Neighborhood Living

by Melissa Sutton-Seng
August 2019

Historic Downtown's Modern Farmhouse

When Jef Bates and Robert Millar talk about their new home, the conversation always turns back to community. Their vision for the house revolves around entertaining family and friends, and that vision guided the design and location choices for the home. They picked downtown Wilmington, they say, because of its walkability and the friendliness of the city. The area's easy access to restaurants, art galleries, and farmers markets provides exactly the setting Millar and Bates were looking for.

friend alerted them to two lots for sale on her block, and they knew they wanted to be part of the neighborhood. "In Brooklyn, we live in a building with 30 neighbors but maybe only know two or three of them," says Bates. In this neighborhood, they love how people wave and stop by to say hello while out walking the dog.

The location determined, Millar and Bates set out to find a builder. After seeing the modern, eco-friendly homes of Fasse bldgs.'s Tonbo Meadow, the pair knew Pam Fasse was the right person for them to direct construction. Fasse, vice chair of the North Carolina Building Performance Association board of directors, introduced them to architect Eric Jabaley of Dogwood Architecture, and the team was complete.

You might easily drive down cobbled Fourth Street without taking much note of the new home, and that's exactly what Bates and Millar intended. From the beginning, they envisioned a "modern farmhouse," a home that, per strict historic district guidelines, would be compatible with the existing environment but still a "product of its own time." The beige board-and-batten exterior with a tall black front door blends into the neighborhood palette without mimicking the historical houses on the block.

In addition to the challenges inherent to building in the historic district, the size of the lot presented its own constraints. The homeowners wanted a spacious outdoor courtyard with a pool for entertaining, as well as a pool house. Jabaley had his doubts at first, but once he'd drawn it, everything fit. He emphasizes that defining a small space well can make it feel bigger, and that's what makes Bates and Millar's place feel so spacious.

The front patio is -- by historic district standards -- miniscule, just big enough for a couple of chairs and tiny table. "We sacrificed front porch space for the back courtyard. We knew that's where we'd be spending the most time," says Bates. Still, it's big enough to relax on in the evening and chat with neighbors.

Millar and Bates work in fashion and design, respectively, and they knew exactly what kind of aesthetic experience they wanted to create. On crossing the threshold, visitors are transported into a thoughtfully furnished modern retreat accented with carefully chosen art pieces. In the front hall, an industrial design mobile by local artist Jay Jones hangs from the ceiling, its two figures, construction workers on a lunch break, waiting to peer back at anyone who pauses to look up.

Concrete floors were both a design choice and a practical consideration. They're very modern while also being low maintenance, giving guests no reason to fret about stained carpet or scratched hardwoods. "Kids and pets are welcome. We want our guests to feel comfortable in the space," says Bates.

A floating bar designed by area cabinetmaker Steve Ritenour provides a space from which to serve guests as they enter. Millar and Bates, who both enjoy cooking, had high standards for their culinary space. Ritenour incorporated a hidden pantry in the floor-to-ceiling woodwork that makes up one corner of the open kitchen. Sleek white above the counter cabinets extend all the way to the ceiling to maximize storage without seeming bulky. "Steve asked so few questions that we were nervous about how it would turn out," Millar says. But Ritenour understood their vision, and the kitchen is exactly what they wanted.

The floating staircase shows what outstanding collaboration among homeowners, builder and architect can produce. It's a central feature of the home and an important design element, giving the whole downstairs living area a more open feel and allowing light from the second story windows to filter through the rest of the home. The team went through several iterations before landing on the right combination of design and materials that fit both the budget and aesthetic requirements. Open treads of thick oak with pipe railings create a striking, modern stair that is both functional and beautiful.

Designed to host friends and family, the four-bedroom house can sleep up to 12. Bates and Millar wanted to make sure guests with mobility challenges or young children would feel welcome and comfortable, so the sitting room just inside the front entrance converts easily to a guest bedroom and has its own bathroom, eliminating the need to navigate the stairs.

The master suite is spacious and minimally furnished, with small notes of ocean blue and green reminiscent of the nearby beaches. A walk-through master closet opens to an office nook brightly lit by corner windows. The master bath is built for relaxation and is one of Millar's favorite spots in the house. Enclosed in glass and tiled floor to ceiling are a luxurious shower and Japanese-style soaking tub.

Things were pretty far along when Jabaley approached the homeowners with an idea: with some small adjustments, the attic could become functional living space. He showed Bates and Millar a sketch, and they said, "Go for it!" The staircase was extended and a dormer added to create an additional bedroom and bathroom. Beadboard paneling gives the room its own distinct feel.

On the second floor the guest room features paintings collected on various journeys, and bedside tables found while antiquing years ago. Pieces are slowly being brought down from the homeowners' New York City apartment, with selections that fit the bright, relaxing atmosphere of their coastal retreat. Bates and Millar don't anticipate ever calling the house finished. "Houses are never done, always evolving," says Bates, who notes he's been working with some of the same interior design clients for decades.

Enclosing the back side of the courtyard, the pool house is light and airy with tall ceilings and an open spiral staircase up to the loft. Putting stairs into the small space posed a challenge, and Fasse found a metalworker to custom fabricate an elliptical stairway. There's a wet bar and pass-through window for easy poolside entertaining and an additional bathroom for post-swim showers.

The open floor plan looks even more spacious thanks to the tall windows and sliding glass doors that lead from the back of the house to the courtyard, which is Bates's favorite area of the home. The ipe wooden-decked courtyard is framed by the main house on one end and a pool house on the other, the homeowners' reinterpretation of a classic Brooklyn brownstone with carriage house. There is a saltwater pool by Ocean Blue Pools and Spas. The spacious deck, built by local craftsman Kevin Mercer, provides ample room for lounging. Evergreen shrubs and trees planted by Wrightsville Beach Landscaping to line the courtyard are native to the area and require minimal care.

Among the most important elements of the home is one no visitor can see: the stormwater drainage solution. A site must be designed so that all of the rain that falls on the property stays on that property, Fasse explains. The city doesn't allow runoff flowing down the streets and into the river. To solve this problem while still maximizing backyard entertaining space, six tons of permeable gravel were brought in, raising the deck level and creating a rain catchment with zero percent runoff.

Not everything went as planned, of course. "We selected this lot in part because of a beautiful old oak that was out front," Bates says. "Then the arborist came and told us it had core rot and had to come down." Bates and Millar, along with their neighbors, were disappointed by the loss of the tree and wasted no time replacing it. There's a young oak growing out front now, supported by stakes after being blown over in Hurricane Florence. That's just the beginning of urban greening efforts for the couple, though. In their quest to replace the rotten oak, Bates and Millar learned that the city has a two-year waiting list for trees and lags in reaching its goal for new tree planting. The two want to host "Tree Parties" at their home, for which they'll provide food and drinks and ask guests for a contribution toward urban reforestation.

Bates and Millar are not calling their move to Wilmington a retirement. Instead, it's a change of pace from New York City life, a change that means more time for family, friends and community. Their new home is the perfect setting for the next chapter of their lives, they feel. "Everyone wants to come visit. There are always people coming to stay at our house," says Bates. And that's exactly how they like it.

 


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