By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by Beth Mann
Good Architects Make Good Neighbors
Lee Ann Tilley and Larry Tilley, owners of Acme Plumbing Co., raised their son, Laurence Tilley, in a 1923 Dutch Colonial home in Trinity Park. Between 2001 and 2004, Sasha Berghausen of BLOK Architecture and his wife, Sara Berghausen, lived in the bungalow next door. The couples enjoyed one another’s company on their porches and in their backyards, and became fast friends over cold beers and conversations about changes they might make to their respective homes. “We loved the neighborhood and yard when we lived here, but the home’s layout was a bit challenging,” Sara says. “We tried a few different ways to make it work before we ended up moving on.”
About 10 years later, the bungalow had seen a few owners come and go, and Lee Ann continued to eye it with ideas. In 2014, Lee Ann and Larry purchased the bungalow for Laurence and his wife, Jessica Tilley.
Soon, though, grandchildren Susan, now 7, and Charlie, now 4, came along, and the two-bedroom, one-bathroom space no longer made sense for the growing family. By that point, Lee Ann and Larry were enjoying life as grandparents and feeling ready to downsize, and Larry planted the seed for a solution: They would trade houses with Laurence and Jessica – and Lee Ann would finally get to move into the bungalow she had been eyeing for decades and make it her own.
The architect who should head the renovation was a no-brainer: The Tilleys reached out to Sasha. “We didn’t want to lose any charm, or do anything that made it feel brand new,” Lee Ann says. “We’re old house people, and we wanted to keep the cottage feel.”
“It was a fun challenge to remedy all of the things that drove me crazy when I lived there,” says Sasha, who serves on the board of Preservation Durham. “You’ve really got to live in a place before you make big decisions, and in this case, I had both my own experiences and the Tilleys’ to help.”
Those issues included a lack of a central hallway – a narrow butler’s pantry served as the only passthrough from the living area to the kitchen– and the kitchen itself was a small, dark space with a challenging layout. “It had seven different points of entry, and nothing really made sense,” Lee Ann says. The renovation expanded the kitchen footprint, taking advantage of covered porch space that previously housed the washer and dryer. To help maintain the home’s handcrafted qualities, they reused all of the original doors and hardware.
“We also wanted to bring the outdoors in,” Larry says. Sasha’s design achieved this via the addition of a skylight and large windows looking out to the backyard. “When the children come over, we play ‘restaurant,’ and I pass them snacks through the kitchen window,” Lee Ann says.
Once the heavy lifting was done, Lee Ann turned to Linda Dickerson. Linda helped select the kitchen finishes, including cabinets, tile and flooring. Next came paint colors, rugs, light fixtures and wallpaper, and later, reupholstery of furniture pieces and custom bedding to tie everything together. “[Lee Ann] has always gotten my opinion before she does anything in her home, and that has made a wonderful collaboration for us,” says Linda, who also helped the Tilleys with the interiors for their former home next door. “Linda is my savior,” Lee Ann says.
Today, a swinging gate between the two properties is all that separates the Tilleys from their grandchildren (since the house swap, Laurence and Jessica also welcomed Lillian, 1). “I just love to listen for them coming through the gate,” Lee Ann says.
The Best of Both Worlds
The problem with being an architect? “I always want to build a new house,” Erik Mehlman says. But when he and wife Kelly Mehlman started thinking about a long-term home to start a family, it was a no- brainer to invest in remodeling their 1938 Cape Cod in Watts Hospital-Hillandale.
When daughter Eleanor, 5, came along, it only affirmed their decision. “We’re two blocks from Oval Drive Park and can walk to Ninth Street,” Kelly says. “We’re probably biased, but we think this is the coolest neighborhood in Durham,” Erik adds.
The Mehlmans first purchased their home in 2013 and began with minor interior touch-ups, like paint and fixtures. Erik, who serves as a partner and design lead at BuildSense, already had plenty of experience with the stumbling blocks that can come up during a large-scale renovation.
“We always tell our clients to keep it realistic when approaching a remodel,” he explains. “That means what really needs to be done should always come before the ‘nice-to-haves.’” So, when the time came to fully modernize, Kelly and Erik worked with the BuildSense team and began designing their “new” home.
At the surface, Kelly and Erik’s priorities were simple: Open up the main floor living areas, update the kitchen and create a beautiful master suite. “We needed a place to gather, cook, play, relax and, of course, watch basketball,” Erik says. “The layout was a bit of a challenge, but by focusing on what we really liked about the house, it helped us prioritize a ton,” Erik says. “I ask my clients the same thing: ‘What about the house do you love?’ And we go from there.”
