Durham Couple Turns the Bassett House Into a Home

Durham Couple Turns the Bassett House Into a Home

In a way, Mike Schram and Barbara Griesing saved the Trinity Park house that built Duke.


Click on any photo to view larger version of slideshow and see full caption information. Photography by Briana Brough.

Like many North Durhamites, Mike Schram and Barbara Griesing spent a decade and a half silently cheering on the development of downtown. “We had always wanted to live in town and be able to walk to places,” Barbara says. As their adult daughters Alison and Courtney left home and son Matthew, 14, approached high school, Durham transformed. The family knew the time had come in their adopted hometown.

“We were interested in an older house,” says Mike, a retired facilities manager, and they soon found one on Trinity Avenue. Built in 1891, it was a fixer-upper, to say the least. On top of standard restoration undertakings – hand scraping lead-based paint off of walls, repairing original glass windows – “the foundation had to be replaced,” Mike says. “I think that discouraged some of the would-be buyers.”

“We had to lift the house off of the foundation,” adds Barbara, who works for a health care startup. “There was no way you could live here and do the renovations that needed to be done.”

But they were bound and determined. “Our builder [Riverbank Custom Home Builder] and architect [Todd Addison] were on the money about what would be required for the project. So we really went in with eyes wide open, knowing that the work was pretty intensive,” Barbara says. “Because we could live somewhere else and renovate the house at the same time, this worked for us.”

In fact, rather than scare them off, it fueled their fire. “We just wanted to renovate an old house,” Barbara says. “Our son goes to Durham School of the Arts, which is a block away. As they say, all the stars aligned.”

Mike and Barbara went to the closing prepared to purchase a Trinity Avenue home on the National Register of Historic Places, as many old properties are. As they signed the paperwork, they discovered that it was also on the list of local historical landmarks, as decided by the City of Durham. “It was the residence of John Spencer Bassett, an outspoken history professor,” Mike explains. Their house – known by historians as the Bassett House – was one of five original faculty houses for Trinity College, of which four remain today. Its namesake, Professor Bassett, authored a 1903 paper called “Stirring Up the Fires of Racial Antipathy” that launched a national debate on academic freedom. Trinity College supported its professor’s broadminded point of view, and in doing so earned the praise of President Theodore Roosevelt. It helped put Trinity College on the map for prominent donors, including the Duke family.

“It was like icing on the cake,” Barbara says of discovering the history of their house. As they worked their way through the “tremendous amount of paperwork” (Mike references a two-inch- thick stack) required in approving historical renovations, they savored the icing.

“We got so into the project,” Mike says. He worked with preservation consultant Sara Lachenman and Duke Libraries Assistant University Archivist Amy McDonald to dive headfirst into the Bassett House’s story. It gave them motivation to leave no detail behind on the restoration. “If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right,” Mike says.

Working with a team of professionals and armed with historical photos, Mike and Barbara were tenacious in their accuracy. “There’s a detail in the foundation in the photograph of the original house,” Mike says. “It was a vent made out of bricks. We had a contractor duplicate that.” They got a stained wood front door to “imitate exactly what the door in the photo looks like,” Barbara says.

This house is the family’s connection to Durham. “Once we started to get into it, there was no stopping,” Mike says. “It’s so interesting how much the house is closely tied to Duke’s history. Now we’re tied to it, too.”

From planning to completion, the renovation took about 18 months. Though they’re hardly newcomers to Durham, the Trinity Park neighborhood has been an enriching community to join. They entered with a bang: “When we did the foundation [construction], we found granite unexpectedly, and they had to jackhammer it out,” Barbara says. “Our neighbors were amazing through the whole thing.” They’ve gone on to form close friendships, and the Bassett House silhouette is part of the Trinity Park logo. Now, Matthew walks to school each day, and running into somebody who lived in their house as a graduate student is not an uncommon experience for Mike and Barbara.

Practically speaking, “we’re thrilled with the way it came out,” Mike says. They’ve created a sophisticated sanctuary steeped in history, decorated in a tranquil array of grays and blues. “There’s not much I would change.”

Home base is certainly not taken for granted, but being downtown is pretty great, too. “We love history, so having that aspect will always make it really fun,” Barbara says. “It’s a very tight-knit community. And we can walk to so much. I couldn’t wait to move here, and it’s surpassing my expectations.”