Lezlie Butts and David Butts maintain a vintage aesthetic in their midcentury ranch in the Willowhaven neighborhood in Durham
By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by John Michael Simpson
“Give older homes a chance,” Lezlie Butts says. “They have a story to tell.”
Lezlie and her husband, David Butts, moved to Durham from Kentucky in 1988 so he could continue his sports career playing for a soon-to-be nationally recognized team. “I played [baseball] with the Durham Bulls, and that was about the time ‘Bull Durham’ came out,” David says. “We didn’t need much publicity locally, but it made us a lot more popular when the team traveled.”
Rather than return home to Kentucky in the offseason, the Butts decided to stay in Durham. “I told Lezlie I’d give it a couple years, see where the league sent me,” David explains. “But we loved this area, and Lezlie found an amazing job. Here we still are.”
Two children – Ian and Eliza – and a few local moves later, Lezlie and David decided it was time to build their dream home and settle in Durham for good. “[We planned] this big, classic farmhouse in Rocky Ridge,” Lezlie says. “I would have an office, the kids would have their own rooms, everything would have a place. It was truly what we thought we had wanted for years.”
The Butts family moved into a small 1924 bungalow off Rose of Sharon Road while they waited for their forever home to be built. “The kids had to share a room, it had a teeny bathroom, and we were all on top of one another,” Lezlie says. “But I loved it. It was small, but we had more fun there than I can remember having in any of our other homes.”
The big farmhouse was completed in March 2008, and the Butts family moved in. Right away, Lezlie knew something was off. “I hated it,” Lezlie says. “I hated it, and after all that went into it, I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone.” With so many rooms and so much space, Lezlie found herself feeling more isolated and uninspired than she had in any of the older homes they had lived in.
They lived there for four years until one day Lezlie mentioned her unhappiness to David. “Lezlie asked me, ‘Would you be really upset if I told you I wanted to move?’ I was surprised, but I told her I’d be happy anywhere, so we started looking,” he recalls.
The Willowhaven neighborhood, with its rich history, rolling golf course and large wooded lots, caught Lezlie’s attention years earlier for another reason: its multitude of midcentury ranch-style homes. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and it was really my time,” Lezlie says.
Lezlie knew their Willowhaven home was the one as soon as she saw it. “It had something special,” she says, “a soul and a heartbeat.” The 1968 build had everything she was looking for: a brick exterior, sloped ceilings, large windows and even a basement rec room. Lezlie’s childhood nostalgia became a real-life opportunity, and she finally felt at home in Durham when they moved in in 2012.
Only later did she find out why the design felt so familiar. Lezlie tracked down the architectural plans for their home in the September 1967 issue of Better Homes & Gardens after spending a day in the periodicals archive at Duke University Libraries. She learned the award-winning design can be found throughout the U.S. “Once you’ve seen the home, you’ll recognize it everywhere,” David says. “It’s actually pretty cool.”
Aside from a few small aesthetic changes, such as light fixtures and doorknobs, the Butts have kept the interior layout the same; the decor is where Lezlie really dug into her love of all things midcentury. Large floral print wallpapers, bright colors and wooden beams provide a modern nod to the trend’s heyday.
A lifelong thrifter, Lezlie also wanted to fill the home with decorative treasures from that era. She slowly replaced all of their furniture and artwork with vintage pieces, covering the walls with hand-stitched crewel embroidery and reupholstering sidewalk finds with mod-inspired fabric from Spoonflower. Their golden yellow tufted sofa, lovingly named “Gloria,” was found at TROSA Thrift Store for $100 and reupholstered. “People toss things aside so easily,” Lezlie says. “There are treasures all around us.”
Her knack for collecting those treasures even led Lezlie to a successful Etsy business for several years, where she’d sell vintage finds from estate sales, thrift shops and markets. Though she is no longer in the business, her Instagram @theretrobeehive maintains a steady following and is an homage to her classic collections. “I have found wonderful friends,” she says, “not just here in Durham, but across the country and around the world, through this shared fascination with the past.”