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CASA: 37 rms, big screen vu

Our reporter, in the midst of a grueling renovation of his Cameron Park bungalow, ventures into Wakefield to see how the Big (Money) Boys do it

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I wasn't a big fan of Wakefield, based on two previous trips there. Explorations, you might call them, for while Wakefield isn't that far from the middle of Raleigh--about 12 miles by the odometer--it's a good three miles north of where North Raleigh should, for the time being at least, s-t-o-p. But for the fact that Raleigh is addicted to sprawl, and couldn't wait to extend its water and sewer tentacles up there, Wakefield would be in Wake Forest.

Anyway, on my first trip to Wakefield, I turned right off Falls of Neuse Road, which is generally where the middle-class and upper middle-class houses and apartments are going. (No sign of any affordable housing.) I wanted to visit the three schools so thoughtfully provided for this outpost of humanity by the Wake school system. A high school, a middle school and an elementary school were lined up like toy soldiers on a vast field of fescue, as divorced in their relation to civilized culture as, oh, Arnold Schwarzenneger is to Plato's Republic.

Sometime later, my wife and I ventured out on a sunny weekend (You gotta see it) and this time I turned left, entering the part of Wakefield where large houses for the merely rich ring an inner sanctum of manses for the truly decadent. Ah, but are they rich in spirit? As I pondered that question, we found ourselves being flagged to a stop by private security guards staked out at the perimeter of what looked to be a wedding reception. In our old pickup truck, we clearly were not among the invitees. And though we were certainly within our rights to proceed down a public road, prudence suggested that if anyone on the inside were to abscond with the silver goblets, we'd be prime suspects unless we vamoosed pronto. Which we did.

Ah, but now I was driving down the same road, in my new(er) car, and I was legit--one of the throng invited to tour the biggest house in the Parade of Homes, the signature event of the Home Builders Association of Wake County. For this, let me thank Rebecca Antonelli, president of TrianglePR (www.trianglepr.com), and by the way, Rebecca, if you're reading this I am available to attend other swell parties of your instigation as long as it's understood that I am not necessarily going to write anything relevant to your public relations objectives.

But surely she knew that when she asked in The Independent. What kind of ultra-liberals would we be if we gushed over every 16,000-square foot McMansion we saw, or, for that matter, any residence that size not built prior to the Reformation? And yet, I was not coming to bury Caesar, either (or to mangle metaphors). No, my mission was to learn. You see, as this event was occurring in September, Pam and I were waist-deep in our own real estate venture, a long-overdue home renovation that continues to this very day.

Renovation. Does the word strike fear in the heart? It should. Everything they say is true. Your marriage will be tested. Your very identity will be probed and exposed, and your superego--not to mention your taste--very likely found wanting as you try to achieve that "House Beautiful" on your ridiculously inadequate budget.

Seriously then, what possible lessons could I take away from a new house of gargantuan proportions that would be of any help in the renovation of our old (circa 1924), small bungalow?

That's an excellent question, and before I answer it I want to amend my prior testimony. I was not coming to learn. I was coming to confirm what I'd already found out by dint of trial-and-error, but mainly because, when you are involved in a construction project, you are unavoidably obsessed with every detail of the thing, from the floor joists to the can lighting. Or should it be track lighting? Or maybe hanging pendants? But if so, what kind of pendants? And should they be on a rod, or a chain? Hanging how low? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

So now I'm at the door of this Dave Robson Home (Dave, incidentally, is "accepting pre-sale clients" in price ranges from "the 3s," as they say, to $1.5 million and up, up, up in Wakefield "Phase 3"). There is a swirl of activity, young women in short black dresses are our greeters, Moet champagne is being dispensed, but I am inexorably drawn past all of it by the confident smile and beautifully coifed blonde hair of a woman who turns out to be--Yes!--the designer. LaRue Ashton will show me around. She helped the owners of the house select the colors, the finishes, the countertops, tiles and fixtures that are the most baffling, most unnerving elements of the home construction project.

This is the answer, the one lesson I want to impart: When undertaking a new house or renovation, you need someone in charge of design. Notice I didn't say you need to hire a designer. In the next life, perhaps, we'll all enjoy the assistance of a LaRue Ashton as we select our window treatments and cloudtop colors. In this life, most of us can't afford LaRue, who flew up from Florida for this job. ("I can't afford me either," she laughed.) And it may be that you can do the job yourself, or your partner-in-life can.

