Dexter Blackwell and husband Michael Little tastefully renovated this 1920s fixer-upper in Trinity Park during the pandemic
By Marie Muir | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Dexter Blackwell was on mile two of his run when he noticed a house with a “for sale” sign on West Trinity Avenue. It was May 2020, and though the 1920s Craftsman was in serious need of repair, something about the chipped paint and overgrown shrubbery whispered, “Take a chance on me.”
Dexter and his husband, Michael Little, met as undergrads at UNC, where Dexter received his bachelor’s and master’s from Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Michael got his bachelor’s in public policy and doctorate in education leadership, policy and school improvement.
They tied the knot at the Durham County Courthouse in 2015. The newlyweds lived in Chapel Hill for a few years post- graduation before following a trail of friends who had moved to Durham. Today, Dexter works for a wealth management company in Chapel Hill, and Michael is an assistant professor at N.C. State University.
Their first place was a townhome in southwest Durham, followed by a custom build in Duke Park. After three years in that home, the house for sale in Trinity Park represented a fresh start.
“Both of those experiences allowed us to create our dream home in this renovation because we were able to prioritize the things we wanted most,” Dexter says.
So, they made the leap.
Chapel Hill Realtor Debbie McCormick sold their Duke Park house in just 24 hours (without hosting any in-person tours) when Dexter and Michael put it on the market in June 2020, just days after they went under contract on the 100-year-old fixer-upper. House keys in hand, they hired Riverbank Custom Homes to assist with design, architecture and implementation.
“I think [historic preservation] is important for us and for the neighborhood,” Michael says. “Trinity is one of the few neighborhoods that’s homogeneously 1920s Craftsman-style homes, and we wanted to make sure that we were sticking to the character of the street.”
After two months of planning, Riverbank’s Chad Wilkins presented Michael and Dexter with a few floor plan designs to choose from.
“Originally we wanted the master bedroom to be upstairs, but functionally it just didn’t make sense,” Dexter says.
Instead they opted to have the master bedroom and bathroom on the first floor alongside a spacious kitchen, Michael’s office and two living areas – one with a fireplace at the front of the house and one at the back of the house. Riverbank sealed off the basement staircase and exposed the main staircase to the front living area by taking down the wall that enclosed it, which created one seamlessly connected ground floor. A skylight installation on the second level sheds light on the original oak floors and contemporary decor.
Dexter and Michael’s 3-year-old chocolate Labrador Cora happily trots back and forth along a single, spacious pathway that runs from the front door to the back door. The kitchen occupies the center of the house and features an impressive island surrounded by gray cabinets and walnut shelves, custom-made by Piedmont Joinery.
“One thing that we did in this house that we didn’t do in the last house was mix lots of wood tones and metals in the same room,” Dexter says. “In the kitchen we have black metal, brass and stainless steel.”
Adjacent to the kitchen is another major piece to the renovation – a greenhouse-style breakfast nook/ living room addition with a vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room opposite a built-in bookcase and mounted TV. The space makes up 500 of the 2,900 square feet in the house and provides Michael and Dexter with a casual alternative to their more formal living area at the front of the house.
Upstairs, Riverbank reconstructed the dormer on the roof and transformed the one-bedroom loft into a functional second-floor space with three bedrooms, a bathroom and an office. On days that Dexter works from home, he has a spectacular view of mature trees that line the street and foot traffic below. The extra bedrooms will accommodate overnight guests and provide space for the couple to grow their family.
“Even though we had to rebuild the dormer, put a new roof on and rebuild the porch, [the house] still looks the same as it did a hundred years ago from the front,” Michael says. He and Dexter are applying for the house to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
If their home didn’t already clue you in, Michael and Dexter are both fans of history and vintage memorabilia. Dexter’s grandfather’s antique school desk and a textbook from 1932 remind him daily of his commitment to advancing public education. They even have a photo of the first motorized school bus in the state, which is currently parked at Dexter’s great- great-grandparents’ farm in Pamlico County, North Carolina.
Riverbank’s seven-month construction project also added outdoor features, such as an elevated stone patio surrounded by raised planter beds. At night the backyard is illuminated by an antique lamppost from Philadelphia. The family heirloom is more than 200 years old and was converted from gas to electricity.
Clean lines and calm color palettes set the tone for Michael and Dexter’s new/old home. “If you had a contemporary to modern style spectrum, we would be at the center of those two,” Dexter says. “So it’s not cold, but it also doesn’t lean traditional at all.”
Above all, the duo wants friends and family to feel comfortable in their space. Dinner parties often consist of Dexter’s homemade meals, Michael’s craft cocktails and rowdy rounds of Catan as a Sylvan Esso album plays in the background.