The first impression you get when you step into the Devereux Street home of John Reese and Dan Lilley is one of ease and freedom--lots of room to breathe. Looking at this beautifully arranged and thought-out living space, it's hard to imagine the building as they first saw it. "The house was in bad shape, just really falling down," Reese says. But having gained experience with renovations in his work as an architect with Clearscapes Architecture in Raleigh, he saw the possibilities.
Originally constructed in 1917 to serve as a neighborhood grocery, the building was cheaply built without basement or footings, a "balloon-type" method of building more typical of a barn or shed than a house. The shell was all one piece and there were no load-bearing walls, just columns supporting the roof. John Peatross, who built the building, operated a fresh market and supply store on the first floor until 1939.
That year a family named Nordan bought the building, and it became the Nordan Grocery Store. In time, the Nordans added an apartment to the back of the store, where they lived and reared a family of three children. Reese and Lilley purchased the building from Mrs. Nordan's heirs after her death.
Modern restrictions on how close the walls of the building can come to the edges of the lot meant that if they had torn down the original building, they could have constructed a new dwelling of only 700 to 800 square feet. But painstakingly jacking the building up, digging out a crawl space, pouring new footings and then removing and replacing one wall at a time, meant they could not only retain the building's historic character, but preserve its spacious 3,000-square-foot area as well.
The reconstruction, begun in 1997, took about a year, from the day work on the house started until the day that Reese and Lilley could move in. "Luckily we didn't have any hurricanes that year," Reese muses, showing me a photograph of the house on stilts, like a beach house, with a Bobcat digging out the crawl space. The dirt displaced by the digging was transferred to the yard, bringing the level of the yard up to the level of the former back porch.
"We wanted to use every ounce of the land," Reese remembers. "We got a variance from our next-door neighbor to build an 8-foot-high wall between our houses so that we could construct a private court with a Koi fish pond."
Although the building looks something like a Shaker meeting house with its simple lines and beautifully proportioned windows and doors, the inside is more Japanese in feeling, with sliding panels of plastic framed in cherry wood on barndoor tracks covering the living-room windows instead of traditional curtains. The floor plan is completely open. Floor levels define the various spaces rather than walls; the living-room space, for example, is on a "stage" a little higher than the dining area. A waist-high cinderblock partition separates the kitchen area from the living room area. "I'm interested in the celebration and display of ordinary materials--plain pine wood, galvanized metal, concrete blocks," says Reese. "By treating them as high-design, they come off as high-design."
A perfect example is the guest bathroom downstairs, which incorporates a stainless-steel janitor's sink and a galvanized pail used as a wastebasket. The only decoration is a worn metal sign for White's ice cream that was discovered in the walls of the old building during the tearing-down process.
In the cooking area, the stainless-steel sink and counter unit came from a commercial kitchen recycling center. "And I love these sinks, I'm never going back to skimpy little sinks again," Reese says. A stack washer-and-dryer set for doing kitchen laundry fits in neatly next to a kitchen office area, so that household management doesn't require a climb to the second floor.
The upstairs is just as lovely and well-planned as the first floor. You ascend by way of wooden stairs lit by interior windows that borrow daylight from the exterior windows and skylights in the roof--stairs that seem to float in space, since they are not visibly attached to the outside wall, only to the inner one. Unlike the first floor, the second floor is divided by walls. Only the flooring and the roof sheathing remain from the original structure. There's a guest bedroom at the top of the stairs and a guest bathroom across the hall that utilizes a porcelain claw-foot tub and some doorknobs salvaged from the original furnishings.
In addition, there's a laundry area, a master-bedroom suite, a home office, and huge bath, where the acoustics in the shower rival the most professional sound studio. Next to the home office is a special "listening room" for Lilley, who's an audiophile with a degree in acoustics. This room's perfectly proportioned walls are specially insulated so that Lilley can enjoy his state-of-the-art stereo equipment without disturbing anyone else in the rest of the house.
Located in the ceiling of the laundry area is a whole-house fan that, in warm weather, pulls breezes throughout the house using operable transom windows above the doors. In addition, each floor has its own heat pump. The temperature is consistent throughout the house, and the system is so cost-efficient that electric bills are minimal.
Reese leads the way through the double doors that face Gaston Street, pointing out that the house is surrounded by a strip of gravel that separates the grassy yard from the building. Reese likes it to appear that the house is sited on the lot and not "pushed and mushed" into it. The garden storage shed has a heavy plastic wall, on which Reese has hung garden implements that form a decorative shadow pattern when the shed is lit from the inside. This means that the small building becomes a huge lantern to illuminate garden parties--and there's even a serving window built into the wall that adjoins the yard.
Crape myrtle and pachysandra edge the yard, and some unusual trees called globe locusts border the sidewalk. The locusts, which look like giant lollipops, will eventually grow tall enough to screen the garden lawn from passers-by on the street. Like all the rest of the house, even the plantings have been carefully selected to fit into the overall design.
It's easy to see why the dwelling won the Sir Walter Raleigh award in 1999. "It's very livable," says Lilley. "We had a reception here for 150 people and it's quite comfortable for that many, but it's also very comfortable for two or three people."
Recalling the day the exterior walls were finally in place and the sphinxlike building began to assume its final shape, Reese enthuses: "All of a sudden it had this wonderful, proud appearance--it was no longer a dilapidated building, it had started to reclaim its position in the neighborhood." It's no exaggeration to say that "finding the DNA of this building and working with a modern understanding of it," as he puts it, was a labor of love. "This project was not a restoration," he says. "It was a matter of locating the soul of the house and marrying it to a new use."