Local Builder Breathes New Life Into Century-Old Hill House

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Trinity Design/Build teams up with the Junior League of Durham and Orange Counties to remodel the historic property that the organization calls home

Hill house
Trinity Design/Build sanded every nook and cranny of the soffit and repaired the cracked stucco.

By Hannah Lee| Photography by Cornell Watson

Today it’s known as the Hill House, and back when John Sprunt Hill built the Spanish Colonial Revival for his family of five in the early 1910s, the 17,000-square-foot residence was complete with greenhouses, gardens and orchards for the Hills to enjoy. Those facets of the home faded into history, but the building still stands on South Duke Street, and these days, it plays an important role in our community. John passed away in 1961 and donated his home to the foundation created in memory of his wife, who died in 1940. The Annie Watts Hill Foundation was to maintain the house and promote its use for “non-sectarian, non-political female organizations.”

Hill house
One of the more difficult projects Trinity Design/Build faced was converting this study into a women’s restroom with three stalls.

The Junior League of Durham and Orange Counties, which Annie originally founded as the Red Cross League in the 1920s, has called it home for more than five decades now. In 2017, the organization decided that it was time to bring new life into the home with the help of Trinity Design/Build. The planning took nearly two years before physical renovations began in January 2020.

Steven Thomsen, the vice president of Trinity Design/Build who led this major undertaking, has worked on nearly 300 historic homes, but none compared to this one. “This is the best,” he says. “Absolutely the best. I mean, there’s no home like it in Durham.”

With nine bedrooms and nine bathrooms, the nine-month endeavor was no easy feat. Durham Magazine was the first outsider to get a look at the space after construction wrapped up in mid-October. Steven gave a thorough tour, even pulling out Cold War-era rations that were tucked away in the shadows of the basement.

Hill house
This untitled oil painting by Eugen Alfons von Blaas is one of the most impressive pieces of art in the home.

“I’ve come here a couple times now basically just emptying drawers,” says Alicia Ramsaran, a Junior League member who’s helped clean out the house now that the renovations are done. “We have old lace hanging from places … that have completely mildewed. And the daughter of [John Sprunt Hill, Laura Valinda Hill DuBose], we found chocolates that were part of her wedding favors, and the chocolates were completely disintegrated.”

In fact, the updates to the home were made with future events like weddings in mind. The kitchen features new cabinets alongside the refinished originals, new countertops, new backsplash and new appliances – now mostly used by caterers. But there are remnants of the home’s history, including the original coal-burning stove juxtaposed with new appliances, such as the adjacent stainless steel fridge.

“The stove is super cool,” Steven says. “It technically could still work, but nobody uses it. There’s no electricity hooked up to it; there’s no gas hooked up to it. They used to bring up coal from the basement through this dumbwaiter, which is also pretty sweet.”

Hill house
Trinity Design/Build removed the fabric wallpaper and the navy blue carpet in the dining room. The table and buffets are original to the house, all made in 1912.

Steven’s 100-person team also repainted nearly the entire house – top to bottom, inside and out – and refinished all the hardwood floors. Some rooms needed more work than others. The dining room had fabric wallpaper, which was originally going to stay, but nearly a month before the slated completion date, Trinity Design/Build decidedly ripped it out. “We had no idea what the walls were like underneath,” Steven says. “It was worse than we expected.”

Trinity Design/Build also installed a new HVAC and repaired all the cracked plaster. But the biggest headache was adding a new bathroom to the main floor. Imagine trying to reroute and add plumbing to a 108-year-old house through 6 inches of concrete. Whew.

“But it really is just a refreshing restore for the house,” says Cat Lunger, who initiated the renovations when she was Junior League president-elect in 2017. “A lot of the changes to the house are kind of behind the scenes, like the brand-new HVAC and plaster repair. That’s really unsexy stuff.”

Still, it didn’t go unnoticed. The Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange & Chatham Counties named the Hill House project the “Best Historic Renovation” for 2020. Cat, Steven and everyone else who worked on the restoration ultimately hopes it attracts weddings and other big events so the Junior League can acquire the funds necessary to provide more nonprofits, just like their own, with a free or affordable space to congregate.

Meet the Members

Cat Lunger

Hill House Committee Chair

Cat has served as a board member at large, president-elect, president, past president and now is the chair of the Hill House committee for the Junior League. Her commitment to the organization extends well beyond the eight years she’s been a part of it. “If you would have told me when I joined that I’ve been talking to [Durham Magazine] and that I would be past president and [that I would] have loved it so much,” Cat says, “… I didn’t expect that.” Cat and her husband, Adam Lunger, had just moved to the area when she joined the Junior League in 2012. Like most new members, she wanted to get involved in the community, and also find a way to connect with other women who had the same goal. The Junior League met both those needs, but it also allowed her to create her own path. Cat has worked on many projects, from transforming the new membership experience to assisting on the committee for the organization’s Diamond Ball event. Her biggest contribution to the group thus far was getting the Hill House renovations underway. She possesses incredible knowledge about the home, its history and its charm, but she also reopened opportunities for nonprofits looking for a space to rent at low, or no, cost – and also created new options to host events like weddings, which can supplement funds for the Junior League in unique ways.