Of course, every project has its challenges; for example, there were two layers of vinyl and tile flooring that had to be removed before hardwoods could be installed.
Kelly, whose style is more traditional, was excited to maintain the home’s charming historic qualities, while Erik worked to find solutions that would maximize the home’s footprint and make it more environmentally friendly.
The ceiling beams in the newly open main floor form the blueprint of the walls that once divided it into three separate spaces. Replacing the windows is another perfect example of how Erik and Kelly executed their shared vision; Erik selected energy-efficient panes for the update but salvaged and reinstalled the existing trim to keep the lived-in look that Kelly treasures. Other nods to decades past have been retained as well, including penny tiles in the guest bathroom, tongue-and-groove wood slats upstairs, and a telephone shelf in the hall.
The thoughtful touches continue on the second floor, with a lounge corner for Kelly in the master bedroom where she and Eleanor spend time together. Dog Nyx has her own couch in the corner, too, while cat Smog enjoys the landing space, which provides plenty of natural light to bask in and a private litter box room accessible by a cat door.
And Erik still has a list of projects to tackle: “The side porch may become a mudroom, and I’d love to screen in the deck,” he says. “Overall, though, we are just so thrilled by how we are able to live in this space.”
One thing missing from the renovation? Clutter. “We love the look of clean counters and tables,” Erik says. A pantry space built under the stairs proved a clever solution for holding kitchen appliances – including a coffee maker – that can easily be tucked out of view.
Time For An Update
I just love country life,” says interior designer Linda Dickerson. “And I really love being a grandma.” She and husband Tony Dickerson built their Bahama home on 11.5 quiet acres 32 years ago, when Durham looked a lot different.
“We didn’t have access to Broadway shows at DPAC, see games at the big Durham Bulls Athletic Park or even have any international flights out of RDU,” Linda says. “But on the other hand, it is so special that a short commute away from all of downtown’s great amenities, areas like Bahama still provide rolling hills and minimal development for those who enjoy this quiet lifestyle.”
Today, their land is a playground for their grandkids Matthew, 6, and Owen, 3, who live just five minutes away with their parents, Bryan Dickerson, the Dickersons’ son, and his partner, Lindsey Denton. Having a house full of family aligns well with Linda’s design mantra: “A home should be lived in and comfortable.” After a few decades, her kitchen definitely saw plenty of use – and Linda was ready for it to reflect how she and Tony live today. Fortunately, between her eye for design, Bryan’s experience as a licensed electrician and Tony’s skills as a handyman, she had everything she needed to renovate the 1980s kitchen.
Linda, who describes her personal style aesthetic as “French country,” knew she needed to strike a balance between old and new. “I thought about the ideal ways to display my collection of blue and white china, but still be useful and modern for the way our family uses the house today,” she says.
The centerpiece of the design is the island Linda purchased at TROSA Thrift Store. Kirk Wall helped Linda upcycle the antique pine cabinet into a stunning place to gather around, complete with deep drawers for Linda’s china and the grandchildren’s cups and plates. Kirk also installed the beadboard backsplash that encircles the kitchen. Hand-painted tiles from Best Tile accent the backsplash above the stove. Linda focused her attention on updating the draperies, improving the functionality and layout of the cabinet storage, and incorporating chairs that belonged to her grandparents.
To achieve the French country-yet-functional look Linda wanted, Tony not only relocated several of the cabinets, but also refaced them and staggered their heights. Then Bryan added under-cabinet lighting to illuminate the quartzite countertops by Custom Stone & Marble. Linda loves how these elements entertain the eye as you look around the room and provide different layers of display and storage space. Linda fell in love with toile draperies from Everything But Grannies Panties and lengthened them to bring drama to the breakfast nook. Reupholstering her grandparents’ chairs in a contemporary blue and white print completed the room.
Regardless of budget or skill level, Linda says the easiest way to begin a project is by answering a few simple questions: “What colors do you love? What objects do you want to be surrounded by? Those are great places to start.”
Once those questions have been answered, Linda recommends searching for furnishings and decor that match your aesthetic in Durham’s consignment and thrift shops – this is an affordable way to find unusual pieces, and something that she practices in her own home as well. In addition to her impressive collection of blue and white china pieces, each room in the Dickerson home is accented by finds from shops like Once & Again, Always Home Furniture Consignment and Classic Treasures. “No matter what you’re looking for, you are likely to find something special or unexpected,” she says.