Everybody loves a house with character, something special that makes it stand out from the rest. But with character can come lots of challenges.
Case in point: Van and Vanvisa Nolintha found a home that was originally an American Foursquare, the dignified and iconic style of the early 20th century, with historic architectural details such as a stately brick fireplace, cozy front porch, and ornate windows. Located in an up-andcoming neighborhood, it’s only two blocks from the two restaurants owned by the brother and sister duo. On paper, it sounded pretty ideal.
In reality, the home had rotting wood, rotting trim, and rotting floor joists. Years of neglect left decay and deterioration – and discarded old furniture – everywhere you looked. But the Nolinthas were not deterred. Matt Griffith of In Situ Studio, the architectural firm that handled the renovation, explains, “It was remarkable because they saw something old and not in great shape and committed to doing whatever they needed to do to bring it back to life. That’s pretty special.”
Adding to the headache was the fact that the home had been used as a boarding house at one time, so rooms were arranged in a slapdash fashion. To meet the challenge, In Situ essentially gutted the interior. But as a historic home, the property renovation was governed by rules of the Raleigh Historic Development Commission (RHDC), which would only permit minimal changes to the home’s front and sides.
RHDC also required that the new addition off the back appear distinctive from the original structure. The result is a melding of past and present, tradition and trend.
The front still resembles an (albeit revitalized) American Foursquare house from the 1920s, and still maintains the formality that was characteristic of early 20th-century architecture. The back of the house, on the other hand, is intentionally modern and, in a sense, informal. “We call it a mullet, like the haircut,” Griffith says. “There’s a conservative look in the front and a really ‘out there’ look in the back.”
There are even a couple of places where the old brick material meets the new gray surfaces, and not only are they not covered up, they are emphasized. “These places create a real conversation about what’s new and what’s not,” Van Nolintha says. “It’s like new life being inserted into the old shell of the house.”
Light is also part of the home’s core identity. In Situ incorporated as many windows as possible, inserted several skylights, and removed some interior walls, allowing sunlight to pass freely from every direction.
As a trained designer himself, Van Nolintha has no trouble describing how light defines some of his favorite times in the house: “In early morning, the white walls pick up yellow pigment and become a warm yellow, a hopeful beginning to the day. At sunset, apricot and purple pigments pick up the white.”
The abundance of light throughout the home helps showcase the siblings’ amazing art collection. Avid travelers, Van and Vanvisa Nolintha have many sculptures, paintings, and cultural artifacts from around the world. They intentionally left a number of neutral spaces throughout the home so that the colorful texture of these pieces, including ceremonial items from their homeland of Laos, could stand out.
The sun-filled entryway opens to both a painting on a twelve-by-twelve-foot wall, meant to mimic the wall in a gallery, and to an original fireplace. “Instead of covering up the fireplace, we treated it as an artifact from the past,” Van Nolintha says.
Also visible from the front door is the ultra-modern staircase inviting exploration upstairs. In Situ demolished the original, steep staircase and created stairs that pass in front of one of the old windows with its original trim. “It’s a layering of old and new,” Griffith says. “Also, the railing is a translucent glass, so it makes the whole thing glow, which is wonderful.”
The rest of the downstairs is open with a circular flow, perfect for entertaining, so guests can move with ease, allowing light and artwork to lead the way. The kitchen is a bit more intimate, with lower ceilings, creating a natural gathering spot. “The house used to be a doctor’s home and his medical clinic,” Van Nolintha says. “There is a history of healing here, and I feel like we’re continuing that legacy of healing through cooking and creating new memories.”
Upstairs has two bedrooms, one for each sibling, as well as a guest room. Van Nolintha’s bedroom faces southwest and allows for a tree house-quality view. “The left side faces beautiful trees and green spaces,” he explains, “while the right faces the skyscrapers of downtown. The house is positioned really well in understanding where Raleigh is and its growth.”
Finally, he adds, the home is more than just a practical living space. As Buddhists, Van and Vanvisa Nolintha consider it their “temple” away from their chaotic, busy restaurant lives, and they appreciate that Griffith considered the element of tranquility as part of the design-making process. “When we come home, it’s a personal sanctuary,” Van Nolintha concludes.