Here's what won't work, however. You're busy, your partner is busy, neither of you really has the time to make the myriad, and interrelated choices needed--no, demanded--by your contractor--and when either of you does try to make them, you find that your tastes are a) suspect, and b) not the same as your partner's. For the tie-breaking vote alone, I recommend a design consultant--a friend, perhaps, or even your mom, somebody who's done this before and whose home strikes you (both of you) as nice.

You're going to need a floor. Should it be a hardwood floor? What kind of hardwood? What kind of stain? Or should it be an engineered wood? Or a tile? Or slate? They're doing amazing things with linoleum these days.

You get the idea. There's no end of choices, and the ones you make for your floor need to be compatible with your cabinets, your walls, your countertops, your lighting, your very soul. (And hers.) You can troop around town to the tile stores and the plumbing suppliers and the rest, or you can rely on someone who's done all that before and who can present you with options and packages of options from which to choose.

The most striking thing about this Parade home, design-wise, were the birch floors. Light and bright, they lent themselves to bright color choices in each of the 26 rooms, along with sharp white trim. I'm no critic, and it was all a whirl to me as we went room to room, and bathroom to bathroom (there are 11 of them). I would just say that I was surprised how straightforward most of the rooms were upstairs, anyway, a reminder that it's not necessary to splurge on everything in every room; rather, one nifty choice--a sink, an accent tile--can carry everything else.

***

Now, you ask, why would anybody need a 16,000-square-foot house? This brings me to Greg and Millicent Williams, who were moving into this one. When I first arrived, I was told Greg was "an investor," Millicent did something with accounting, and they had three small children. I was put in mind of spoiled white kids whose parents had passed on the family jewels. Touring the upstairs, I worried about the children, each of whom has his or her own bedroom and separate dressing/playroom. How insufferable will they be?

Downstairs, I met the tile supplier, the plumbing consultant, the trim carpenter--the open house was for the industry, as well as the press, and anybody who'd had anything to do with this house, or wanted anything to do with any future Dave Robson house, was on hand for the occasion. So when I encountered a young, soft-spoken African-American man in the kitchen, I took him for a broker, perhaps, or someone in cabinet sales. It was Greg Williams, who grew up, he told me, not in the lap of luxury, but in a public housing project in Goldsboro.

Williams is an investor, all right. He's an investor in Dave Robson Homes, among other things. But mainly he's a sports agent, an N.C. State grad whose biggest clients are Wolfpack football stars Torrey Holt, his brother Terrence Holt, Dantonio Burnett, Adrian Wilson and so on.

Raised by a single mom working two jobs, Williams dreamed big dreams that began with his own football stardom, he said. Not long into his teens, however, he realized he was no athlete, but the dreams remained, and one of them, he said, "was to build a house like this." Williams said his first client was N.C. State's Carl Reeves, an undersized defensive tackle that nobody wanted. "Right," he said, "and nobody wanted me as their agent either."

To get Reeves noticed, Williams started calling the guy who was picking players for the East-West All-Star Game, a showcase for lower-level talent. Reeves was on their list, Williams was told. Way down at the bottom. So Williams called every day for the next two weeks and finally, to get him to quit, the guy gave Reeves a spot. Long story short, Reeves had four sacks in the game, was drafted and signed by the Chicago Bears and played for four years in the NFL. Williams was on his way.

Did I say the birch floors were the most striking feature? That's not including the 22 television sets, one of which--a 123-inch front projection set--anchors an amazing surround-sound media room with theater seating for 16. Pricetag, from AV Integration (www.av-integration.com): $120,000.

Why would you need a house this big? Well, you don't, obviously, but think of this as three houses--one for the kids upstairs; one for Greg and Millicent on the main floor, with a fabulous guest suite featuring a shower big enough for six; and a whole party house downstairs, with the media room, a wet bar and five-screen TV setup so the boys can watch every game that's on simultaneously, and a patio with swimming pool and waterfalls.

There's gonna be some great parties there as Greg and Millicent court the future football stars and co-investors on their list. And, by the way, if there's any one thing you'd like in your Dave Robson home, it's in this one somewhere. EndBlock

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