This Forest Hills Home is Perfect for Holiday Gatherings

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Learn more about one family’s journey in renovating a 1945 Colonial Revival-style Forest Hills house into a home where all would feel welcome

Michael Bender and Sarah Bender in their renovated Forest Hills home.
Michael Bender and Sarah Bender in their renovated Forest Hills kitchen. “We knew that cooking in the kitchen … hosting and having family over was really important to us,” Sarah says.

By Elizabeth Kane | Photography by John Michael Simpson

There are many reasons why Sarah Bender and Michael Bender chose to call Durham home. It was a city tied to their support system of close friends, woven together in a strong community with an incredible food scene. “We are both pretty adventurous eaters … and Durham always seems to have something new to offer – you never get tired of the options here,” says Sarah, a senior strategic advisor with BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina. “The community was a real driver for why we ended up choosing to kind of settle here in Durham … it’s just a really great match for both of our personalities.” 

She and her husband, Michael, a vice president of operations with Broadbent Selections, a wine importer based in Richmond, Virginia, now live together in their renovated home in Forest Hills with their young son, Elliott Bender

When they originally bought the house in 2017, they envisioned their home transforming into a unique place where they could entertain more and host larger holiday events for loved ones. That dream was possible, but creating that space would take some work.

Sarah Bender and Michael Bender's friends enjoy a game together in the Benders' living room of their Forest Hills home.
Sarah and Michael’s friends Rebecca Whitaker, Kyle Whitaker (left), Liz Youngs and Rich Haynes (right) enjoy a game of Telestrations together in the Benders’ living room. 

A Modern Spin on Timeless Beauty

Alicia Hylton-Daniel, interior designer and licensed general contractor at her company, Hylton Daniel design + construction, turned the Benders’ vision into reality. Their Colonial Revival house, built in 1945, underwent a six-month renovation in 2018. 

Alicia says it was important to balance maintaining some of the home’s original architectural design while also reflecting the modern desires of its new owners. For example, there were strict room divisions reminiscent of the home’s era that could use an update. Part of a wall was taken down to get a better view into the kitchen to create a more open space that the family wanted. 

“You still get this view into the kitchen, but it keeps the integrity of a formal dining room,” Alicia says. “We even thought about island placement, and how that was going to look … so the island could keep in line with the design and style of how this house would have been. But also being unapologetic that it now had a new owner. Society has changed, right? No longer are women hidden away in a kitchen.” 

The Benders decked the halls (and their kitchen) for the afternoon gathering in their renovated Forest Hills home.
The Benders decked the halls (and their kitchen) for the afternoon gathering.

Elliott, who turns 2 in January, thoroughly enjoys one particular spot in the home while his parents are together in the kitchen: “It’s a laundry space that we turned into a playroom, right off the kitchen,” Sarah says. “He can be with us, but not right underfoot.”

A Home for the Holidays 

When it comes to holiday hosting, it’s essential to see how a room will blend with seasonal decorations. “We did a pretty neutral kitchen,” Alicia says, but explains that “adding that touch of teal blue to the backsplash … could lend itself to beautiful holiday décor. [Sarah and Michael] are not limited. They could bring in mustard yellows or even reds into this kitchen for the holidays.” 

Alicia says she also thought about the durability in the kitchen. “We did all quartz countertops … [there is] a kind of a subtle marbling so that it’s not so stark white, and there’s some texture to it.” That bodes well for messes. “If wine is spilt and no one sees it until the morning … that can be cleaned off, no problem,” Alicia says. The Benders were also open to mixing and matching different styles. There’s a stunning brass lighting fixture over their island, along with brass knobs in the kitchen to complement the space. 

Alicia also wanted the family home to have a good balance of warm lighting year-round. “I wanted to be really thoughtful about lighting,” she says. “That’s always one of the crucial things that I do in my position: [figure out] how lighting is going to be interpreted in the seasons and make sure that the light is warm so that the finishes always look true.” Alicia says that by giving the family “plenty of light and dimmers, [they] can help control those levels, especially when they’re having an intimate dinner.” 

The More the Merrier

Now that Sarah and Michael are the hosts of family holidays, they want to continue the custom of always making others feel welcome at the holidays. “The joke in my family is that we always bring in stray cats,” Sarah says. “Anyone who doesn’t have a place for the holidays, it’s like, ‘Come on! We’ll make room for you.’” 

One of those friends who’s attended some of their past holiday celebrations is English, and he helped them take on another new custom: A game of “pass the port.” At the end of dinner, the dessert wine is brought out to share and pass around with guests. However, you can’t ask for the port to be passed to you – another person must remember to pass it to you. It’s now become a kind of tradition with the family. “My dad loves it!” Sarah says. 

Sarah remembers the first Thanksgiving after the renovation, when everything felt complete. “I’d inherited this dining room table that had a leaf table that went in the middle,” she says. “There were 13 people crowded around – both my parents, my husband’s parents, along with Michael’s sister, her husband and their two kids, my uncle and his husband, and a family friend … all came and sat around this table.” 

It was a special holiday memory she urged herself to “soak in” and never forget. “It felt like it was icing on the cake.” 

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