Jane and Richard Green’s newly constructed house of happiness among some of Greensboro’s oldest
By Cynthia Adams • Photographs by Amy Freeman
Welcome to the happily realized vision of homeowners Richard and Jane Green, where everything fits perfectly inside a shipshape, 950-square-foot house.
The bungalow sits in Greensboro’s oldest historic district, College Hill on a lot that has not only has never had a house upon it but in the view of Mike Cowhig, a veteran senior planner for the City of Greensboro who has long worked with historic neighborhoods, was “largely viewed as unbuildable.” Yet he knew better, and so did neighbor Dan Curry.
A bubble machine spews iridescent, trembling bubbles into the air on the Greens’ front lawn. Bubbles take up absolutely no space — which matters when you downsize to nearly a third of your former living area.
On an unusually warm day, Jane and Richard Green sit on the front porch as temperatures hover near 93 degrees in what looks like a Frank Capra movie set. They wave to passing students.
A profusion of lavender petunias and herbs spills out of pots and planters. Wreaths with “welcome” signs hang on the double front doors. The porch, an outdoor living room, is furnished with rockers, a swing and chairs sporting yellow polka-dotted pillows.
A repurposed door made into a table is set with a cheery collection of fresh daisies in a vintage wooden flat of milk bottles. Tin buckets hold yellow flowers. Fanciful iron seating completes the scene.
A rustic sign with the word “LOVE” is tacked onto a tree, and a bike with a basket rests against the shade tree.
The bungalow is the personification of happy.
Jane says she has to look back as she leaves each day, just to be sure it is all real and not a dream —“That it’s still there,” she laughs, straightening her lanky frame. Her Mazda Miata convertible sits at the curb.
“Are you always this happy?” I’m compelled to ask, noticing her disposition has yet to wilt.
“I think I am,” Jane answers smiling. Another laugh bubbles up from deep within her torso.
Those burbling bubbles — along with the ones floating from the bubble machine — are evidence of what her husband, Richard, quickly interjects: “The smallest things make her happy.”
The smallest reference is Richard’s wordplay on the Greens’ new small home: a radical departure from a rambling house in New Jersey. The Greens moved to the South, leaving behind colder winters and high property taxes, to create a new life near daughter Nicole Naviglia and family. Their son, Tom Green, lives in Wake Forest.
“My daughter followed her college sweetheart here. They broke up but she stayed here, and eventually married someone else. We wanted to be a part of her life,” says Jane. A difficult northern winter had finally made up their minds.
“Property taxes were $1,500 a month, even if your house was paid off,” she notes, explaining it made retirement impossible. “The tax base is better down here.”
The Greens did an unAmerican thing, deciding to live within their means and also join their daughter in the Triad.
“She said, ‘look for a piece of land,’” says Nicole. “I said, ‘Mom, you’re crazy. It’s the city. There’s no land.’”
But as it happened, there was.
Jane interjects. “She pops up and says, ‘There’s a lot in College Hill they might sell.’” She pauses. “It was truly a dump of a lot.”
It was coming up for bid, but the Greens describe the vacant lot as a “garbage pit.”
Dan Curry, who has lived in College Hill for 40 years, became instrumental in the sale. He worked for Greensboro Housing and Community Development Program for almost four decades before retiring.
He wrote in an email, “As a member of the Board of Directors of the College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA) I advised the association on how it could find a buyer for a small lot that was donated to them many years ago.” Curry continued: “Most people (including some city staff) thought the lot was too small to be developed, but I knew otherwise and helped CHNA navigate the challenges to getting the approvals needed to allow a house to be built on it.”
But the truth was, buying an unsightly lot and shoehorning a new home there was a steep and potentially risky venture, with little assurance of a happy ending. A few attending a neighborhood association meeting expressed their concerns, the Greens recall. Neighbors worried about the bird life being displaced by building on the vacant lot. And about privacy for adjacent homes.
Even so, in 2017 the Greens went forward with ideas to build a snug cottage that would just fit. “Richard was OK with the process. But he wasn’t as on board as I was,” says Jane, who was the cheerleader of downsizing. But all smoothed out after a relentless assessment of what the couple wanted their retirement to be like.
They settled on Summerfield builder Gary Silverstein.