Alicia Ramsaran

Recording Secretary

Alicia Ramsaran, like many who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, stayed in the area, moving a few miles down the road to Hope Valley Farms. Tired of her usual extracurriculars, which mostly entailed trying new restaurants and bars with her friends, Alicia wanted to find a new purpose where she could give back. The Junior League checked off that box. “It was like, ‘Oh, I can be a good person, but also still drink wine and do book club,’” Alicia laughs. When she joined in fall 2018, she was immediately attracted to the idea of working on the cookbook committee. (The Junior League published the “Taste of Tobacco Road: A Culinary Journey Along the Famous Nine Miles” in 2016, with recipes from local celebrities like Duke Basketball Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Visit tasteoftobaccoroad.com to learn more and order your own copy.) “I’m like, ‘Cookbook? I love to cook,’” she says. “Now, that’s a misunderstanding of what the cookbook [committee] is, because it’s really just selling cookbooks and has very little to do with trying recipes. … But it turned out, it was great.” She became the chair of the cookbook committee in fall 2019 after displaying her leadership and event planning prowess during the Mother’s Day Tea she hosted earlier that year at the Hill House. The 45-person event was a huge success and featured pastries, plated cookies and mini cakes (plus, a glass of Champagne that was handed to guests as they entered) with vendors like A Little Something, Purple Puddle Gifts and Flowers, Drybar and more. “I’m now a board member,” Alicia says, “but I would like for the Mother’s Day Tea event to be a separate entity to our Junior League events, and I would love to run it. I would happily do that every year. Now that I know it can work and it’s a success.”

Siobhan Grady
Siobahn sits in the home’s breakfast room. “That’s a member favorite room,” Cat says.

Power Chair

Siobahn Grady became an official member of the Junior League of Durham and Orange Counties in 2015. She transferred to the Junior League of Greensboro that same year while she was getting her Ph.D. at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (the first female computer science graduate to do so); after three years, she moved back and rejoined the league here. “I wanted to be around other powerful women who share some of the same philosophies and morals that I have,” Siobahn says. “Junior League is about women’s empowerment and uplifting women in the community, and so I joined the league because I wanted to be aligned with women just like that.” It was fitting, then, that Siobahn was nominated as chair for POWER (Providing Ourselves With Empowering Relationships), the League’s internal mentoring program, alongside Judge Shamieka Rhinehart. She and Shamieka work to develop a sense of camaraderie among members. That was obviously much easier before the pandemic when they would host in-person events with charcuterie and focus on self-care. “But we’ve managed to find a way,” Siobahn says. Most recently, her team started a walk/run challenge using the Nike Run Club app in August (they already have a member who reached the 125-mile goal in October!), a collaborative Spotify playlist and a curated list of book recommendations. The organization required to make it all happen and the sisterhood that comes with it … Siobahn loves all of it. “I am from Hillsborough,” Siobahn says. “I graduated from Northern High School. I love this league because it’s home for me. It feels right. All the people here are very friendly. And it’s just something you could almost say is just embedded in who I am.”

Paige Smith
Junior League President Paige Smith in Hill House’s music room.

President

Paige Smith was born and raised in North Carolina but didn’t want her history here to define her. She joined the Junior League nearly six years ago so she could make connections on her own. After completing the provision course, which is required of all members before they become active, she was placed on the membership development committee. Her responsibilities entailed everything from building networking skills and preparing an elevator pitch to improving LinkedIn profiles and delegating volunteers. She branched out and chaired a new committee completely focused on mentoring, eventually landing a position on the board and continuing to formalize the program she started. She became president-elect last year and now oversees nearly 500 active and sustaining members as this year’s president. The new responsibility came naturally to Paige, who works as a special projects manager at Duke University. “This is an organization of women who care deeply about our community, about one another and about growing as leaders,” Paige says. “At the end of the day, it’s a training organization, and we train women to go out and take on advocacy issues, take on community work, because they can build those skills here and do fundraising activities for efforts they care about. We really believe in the power of collective action. As an organization, we take on a small scope, but we hope that we can spread that impact by lending women those skills. And that’s really special to me. There aren’t a lot of places that are specifically focused on building the potential of women. And everyone here really does have a good heart and wants to do that and to help one another. It’s inspiring to see today.”

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.

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