Tying the Knot
An old Raleigh family celebrates a wedding with worldly flair
by Liza Roberts
photographs by Graham Terhune
Wynn and Jim Dorsett were newlyweds in 1985 when they moved to MidOaks, the beautiful Raleigh home that had already been in the Dorsett family for two generations. Thirty-two years and four grown children later, the house, in its expansive, leafy setting on Wake Drive, is much the same. Many of the heirloom furnishings, books, and art that have filled its stately rooms for decades are still in place; the gracious oaks that shade its gardens remain.
The family who lives there, meanwhile, has grown and expanded alongside an increasingly cosmopolitan Raleigh. In April, when the Dorsett’s daughter Elise celebrated her marriage to Milan native Marco Levati with a wedding reception in the garden, the historic homeplace – which turns 100 this year – got a festive dose of Raleigh’s contemporary international flair.
Guests hailed from 10 countries. The previous night, they’d shared a dinner that combined cuisines from countries where the couple has spent time, including Switzerland, Thailand, Argentina, Spain, Italy, and the U.S. The groom – an Italian engineer who moved to Raleigh for a job at Zurich-based technology giant ABB – and the bride, a world traveler and a brand director at Raleigh marketing firm New Kind – didn’t fox-trot, they tangoed. Impressively. The tango is how they met here in Raleigh in 2013, and it’s now a dance they teach together at Cirque de Vol on Hargett Street, not far from their home in Boylan Heights.
“When I moved away from Raleigh, (it was) because I was so bored,” says Elise. “When I moved back, everything had grown so much. It’s so international. There is so much energy and so much life. And I was really surprised to learn about the tango community here.”
At the reception, the couple performed their syncopated steps in the garden. They barrida-ed past a robust, 29-year-old pink azalea bush that was a baby shower gift for Elise’s parents before she was born; they boleo-ed among mature hydrangeas that grew from table centerpieces at Wynn’s sister’s bridal luncheon in 1993; they gancho-ed in the same spot that has hosted innumerable family gatherings, Raleigh fundraisers, church picnics, and school events. The couple’s friends and family from all over the world conversed in several languages.
“It’s the nature of the world we live in, and the world that Raleigh has become,” says the mother of the bride, who is learning Italian so that she can better communicate with the family of the groom. Elise says her parents’ hospitality was vital to the wedding’s success. “Having it at home was really important to me,” says Elise. “Not only is it beautiful, but my parents have put their heart and soul into that house and the garden. To bring Marco’s family there seemed like a really special opportunity. Also to have friends from Argentina, and Marco’s friends … the whole combination was very special.”
The worldly scene might have been hard for Jim’s grandfather, U.S. Senator Willis Smith, to envision when he bought MidOaks in what was then the countryside, on the outskirts of what was then a small Southern city.
But maybe not. Smith’s outlook and experience were notably expansive. From this quintessential Southern homestead, he built a career that helped to grow Raleigh and the region, founding the leading law firm Smith Anderson in 1912, and presiding over the N.C. House of Representatives as Speaker. His expertise also took him far afield: He served as president of the American Bar Association; was a U.S. observer at the Nuremburg Trials; was the chair of the American delegation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Switzerland; and served his country and state as a U.S. Senator. Smith’s law books are still in place in the bookshelves of his corner home office, which hasn’t changed at all since he worked in it more than 60 years ago.
“Most of what is here was already here,” Wynn Dorsett says of the house as a whole. That’s true for the furnishings, and it’s also true for the family’s long-lived appreciation of tradition and home, coupled with an enthusiastic, celebratory engagement with the world beyond. But at the end of the day, what mattered most at the multicultural wedding was universal: “The love of this bride and groom was reflected back to them by the community of friends and family from near and far who gathered to celebrate,” says Wynn Dorsett. “It was a joyful occasion for all of us.”