Building plans were submitted and resubmitted; nonstandard windows on each side had to be approved given the strict exterior architectural guidelines regulating historic neighborhoods.
There were hiccups and false starts. The street itself was also undergoing construction. There was nowhere for construction trucks to park, so the builder had to secure permits for parking rights and a dumpster. Then there was the challenge of construction.
Silverstein “had a building challenge. On a very tight lot,” says daughter Nicole.
She describes her parents appearing before the Board of Exceptions in order to get permissions to build the house within a farther distance from the street.
The setback requirements for new homes required 20 feet from the street versus their planned 11 feet. (Newer homes had to be built farther back than existing ones.) The trouble was, the lot was so shallow the Greens couldn’t position the house as designed to the required distance. Directly behind it is a set design studio owned by UNCG.
“They had to stop construction,” says Nicole. The Greens rented an apartment and had to sit tight as approvals were sought.
“If they hadn’t gotten approval it would have meant they had a lot they couldn’t build on. It was two years from buying the land until moving in.”
Jane describes going to hearings, where Cowhig helped guide them through the process. In some cases, hearings are held before the Historic Preservation Commission and its volunteer commissioners.
With the lot prepared and the house framed, there were more challenges. “He had to hand-raise the roof because they couldn’t get a crane in,” Nicole says, praising his calm demeanor and resourcefulness. “Gary made things work.”
Her mother agrees. “Gary was so meticulous he labeled everything,” Jane says. “Methodical. He was here all the time. He attended all the meetings even before he even knew he had the job,” she stresses.
“They weren’t throwing road blocks. The historic committee wanted it here,” Jane is quick to point out. Approvals meant resubmitting plans for various exceptions to architectural features that are consistent with an historic district.
“Even the double lavender doors had to be approved — they didn’t really have double doors in College Hill,” adds Nicole.
Their hue was inspired by an artist’s studio painted in a pastel lavender color. “That’s it!” the family agreed. The artist gave them a sample can of paint.
“People have really liked it,” Nicole mentions.
“It’s cheerful,” adds Jane.
Approvals are a requirement of property owners in an historic district — which also means advantages. Historic district’s property resale values are higher and attractive tax advantages apply.
Curry says the Greens’ home is an example of what can happen when builders and historic neighborhoods are creative.
“This project is unique in how it demonstrates how small lots can become infill home sites in developed neighborhoods. In fact, the same homebuilder is now building a house on another small lot in College Hill,” Curry says, expressing his belief that such projects might take hold in other neighborhoods and benefit other properties across the city.
With all hiccups resolved, Silverstein moved on to execute Jane’s vision. The interior was theirs to design freely. It is more youthful and less traditionally driven.
The open floor plan is space-efficient, given it is one bedroom, with one-and-a-half baths. The builder created a floored attic, lending some buffer for storage. In fact, it allows for a future second floor should the owners choose.
Silverstein customized the kitchen shelving system, and made custom sliding barn doors from hand-milled poplar trees he sourced. Jane felt they would be a feature but also functional.
“She did it for practicality. It allows space,” explains Nicole, demonstrating by sliding back one of the doors that conceals a pantry.
They used a mix of vintage and new in building materials. The living room mantel was found in East Greensboro at Architectural Salvage, a program operated by Preservation Greensboro.
Jane wanted other touches to create the nouveau rustic look, such as a large farm sink, “big enough for bathing babies,” she says. They added special taps for an architectural flourish.
“Certain things I had to have,” she admits. This included a French-style chandelier and industrial lights.
Even so, the builder successfully completed the project on budget.
“I wasn’t,” she confesses sheepishly.
The Green’s cottage was ready for move in October 31, 2018. But the challenges weren’t over when the house was done. The process would demand more of the Greens than adapting a house plan to work on an awkward lot. Now they had to adapt themselves to life in 950 square feet, downsizing from 2,500 square feet.
Jane was an inveterate collector of vintage items and Richard possessed a collection of his own award-winning, black-and-white photos of images shot in New York City, San Francisco and other cities. Theirs wasn’t a Marie Kondo–style simplification. It was more frantic.
“Does it fit? Then, no. If we thought too long about things, we would have become oversentimental and kept things,” Nicole says.
