Patience Makes Perfect

With a designer’s help, an older Greensboro home is carefully — and brilliantly — refreshed

By Nancy Oakley     Photographs by Michael Blevins

When Amy and Matt Eskridge returned to the Triad in 2012 after being away for several years, they knew they wanted to live in an older house. Matt’s budding career as a urologist, combined with his military service, led the couple to Charleston, South Carolina where he did his residency — and then to Las Vegas. “When we lived in Charleston, we lived in new. When we lived in Las Vegas, the only option was new,” Amy says. “We were buying cheap, newer houses because we were poor. But the doors felt plastic, and I just wanted to feel like we had something a little sturdier.” Sturdy like their old house in Winston-Salem’s Ardmore neighborhood, where the couple — both Twin City natives — had lived while Matt was in medical school at Wake Forest. “It was in Ardmore on Miller Street,” Amy remembers.

“And I thought we’d done a fixer-upper there. But in hindsight, all we did was paint and refinish the hardwood floors. I thought “oh that was fun!” But it wasn’t anything compared to this house.”

This house is an unassuming abode built around 1935 in the heart of Greensboro’s Irving Park, a convenient location for Matt, who spends a good deal of his time at Wesley Long Hospital and Cone, and nearby Alliance Urology Specialists. The location certainly works for the Eskridges’ two children, Ann Phillips and Winston, students at Mendenhall Middle School and Page High School. But when the couple bought the house in 2013, it was a little worse for wear. “It was in foreclosure,” Amy says. “It had vines growing on the windows.” And “small, choppy” rooms, she adds, some of them painted dark brown. All it needed to become liveable, was “a good cleanup” — and with time, a great deal of forethought and an expert’s eye, to become a stunning jewel.

Before they moved in, they redid all the bathrooms, “because I thought that would be too hard to live through,” Amy explains. The Eskridges would then wait to replenish their budget. And wait. And deliberate before making any other major changes. “We had a vision,” Amy says. Even so, when you’re living in small, dark, chopped up spaces, how best to let in the light?

With a starburst, of course, the signature emblem of Greensboro-based designer Kara Cox.

“They’ve been in that house six years now,” says Cox. “They have taken it slowly and done it well, instead of rushing through or doing things halfway. They waited to have it be the way they want. And that patience paid off.”

Cox has been with her clients from the beginning. Around that time, she was enhancing her reputation, having designed a girl’s bedroom for Adamsleigh, the Sedgefield estate and site of the Junior League of Greensboro ShowHouse. Using a palette of neutrals with pops of soft pink and gold, handcrafted furnishings, local artwork and one of her beloved starbursts, Cox created a sleek space reminiscent of the Jazz Age but still very much 21st-century. It spoke to Amy Eskridge while she was touring the house. “Her room was my favorite,” she says. “I didn’t know Kara at that point. I contacted her because I just loved her style.”

The Eskridge home’s gradual transformation began with the dining room, situated prominently in the front of the house and directly across from the living room — and one of the rooms painted in that deep shade of brown. Cox would let in the light and turn the ugly duckling into a showstopping swan. The first element that arrests the eye is an accent panel on the far wall, a chinoiserie print of birds flitting among pale pink and white peonies set against a pale aqua background. “It’s a handpainted silk wallpaper that we framed in to keep that moment,” Cox offers. The remaining walls she covered in a metallic grasscloth, which, according to Amy, subtly shifts to a deeper shade at nighttime. The effect is calming, especially when combined with a white hutch, white trim, cream-colored draperies and gold accents — an abstract sculpture, gilt frames surrounding some subdued prints, and most notably a chandelier suspended from a leaf-shaped base and glass globe. “I would never even have considered it,” Amy says of the light fixture. “But it works.” As a final touch — and because her client needed some — Cox chose dining room chairs upholstered in two tones of velvet, repeating the pale aqua of the panel on the seats, and using a turquoise on the backs. Velvet? With two teenagers? “Yes!” Amy confirms. And thanks to advances in stain-treated fabrics, “We host a church retreat every March with 20 middle-schoolers, and they eat every meal in here. I’ve even served spaghetti in here!”

Cox continued the blue motif in a small office on the far side of the house, where one of its windows lets in the morning sun. Because of the early a.m. bright light, Cox went bold — with a deep shade of peacock, taking the hue all the way up to the trim that abuts the ceiling. “Blue is a classic color. I just think it doesn’t ever go out of style. It’s an easy color to live with,” the designer asserts, owing its popularity among clients to its frequent appearance in nature. And, “it’s easy to pop other accent colors off of,” she adds. Accents, such as — what else? — a starburst that fairly blazes against the deep teal backdrop. The same holds true for some of the original pieces of artwork the Eskridges favor, like the two landscapes hanging side by side on one of the office’s walls. “Everywhere we’ve lived — and we’ve moved a lot — we’ve tried to get a piece of art,” Amy says. “When we were in Las Vegas, I was like, ‘What in the world am I ever going to get in Las Vegas that I’m going to keep with me forever?’ But those are the mountains, the Red Rock Mountains that we could see from our house,” she muses. Similarly, a watercolor of a leafy alcove surrounded by a red brick walkway hangs on the opposite wall.

“My husband went to N.C. State,” explains Amy, (a Carolina Tar Heel, by the way). “That’s where he proposed.” In the living room are more pieces with personal connections: a stunning landscape of Lowcountry marshland by Laura Lloyd Fontaine, an acquaintance from the Eskridges’ time in Charleston; an abstract by Asheville painter Molly Courcelle — a former classmate of Amy’s at R.J. Reynolds High School; two classic wing chairs covered in a taupe jacquard weave — which Cox was eager to dispense with or update, according to her client. But Amy insisted that they stay. “They were my grandmother’s,” she says. “I love mixing old and new.”

