Funny how a new house can whisper in your ear, almost like in a dream.
In our case, the house we purchased in Greensboro’s Old Starmount neighborhood last fall, a handsome brick and wooden bungalow, is new only in a manner of speaking.
The house was actually built in 1951, meant to be the dream home of a skilled builder named Al Corry, his wife, Merle, and their four kids.
After a full year of checking out houses from Greensboro’s historic Fisher Park to Winston-Salem’s venerable West End, not to mention exploratory trips across the dairylands of southern Alamance County and gentrified fields of northern Guilford, it seems as if by the sweet hand of Providence we wound up buying a house that sits just two doors down from the one where I grew up in Starmount Forest. The Corry boys were my childhood pals, and the house of Big Al and Mama Merle was, in fact, my favorite in the neighborhood.
To briefly review, when I heard from a friend that my boyhood home on Dogwood Drive was up for sale, out of equal parts curiosity and simple nostalgia, I decided to go investigate late one summer afternoon. In my heart I knew that buying a family home that held so many precious memories — not to mention now needed a ton of work and possibly a complete overhaul — made buying it more or less out of the question.
But as I sat out front just looking at the place, hearing sweet whispers of the past, I thought how cool it would be if we could indeed find a similar old house in Starmount to live out the rest of our days — a great kitchen for my wife, Wendy, and a nice big yard the resident gardener could restore and transform over the years. Wendy, after all, had recently stated her preference for approaching Starmount Forest, noting the charm of the houses and the slightly larger yards.
At the end of my little reverie, as I drove on, I saw a “For Sale” sign in front of the Corry house and couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew Mama Merle had recently passed on and that eldest son Chris — also a talented builder — had been taking care of the place. But I was surprised and delighted to see it up for sale.
I pulled into the driveway and took a peek through the carport kitchen door. The kitchen was almost as I remembered it, though it had been seriously updated. A week later, after church one Sunday, we dropped by for an afternoon showing. As Wendy wandered off through the empty rooms, I just stood in the handsomely refreshed kitchen. “Don’t you want to go look around?” asked Vickie, the real estate agent.
“Don’t need to,” I quipped. “I know just about every room of this house.” She laughed out loud when I mentioned that the owners had been among my parents’ best chums, that I grew up just two doors away and knew basically every room in the place. Equally important, I also knew it was extremely well-built.
The only surprise was that it had been on the market for almost four months — a rarity in that neighborhood. I asked her why she thought that was. She mentioned the original parquet flooring, the thick, pink, wall-to-wall carpeting of the large living room with its paneled walls of hand-cut yellow juniper. There was also the exotic foyer wallpaper that looked like Carmen Miranda’s picture of paradise . . . the work of iconic Greensboro designer Otto Zenke.
“I think the house feels very dated to the younger couples who’ve come through it. They seem to want shiny, bright and soaring,” Vickie explained. “This house is just waiting for the right people who realize what they are looking at. It will speak to them,” she added.
“Yes,” I agreed, neglecting to point out that the house was dang-near shouting my name as I stood there trying to act the cool and savvy customer and — as she later recounted with amusement — “kind of poker-faced.” That’s because I was still in a kind of disbelief that the house I’d admired since I was knee-high to a yardman had sat empty for so long.
A week later, we went back for a second look. Without my noticing, my bride slipped Vickie her phone number, taking the matter in hand entirely, and asked to be alerted if anyone else made a move on the property. On the way back to the Sandhills, Wendy quietly observed, “I think that’s the house for us.” No moss grows beneath her feet. Within three weeks, she’d made it happen. I’m still pinching myself.
From our first night in the place, the house felt like the home that had just been waiting for us to show up. As if to confirm Wendy’s intuition, all four of the far-flung Corry siblings quickly got in touch to express their keen plea sure that their family home had passed into the hands of a family that knew and loved the place almost from the day it was built, and planned to take it lovingly into a next phase of life.
What that means exactly remains to be determined. Part of the pleasure of updating something as aged but splendidly built as the Corry house is a sweet balancing act between the charms of the past and the needs of the present, a synergy involving character and creativity, knowing what must be preserved and what should be gently renewed. Mama Merle’s kitchen had been gorgeously redone with new marble counters, sleek German appliances and elegant track lighting. But much of the rest of the house remained original and in nearly mint condition, revealing the timeless craftsmanship of the visionary who built it.
As long as I’m in residence, Big Al’s original oversized Andersen windows, which operate on very cool midcentury runners — quite revolutionary for their day in 1950s, won’t be switched out anytime soon, and Mama Merle’s gorgeous parquet wooden floors are like works of art underfoot. As eldest son Chris Corry assured would be the case, when we yanked up the dusty pink wall-to-wall carpet that had been in place since the Reagan years, we did indeed find gorgeous hardwood floors that needed only a few bits of sanding and an application of tung oil to gleam like the day they were laid.
True, a designer friend almost fainted in disbelief when she learned that, after much debate, we decided to paint over the original Otto Zenke paper with an elegant paint called “Ancient Ivory” in order to lighten up the living room and give the larger rooms even greater sense of fl ow — not to mention a great place for original pieces of artwork we’ve collected over the decades. The results are even better than we’d envisioned.
There is other updated painting to come, including the outside of the house, where we’re contemplating a darker shade of moss green that will nicely contrast the ambitious front garden of Japanese maples and perennial gardens I have plotted out in my little old gardener’s brain and actually began working on before Christmas. An updated landscape that reveals and frames this lovely old place will eventually replace elderly azaleas, and leggy boxwoods and oversized holly shrubs that have overwhelmed the front and eastern flank of the house.
Part of the pleasure of occupying a house you know and love — and expect to live in as long as you draw breath — is the fact that there is no rush to make big changes. There is time to inhale its spiritual essence and meditate on what such a living space itself desires for its next phase of life. An oblong room off the small dining room that leads to the large screened porch in the rear, for example, begs for some kind of thoughtful renovation. That was Mama Merle’s personal den, complete with a smaller fi replace. But our first thought was to make it our dining room with an expanded hearth, new wooden flooring and maybe a woodstove to recall our post-and-beam house in Maine.
On the other hand, after living here for several months, my wife decided what a perfect place for the custom-built bookshelves of a true library, and a perfect spot for her own long-desired home office. The beautiful antique desk I gave her for Christmas, I think, sealed the deal. Out back, my first thought was to take down Big Al’s peeling pergola over the tidy brick terrace. This turned out to be a good decision. With the pergola gone, the little terrace breathes with new charm, and a closeness to nature. Already, beneath century-old oaks, I’ve begun clearing out overgrown bushes in order to create the traditional Japanese shade garden I fully expect to be happily still working on for years.
Thus, as another glorious Piedmont springtime breaks over the horizon, the Corry place is whispering to us in the nicest way possible. It’s telling us to take our time and simply enjoy being here, to have fun imagining the possibilities, to live well and love deep.
It’s telling us, at last, welcome home.