The Greens didn’t defer decisions and get a storage unit. “Nicole wouldn’t let me do that,” Jane admits. She had to sift through her collections of home décor. Antique sleds. Vintage lanterns. Dozens of buckets. Beautiful, rustic things.
But how many vintage sleds does one person need? Nicole helped winnow, having recently downsized herself.
This, as the family explains, required patience and a purging which demanded letting go of many beloved collections.
Jane and Richard also let go of something else they decidedly did not love: a mortgage.
What they gained is infinite, Jane declares. Her happiness has expanded.
Three days after the house was completed, they packed what would go to the cottage and held a garage sale of the surplus. The garage sale netted pennies on the dollar from valuables. (They made $650 from the yard sale, which Jane declares she doesn’t want to think about.)
But with the proceeds, the Greens bought a tool shed for garden implements.
Final design and décor decisions were next. Having sold many of their furnishings apart from a few family heirlooms, they bought new West Elm sofas for the living room and for a small bedroom/study/den.
Certain accessories, including the living room rug, were found online.
Local furniture maker, John Oppegaard, created custom kitchen and porch tables to fit the space.
“John’s young, in his 20s,” says Jane. “He wrote something so nice under the table — ‘Custom built for Jane & Richard by John Oppegaard 10-24-18.’”
In order to confer the impression of age on the pieces, he used square nails and reconfigured a door from Architectural Salvage as the porch table.
Extraneous kitchen items were pared dramatically, says Jane. The result is a neatly ordered kitchen. One antique sled is displayed at the top of her open shelves.
“If you do it right, it doesn’t look messy. I have eight dishes. I have more in the cupboard. Had a vintage box with containers for strawberries,” she sighs. “I loved it and couldn’t get rid of it.”
In the end, Jane’s greatest resource turned out to be a spirit of adaptability.
She so loves chatting with the students who walk past her porch in route to classes at UNCG; enjoys a walkable neighborhood and trekking to area restaurants or for coffee. Proximity to college life meant things are lively, the Greens explain. No isolation. They can age in place.
Plus, omnipresent young people often say they want a house just like the Greens’, complete with its lavender doors, profusion of petunias and a bubble machine.
Jane adds, “I think a college town appeals to older people as well as younger people.” She sighs happily. “I love the college students! They’ve just been so nice.”
She gushes. “I love the neighborhood, the neighbors, the City of Greensboro. And our builder, Gary Silverstein!”
Even the same city administrators and standard-bearers who made life just a bit difficult with those pernickety approvals are all forgiven. The Greens took it in stride.
“Negativity brings you down,” Jane warns.
A giggly confession follows, after repeating that building their cottage was one of the best decisions ever.
“Mike Cowhig had said, ‘We want it to look like it always was here,’” say the Greens.
And so it happened, but requiring grit and grace along the way.
Cowhig is delighted. “They had to overcome so many obstacles to make it happen.”
He adds, “but they did.”
Since the Greens moved in year before last, more than one passerby has assumed the cottage is a renovation given its exterior features.
“It was built to blend in,” says Nicole proudly. “Very much in keeping. It looks like a reno.”
“Haint blue on the ceiling,” Jane notes. “My daughter bought a gallon over and said, ‘Paint the ceiling blue!’” The porch, the blue ceiling, all made them feel officially Southern.
“There are very nice people here,” says Jane stepping onto the porch, and smiling to a pedestrian.
The Greens get to live their retirement years as a much warmer adventure; downsizing has amplified their lives in practical ways. “I wanted to live on my Social Security,” says Jane.
“We feel relieved here. We can heat the house and not wear a sweatshirt like in our last house.”
“Now we don’t have a mortgage,” she sighs. “It’s perfect. And it’s enough for us, Richard and me,” she says. The Greens recently invited the designers in the studio behind their cottage to decorate the fence that separates them. They would like the view from their kitchen to be something creative.
“It would be like an open canvas for them,” says Jane.
In other words, merrily, merrily merrily . . . life is but a dream for a couple of retirees in a radically smaller home on a difficult lot that nearly everyone (except Dan Curry and Mike Cowhig) wisely agreed couldn’t be built. h
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to Seasons’ flagship, O.Henry magazine.