Modern History

Modern History

Deborah Chay put the fab in her prefab house

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Deborah shares the house with her 4-year-old Smooth Fox Terrier, Kimba. Her living room is a combination of pieces inspired by her Korean- American heritage and her love of minimalism. Previous owners installed the cork floors.
Deborah shares the house with her 4-year-old Smooth Fox Terrier, Kimba. Her living room is a combination of pieces inspired by her Korean- American heritage and her love of minimalism. Previous owners installed the cork floors.

If homes mirror their residents, then Deborah Chay has found her perfect fit. “This whole notion of adaptive ruse and sustainability is a recurring motif for me,” she says, “and for my sense of Durham, why Durham is such a cool place, and why I want to be here and why this house fits here.”

“A lot of houses in my neighborhood have these great gardens but they’re really full of stuff, and I really didn’t want to be full of stuff,” Deborah says of her front yard. “I wanted it to be clean.”
“A lot of houses in my neighborhood have these great gardens but they’re really full of stuff, and I really didn’t want to be full of stuff,” Deborah says of her front yard. “I wanted it to be clean.”

“This house” is a midcentury abode in Watts-Hillandale that, at first glance, doesn’t seem especially remarkable, although it is noticeably well kept and landscaped. But it is practically a historical artifact. Post World War II, there was a housing shortage for returning veterans, plus

a slew of unused factories that had been producing Army supplies. The solution? Prefabricated enameled steel homes, dubbed Lustrons. “This one was erected here in 1949,” Deborah says. While the houses were innovative, they weren’t cost effective; only 3,000 were ever built. Today, fewer than 2,000 remain nationwide, and Deborah lives in one of five remaining in Durham.

That’s pretty cool, but Deborah’s penchant for adaptive reuse is what makes her Lustron stand out. Take, for instance, her vividly green grass. “The entire yard is moss,” Deborah clarifies, crediting landscape designer Michele DeRose with the idea. Moss is essentially self-sustaining and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than grass maintenance. “I absolutely love it. It takes all of its nutrients from the air – you don’t have to mow the lawn. You don’t have to water.”

Deborah’s front door provides an unexpected pop of color – a trend that continues throughout her home.
Deborah’s front door provides an unexpected pop of color – a trend that continues throughout her home.

A CLEAN SLATE

Deborah is a seventh-generation North Carolinian on her mom’s side and a second-generation

American on her Korean-born father’s side. She has lived in just about every major American city and spent years as an academic – a professor of literary theory, African-American literature and feminist literary criticism – but her time as a Ph.D. student at Duke and her family roots have made Durham the spot that resonates as home. She moved back circa 2008 and took her home – both the structure and the place – seriously from the get-go.

Why red? “I just like it,” Deborah says of her kitchen.
Why red? “I just like it,” Deborah says of her kitchen.

Since Lustrons are prefabricated homes from the 1950s, they’re often dated in décor and tainted with decades’ worth of grease and tobacco. Upon purchasing the home in 2010, the first thing Deborah did was “clean every single panel. I felt like I earned the house after I did that.”

Meanwhile, one of her first community endeavors was to join the board of Triangle Modernist Houses, which is now North Carolina Modernist Houses. With a clean slate and informed by her board involvement, she decided it was time for a Lustron facelift.

Previous owners had added a back room to the original floor plan, but the wood-paneled room felt dark and disconnected. Deborah knew she wanted to freshen that up, which would be straightforward enough; she replaced the panels with clean white walls. In fact, her entire home is based in bright neutral grays, whites and taupes with pops of color.

Deborah works from a table made of wood salvaged from traditional Korean homes, much like the countryside ones her father spent summers in. To the right, you can see the “line of sight” she loves.
Deborah works from a table made of wood salvaged from traditional Korean homes, much like the countryside ones her father spent summers in. To the right, you can see the “line of sight” she loves.

ONE BIG ROOM’ 

This back room is the only non-original part of the Lustron. Deborah updated it from wood paneling, a brick fireplace and shag carpet.
This back room is the only non-original part of the Lustron. Deborah updated it from wood paneling, a brick fireplace and shag carpet.

A singular pop of color arose from a challenge: Deborah wanted to open up the kitchen without expanding it. She worked closely with Leslie Huntley of Asheville-based Roost Interior Design to make it happen. They overhauled the tiny space with white enameled cabinets, frosted glass panels, stainless steel appliances and a bright red floor. “I’m not afraid of color,” Deborah says. “I wanted something that would pop, but it wouldn’t be crazy busy. It’s a small house.”

The end result is fresh in its simplicity and, you guessed it, entirely modernist. “I really do enjoy the house. What I like to experience is the flow through the whole space. There is a sense that it’s just one big room,” Deborah says. Standing in the front living room, “[there’s a] line of sight that goes through into the backyard. It’s really” – and here she sighs – “it helps me breathe.”

Off of the added back room is a bathroom that was once pink. She chose a bright green instead and updated the fixtures. Because of the plumbing, she had to keep the dividing half-wall, which she made the best of by turning it into a planter.
Off of the added back room is a bathroom that was once pink. She chose a bright green instead and updated the fixtures. Because of the plumbing, she had to keep the dividing half-wall, which she made the best of by turning it into a planter.

BEYOND THE FRONT DOOR 

Since finishing the renovation in 2011, Deborah has transitioned to working from home, both as a consultant for organizational and fundraising development and as a director at San Francisco-based management consulting firm Schaffer & Combs. With the structural home just as it should be, she’s free to evolve in her role herein this place. “The way that Durham itself has been continually reinventing itself, particularly in the last decade … is something that really resonates with me,” she says of what she loves most. “What are the elements here and the cultural resources and the avenues that are available to help address contemporary problems in the community? Something that I find really exciting and valuable about being in Durham is how many people are engaged in some form or other of doing that. It’s the right place for this house to be in Durham.” DM