A couple preserves the past by restoring a centuries-old home in North Durham
By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography By John Michael Simpson
Down a gently curving driveway, tucked behind centuries-old oak trees, the home of Frances Presma and Will Wilson stands as a present-day example of what Durham looked like 150 years ago. Also known as the Giles Latta House, the historical structure was built in 1875 and incorporates several facets of older buildings that once stood on the land as well as newer additions attached later in the 19th century. The property was home to seven generations of the Latta family, but today only a handful of buildings and 5.4 acres of the original 294-acre farmstead conveyed to James Latta in 1756 remain.
By the time Frances and Will took ownership of the parcel in 2016, it had changed hands a few times and fallen into disrepair from neglect, and needed quite a bit of love to make it livable again. “We spent years driving past this house with our daughters, [Ella Wilson and Hannah Wilson], who we raised around the corner in Greymoss,” Frances says. “One day we drove past, saw a ‘for sale’ sign and made an offer on the same day. When we called the girls to tell them we’d bought the white house on Bivins Road, they knew which one we meant right away.”
The two-story farmhouse and its surrounding land may have served as a landmark for travelers decades ago, too. Until her death on May 1, 2022, at age 100, Beulah Latta was among the few Latta descendants who could still remember what the home was like before electricity and other modern conveniences were installed in the 1950s.
Beulah was also witness to a century of changes throughout Durham County, as new home developments continued to encroach toward the farmland. So, when she learned that Frances and Will would preserve the home rather than tear it down, Beulah gave them a special gift: a caned chair that belonged to her ancestor Giles. It now has pride of place in the couple’s living room. “We were excited to get to meet her,” Frances says. “One of the recent owners was planning to develop homes on the site, and she was just so grateful we would be restoring it instead.”
Before any aesthetic changes could be made to the home’s interior, practical repairs needed to be made to the roof, insulation, windows and flooring. All of the joists below the home needed replacement and repair. Will – who did much of the restoration work himself – crawled under the house to discover the first of many surprises: a warren of groundhog tunnels, years of termite damage and what looked like an arrowhead.
“After I found the first one, I just kept going,” he says. Though the added step of sifting through bucket loads of dirt significantly added to his workload, Will says it was more than worthwhile; he has discovered dozens of prehistoric tools that date to about 7,000 years ago.
Once the floors were level and the walls and windows were sufficiently sealed, Frances and Will turned their attention indoors to what would be the home’s biggest renovation challenge: swapping the kitchen and bedroom.
The previous layout made sense to the home’s earliest owners, positioning the bedroom near the warm parlor in front and providing easy access to a log kitchen structure out back. That log building still stands, but the doorway that once led outside has been replaced by Frances and Will’s bedroom closet. More importantly, the kitchen and living spaces, once separated by the dining room and bathrooms, are now connected. “That change has just been vital to our enjoyment of the space,” Will says.
Frances says their tastes aligned well with the home’s age when it came to the design for the new kitchen. “It’s an older house, so sleek and shiny wouldn’t have worked even if we wanted it to,” she explains. “We’re casual people, and this is a casual house.” Instead of modern fixtures and granite countertops, she and Will selected simple white cabinets and a maple butcher block island, and kept as much of the rest of the room intact and as authentic as possible.
A previous owner put drywall over the original walls and ceiling, too – once it was taken down, it revealed slatted wood walls and hand-hewn ceiling boards, still in perfect condition. “We’re so glad we decided to remove the drywall; what is under it has so much more character,” says Frances, who also added on fresh coats of paint and creative touches elsewhere to warm the home.
Will additionally hand-dug a gravity sewer hundreds of feet down to tap into the city waterline before the couple moved in in August 2021. That labor of love also ensured the farm continues to operate as it once did – albeit on a much smaller scale – as Chickpea Farm. (You can find Will and his vegetables – he’s selling mostly greens right now – at the weekly Durham Roots Farmers Market in the North Carolina Farm Bureau office parking lot at 1901 Hillandale Rd.)
Over the past year, they’ve filled the walls and shelves with local art, and of course, plenty of preserved veggies. And while they aren’t back to their pre-pandemic levels of entertaining, Will and Frances still make good use of their large front porch. “This has been the perfect place to weather the pandemic,” Frances says. “We’ve made some mistakes in the process [of renovating], but none we can’t live with.”
As for future projects, a few odds and ends remain, like finishing the staircase to the second-level guest room. But for now, Will and Frances are content to enjoy their home and continue its long history as a notable North Durham landmark.