Outdoor Oasis

A busy Durham family transforms the backyard of their historic home into a relaxing, modern escape.

WHEN VANESSA AND JACOB SCHRODER PURCHASED their historic 1940s home in the summer of 2014, they knew they wanted to update the outdoor space. The charming home, which already featured one addition from the 1960s, needed its own refresh, so as they kicked off another second-story addition on the back side of the home, they began to simultaneously form a plan for its yard.

“We started conceptualizing this project back in 2017,” says interior designer Carrie Moore, who has led the process on the home’s interior. “We literally scribbled the first backyard layouts.”

Knowing that they needed exterior experts, Moore and the Schroders connected with local landscape design firm Old North State, which began the process of redesigning the entire yard. In addition to wanting a chic outdoor living space, the Schroders had a few other boxes to check off to create a yard that would be the ideal fit for their entire family. They wanted a stylish fence to surround the property, allowing their three dogs to roam, as well as a playset to create a fun space for their younger children.

“The design of this space was all about how everyone in the family can enjoy this project,” says Vanessa Schroder, whose four children range in age from eight to twenty-two. “Everyone has different recreational needs.”

The yard itself offered several unique challenges for Old North State. Its slope required thoughtful terraced design, and its historic designation meant that every aspect had to be passed by a historical committee before receiving a building permit. Whitney Morris, the landscape designer who led the project, enjoyed the challenge of creating an updated space for a historic home.

“Most of the projects that we work on don’t have a lot of modern elements,” says Morris. “I love that this project has a modern element to it while also keeping it historical to Durham.”

Perhaps the most notable way Morris and her team tied into the home’s history was with the stone columns on its new gate. Designed to perfectly match the Belgian block granite facade of the original home, each one was handcrafted by masons to mimic the rough-hewn style of the historic stones.

“The inspiration for the design is the home’s 1940s architecture, first and foremost,” says Moore, who then adorned the stone columns with polished contemporary sconces. “But we also wanted to push the design in a bright and modern direction. We were inspired by outdoor spaces in luxurious hotels, and California-modern style.”

Nowhere is that blend of aesthetics more evident than in the outdoor kitchen, dining, and living areas. Moore designed this space  with a concrete fireplace and timber pergola, and then mixed in teak and colorful outdoor fabrics. “We sought to balance hard, cold  stone and tile surfaces with the warm soft ones of wood and fabrics,” says Moore, who used a wood-look porcelain paver on the floors, suggested by Old North State for its weather resistance.

“We chose furnishings that pushed the design in a modern direction, using clean, crisp lines and innovative all-weather materials.” Moore continued this look throughout the space, adding an outdoor dining table and lounge area coffee table, both custom- designed by her firm and built by Durham modernist artisan Elijah Leed. A cluster of natural pendant lights by Palecek, gray woven chairs by JANUS et Cie, and bold-colored throw pillows round out the dining area’s West Coast–inspired decor while limestone pavers, sleek terraces, and soft lighting transform the landscape around it.

In addition to the relaxed vibe of the space, it was important to the Schroders that it be an area where it was truly easy to slow down together. This was accomplished, in part, through comfortable seating and plenty of space for their large family and friends to gather around the dining table and fireplace. Because the outdoor kitchen is a level below their actual kitchen, it was especially important to them that it be completely self-contained—they didn’t want to spend time carrying cups and plates up and down the stairs to the interior kitchen. So, in addition to the more playful entertaining aspects like the pizza oven, the exterior kitchen also includes functional items such as a dishwasher and cabinets fully stocked with dinnerware.

“We wanted it to be as convenient as it could be,” says Schroder. “I wanted it to answer all the things I might want to do in a day—it didn’t seem worth doing a big project if we couldn’t enjoy it most days of the year.” Since the project’s completion in 2021, they have already begun to enjoy it year-round. From admiring the new colorful plantings throughout the yard in the warmer months to spending time around the large fireplace on cooler days, the family has spent many hours appreciating the space. As they had hoped, it’s become a gathering place where they can play and unwind together after busy days of work and school. “It’s so magical in the evenings,” says Schroder. “It feels like you’re in a different world.”