This story originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.
Like many first-time homebuyers, Alex and Kate Sayre had criteria in mind that they were unwilling to compromise on. Well, one criterion, really: location. “Alex gave me a very small radius of where he wanted to live,” Kate remembers. “Very, very small.” That radius was downtown Chapel Hill – as in, walking distance to Franklin Street. “If we weren’t going to do it ourselves, it just wasn’t going to happen.
Luckily, Alex had just started Argyle Building Company, which specializes in home renovations. So when they found a fixer-upper on Graham Street that had been vacant for the past two years, they rolled up their sleeves.
Going Forth on Trust
From the get-go, the couple knew they would most likely purchase an older home and renovate it. And yet, when Alex found out about the available property and first showed it to Kate, she was underwhelmed. The mid-century cottage with a 1990s addition was narrow, dark and “almost claustrophobic.” The front porch featured two concrete statues painted onto the floor. “It required a lot of trust,” she says of purchasing the home. “I’d seen him transform a house down the street and lots of other projects.”
“I had to uncover a little bit of [the original] beadboard to convince her,” Alex adds. “She trusted me.” They signed on the house in May 2013 and spent a whirlwind summer making it their own.
Since Alex does this for a living, they only loosely planned the trajectory. “We just had hand-drawn plans,” Kate says. “Alex is very creative and has a vision.”
The first step was figuring out what to do with the main living area. They knew they wanted to open it up – Kate is a registered dietitian, so having a spacious kitchen was a priority. Then, Alex noticed an upstairs closed-off attic. “The big decision was whether to loft or not,” Alex says.
Loft they did. When you walk into the home today, you essentially walk into one big room with definitive areas: a dining nook, a living room space and a kitchen with high ceilings. In fact, the high ceilings give way to an upstairs, lofted hangout space, complete with an automatically retractable wooden ladder.
“We uncovered some cool things, like these original beams,” Kate says, referring to the wood beams that inspired the ladder. “All the ceiling beadboard is original. Alex really loves discovering the character of the original house and then working around
it while showcasing it by adding modern things, too.”
Downtown and the Living is Easy
“Who can say they have a distillery, a church, a funeral home, on their side of the street – and a power plant – and on the other side of our street is a barcade, a burger shack, a clothes salon, a hair salon, a yoga studio?” Kate says of South Graham and West Franklin streets. “It’s a very unique place.” Kate works as the student health dietitian at Duke, but she still takes the bus to Morehead Planetarium and then into Durham. “There are full weeks where I don’t use my car,” she says. “It’s awesome. I love it.”
One of Alex’s favorite parts of their house is the front porch. “I love having my coffee out there in the morning,” he says. It’s made all the better by the fact that “we can hear the stadium and hear football games,” he says of Kenan. During big games or other town events, such as the Tar Heel 10-Miler, “it’s fun to just be out there, watching the people go by.”
It’s no wonder they wouldn’t compromise on living in this area. They plan to build community in characteristic do-it-yourself style. “We have a friend who just got engaged,” Alex says, “and we’re sending them listings, trying to get them to move near here.”
In order to have a loft, the original popcorn ceiling had to be torn down. “So we were in head-to-toe white suits,” Kate says.
They discovered that a tenant decades before must have had a coal-burning stove. “As we were pulling out insulation, there was coal dust, too,” Kate says. “Our all-white suits were completely black. It was sort of scary.”
“Yeah, I didn’t know that would be there,” Alex admits. But that’s part of what he loves about renovating. “It’s fun to let the house tell you what is possible,” he says. “It’s fun to let the space settle in for a little bit and then keep visualizing how it’s all going to work.”
After the ceiling came down, they set to work removing five layers of linoleum flooring and multiple coats of wallpaper and paint. “It was literally peeling up decades,” Alex says. “It was pretty cool to see, actually.”
At the time, the couple had just gotten engaged, and it proved to be an irreplaceable pre-marriage bonding experience. “We slept on the floor of the kitchen for a week or so,” Alex says with a laugh.
Although overwhelmed at times, Kate was hooked. “With my work [as a dietitian], I don’t often see quick results,” she says. “That’s the part I miss. Even in crazy times, I could see change happen daily. I would be at work, and Alex would send me a picture of floors being installed, or whatever it was, and that was so exciting to me.”
‘Always a List’
By August 2013, the Sayres had moved in, but they didn’t officially complete their renovation until earlier this year, with a facelift to the front porch. So are they really finished? “Being married to a builder and having done a lot of this ourselves, there’s always a list of wishes,” Kate says. But for now, they’re enjoying the fruits of their labor. They love to entertain and often host friends for dinner or just hang out in the loft before walking somewhere downtown. In November, they hosted their family for Thanksgiving. (“Thirteen [people] at the [kitchen] island is a lot,” Alex says.)
The house is officially a home. “It feels really comfortable for us,” Alex says. “We’ve had our hands on every piece of everything in here,” Kate adds. “There’s a story to everything.” Of course, Alex has already loosely planned how to add more bedrooms to the back of the house should they one day expand their family.
For now, though, they’re plugging into the location they so determinedly sought. “When we first moved on this street, people didn’t know it,” Kate says. “We would say it was the last street before Carrboro. But now people know it.” The two can often be found at Beer Study or The Baxter Barcade or sitting at Al’s Burger Shack on the outdoor patio Alex’s company built. “While with all of the students, we sometimes feel like this is maybe not as much of a neighborhood, we definitely feel like with the local business owners it is,” Kate says. “I feel like we’re invested not just in this space but in this whole area.”
The Sayres bought their house planning to renovate, but “we ended up pretty much gutting it” and starting from scratch, Kate says. Here are a few of their tips:
“Our color scheme is basically white,” Alex says. “We wanted the architectural details to be the focal point, rather than an accent wall or something like that.” But don’t be afraid to shake it up a little. “The kitchen ceiling has a tint of light blue,” he says. “And I’m a big fan of pops of color,” Kate adds, hence details like a bright yellow front door. “We wanted a basic palette so we could have fun with things like that.”
Divide and Conquer
“My brain works more in a science way,” Kate says. “I don’t have that creativity that he does.” While Alex planned big overhauls like the loft, Kate focused on manageable tasks. “He would give me projects,” she says. “Like, it was my job to go to the kitchen planner site and figure out our cabinets.”
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate!
“It was a second job, all of the home stuff,” Kate says. “It was a crazy time.” They quickly learned that receiving help from friends and family is a sign of strength and not weakness. When nearby family members offered to help for an afternoon or keep their dogs or otherwise pitch in, the Sayres wholeheartedly accepted. “You just can’t do it alone.”