bob, Chris Howlett and his daughter Kathryn.
The partners are seeking a rezoning that would allow an upscale mixed-use development with office space, retail, possibly a hotel and housing.
“We are not quite sure of the mix,” Kathryn Howlett said. “It is really early.”
The partners hope the rezoning will move forward in early 2017.
“We are a family business just like they are,” Howlett said. “That is one of the reasons we are trying to take our time and build something nice on the land.”