Not only that, Amy and Matt were mindful of keeping costs under control, weighing each house project carefully. In addition to the dining room and office, they made a statement with the vestibule just inside the front door. Though small, it greets visitors with a jazzy, black-and-white wallpaper and two custom-made demilunes, serving as built-in shelves, and lacquered in shiny black, the perfect stage for the bright green-and-pink abstract hanging above. With Cox’s help, they also carved out a powder room underneath the staircase leading to the children’s bedrooms. “It was a little arched phone room,” Amy says. And “little” is an understatement. So tight is the space, she wondered how to configure a sink. But leave it to Cox, who thought to use faucet fixtures attached to the wall. Amy found a remnant of marble through Ivey Lane and had it fashioned into a surround that accommodates a sink. The final touch? Walls and ceiling painted a soft gray and then laquered, “so that it would have a little reflection in the space because it’s so dark, and there’s no natural light,” Cox explains. “It wasn’t a room where we could start or stop a wallpaper. It really needed to be treated the same way on the ceiling and on the walls. So that was our solution.” And as the ever cost-conscious Amy observes, the price for wallpaper and lacquer was about the same. “It’s probably my favorite room,” she says.

But by far, the most ambitious project, and the most elaborate, would include an entirely new kitchen and family room.

In the house’s original 1935 design, the kitchen was situated down a hall, beyond the dining room, toward the west side of the house. It included a small dining nook, just big enough for all four members of the Eskridge family to take meals before the dining room redo. Across the hall toward the back of the house was the family’s TV room, a guest bedroom and bath, and a screened-in area overlooking the backyard and guest cottage. In other words, another choppy layout. “My kids’ friends would come over and get confused trying to find their way to the front door,” Amy recalls. At one point she had consulted Kernersville-based contractor Larry McRae who felt the kitchen would be better placed at the back of the house, the site of the TV room, guest bedroom and screened porch. By last summer, when the stove in the old kitchen was down to two working burners, Amy Eskridge had had enough. “I said, ‘We’ve either got to do this or move.’” With her son just starting high school, she wanted a functioning kitchen while her children were still at home. But, she laughs, “I told my contractor we could not bring in a hammer until he was done with exams!”

High Point’s Ned Eldridge General Contractors got started in mid-June of last year, converting the old kitchen into a guest bedroom, and the adjoining breakfast nook into a bath. The exposed brick alcove, which once contained the stove (with the aforementioned two working burners) remains, and Amy intends to keep it that way, as an accent wall. The crew would have a much tougher job opening up the back of the house, which would require moving more than 50 percent of its load-bearing points to create the new kitchen and family room. Because the workers were dealing with lead paint, the area had to be completely sealed off with plastic. “We never moved out. We stayed in our bedrooms. It was not fun to live through,” Amy says, recalling how they made do with a toaster oven, microwave and refrigerator in the guest cottage. “It was very loud. They had the big fans and the space suits, and they’d have to shower off when they came out.” Additionally, as Kara Cox points out, the house has “some of the thickest plaster walls I’ve ever come across — more like cement walls.”

Though Amy had been consulting with Gina Arledge at Kitchen Studio for years with the aim of creating a design consistent with the era of the house, using timeless accents such as marble (another find from Ivey Lane) for the island countertop and a white subway tile backsplash, it was Cox who literally shed more light on the equation. She suggested enlarging a window into elegant French doors leading to the backyard, and bumping out the adjacent wall adjacent to accommodate a brand-new dining nook with a banquette. It is now situated across from a conversation area, delineated with comfortable, neutral furnishings, which the Eskridges bought as soon as construction was completed, a week before Christmas — along with a Charlie Brown tree, “the last one they had left at Lowe’s,” Amy remarks. The addition of some Lucite barstools, a complement to the crisp, white of the cabinets — some filled with Amy’s grandmother’s crystal —  strikes a modern note in the otherwise timeless, airy space with a sort of beachy vibe. The cool, clean tones of white, ivory and an oh-so-subtle pink-infused beige echo in the master bedroom just across the main hallway to the right of the stairs and new powder room.

It’s a trend Cox’s clients are requesting more frequently. “I think there’s a larger trend of people being visually overloaded with all the imagery we’re processing through social media and our phones, our technology,” she observes. “They just want to come home and feel like their space is very restful and quiet and soft.”

Amy says she didn’t consciously choose the palette, though she readily admits that life in the Eskridge household is often, a matter of “survival mode,” with husband Matt’s busy schedule, two teenagers — and her own recent enrollment in real estate school. “I get on Zillow and look at least every day or every other day. I love it!” she says, attributing her penchant for houses to her mother, a Realtor for 20 years. It was Mom who deemed the Irving Park house “perfect” for a family with two kids and Matt certainly thinks so, too. “My husband thinks we’ll be here forever, and it’s a house we could truly die in,” Amy says matter-of-factly. “We’ve got two kids upstairs, they each have their own bathroom, so we don’t see the mess. Eventually, when we don’t want to deal with stairs, we’ve got our bedroom and another bedroom on this level. And we’ve got the back house, which has become like the hangout house for our kids and their friends,” she adds, mentioning a ping pong table and TV to entertain them. “But,” she says, pausing, as a gleam appears in her eye “I still look at houses all the time. I would move and do another one.” 

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons and its flagship, O.Henry.

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