A “Palette in Blue” produces joy in Steve and Kathy Rohrbeck’s High Point home
By Cynthia Adams • Photographs by Amy Freeman
Kathy and Steve Rohrbeck’s “new” house smells of sunshine and fresh paint — the former courtesy del sol. The second, courtesy of Sherwin-Williams’ “Palette in Blue.”
Out with the old — good but dated — and in with a new, muted palette, which makes for an understated makeover in this historic 1930s home. With the exception of a few concentrated, hard edits to the kitchen and master bath, paint proved to be a most transformative tool. Drying paint, which wafts down the stairs, is the home’s new, defining fragrance. By changing the patchwork of supersaturated colors in every room, they’ve created a sanctuary, which they’ve come not just to like, but to love. Theirs was a renovation, not a ruin-ovation, a term my house-flipping friend likes to use.
Indeed a tour of the 3,200-square-foot historic home in High Point’s favorite neighborhood, Emerywood, confirms that it had the good fortune of being gently nudged — not radically reformed — into the present day.
Before entering the traditional house via a wide and welcoming front porch (complete with a swing) the mood is set. Kathy enjoys sitting on the Stickley-style whitewashed swing outside, which they brought from their prior home. It’s as Southern a pursuit as any.
“The porch going across the whole front looks happy and welcoming to me,” Kathy says. “I look at it, and it brings me joy.”
But she points to the tiled porch at her feet with a grimace. “It’s sinking.” It is on the list of immediate projects. Then she shakes her head, smiling wryly, and looks up. “This is about to be redone as well,” says Kathy, indicating the roof. She’d met with the roofing contractor to get a new roof started earlier that day.
“Then we’re going to paint the outside. And put in another bathroom.”
For anyone who lives in an historic house, the ongoing demands are familiar. But so is unreservedly loving a home that loves you back.
The Rohrbeck house does not show its advanced age of 89; it’s being cared for, loved, and it shows.
“Originally we planned to renovate the house we were in,” says Kathy, pouring a perfect glass of sweet but not too sweet tea. “It meant redoing the kitchen, the master bath, expensive stuff. But we would still have been backing up to Main Street.”
When friends placed their house on the market in 2000, word traveled through Emerywood. “Oh, I love that house,” Kathy thought. The second day it was listed, they did a walk-through, having only been downstairs.
The house spoke to them, and the couple listened, immediately deciding to leave their circa 1925 residence (which they also had enjoyed).
This after only a single viewing when their property went on the market.
The Rohrbecks not only loved the house but the neighborhood. Until three years ago, they were living only three blocks away.
But to move only a few blocks? Kathy begins to answer and pauses, her youthfully freckled face curving into a shy grin.
“I just knew,” she says.
“We like old houses. We also knew the house,” explains Kathy, her grin widening. “It was the same size, the same number of bedrooms. It didn’t need anything done immediately. It was very livable.” And so, they went about their lives, largely satisfied in their “new” 1930s home.
Only a few years ago, did the time seem ripe for changes.
Originally, the couple were “just going to redo the family room.” She gives another laugh. “Then it turned into the whole downstairs.” They started with the living room, then decided they might as well redo the kitchen. They widened a doorway into the rear of the house off the spacious center hall. Project creep commenced.
The spacious house with said friendly porch perfectly suited for sitting and sipping tea was also among the earliest built in what was once considered the suburbs: affluent Emerywood.
According to the history of the Emerywood Country Club, the neighborhood was developed in 1923. Kathy presents a black-and-white aerial photo of the community taken in the 1930s, which bears a credit for Curtis Wright. The photo was a gift from friends.
The Rohrbeck home is among those visibly completed in the new development, which was still largely unbuilt at the time the photo was taken and shows a web of streets awaiting development. The original grid as designed is visible, with a network of paved cul-de-sacs like the one the Rohrbeck home occupies. Yet in the 1930s, few trees were evident — clear-cutting was already in practice.
The executives populating High Point’s downtown nearly 100 years ago began to seek gracious homes suitably removed from downtown for their rising stations in life and, as N.C. tradition dictates, in close proximity to a golf course. They could take either their motor cars to the office or factory, or hop onto a streetcar. The streetcar tracks are visible in photos of 1930s-era High Point.
Today, Emerywood’s sheltering trees, many of them planted by early homeowners, are iconic and a major charm factor, but the streetcars of the early 20th century are long gone. The Rohrbecks are equally committed to trees. Kathy says she doubts the family will ever build an addition to the rear of their house to accommodate a downstairs master, as it would require removing a massive oak. That tree, she says with certainty, would be difficult to sacrifice.
Before moving in, Kathy, as Marie Kondo preaches, undertook a serious re-evaluation of their accumulated furniture and possessions. They only kept “what brings joy,” she says. “I have the Kondo book upstairs,” Kathy adds. She was unconsciously affected; however, she said she was very ready before reading it to “have much less stuff. Just having room.”
Before this Kondo criterion, their home’s decor was largely the result of hand-me-downs and things that had been passed along to them. This time, the Rorhbecks were consciously evaluating what, if anything was joy-inducing.
Turned out, not a lot of their years of furnishings sparked much joy. Stepping back with a critical eye, Kathy decided their things looked disjointed. And fusty. They took loads to things to the Red Collection. “We purged. Now, I think more than twice before I buy.”
The couple also thought very carefully about updating a house that they already liked. “When we moved in, it was done but dated,” Kathy says. “But not terribly.” She envisioned soothing colors; her husband liked wood flooring. So did she.
The couple began making thoughtful interior changes, consulting with designer Anne Bills. “She’s awesome. Easy to work with. She lives right around the corner.” “The primary objective,” Kathy says, “was serenity.”
Kathy’s ancestry is Portuguese and Irish; the Portuguese side of her especially liked color, but muted. Tranquil shades of the sea and sky and natural world took priority. The apple greens, yellows, golds, melons in various rooms were painted over with creamy whites, grays and blues.
Kathy, a former nurse, met her cardiologist husband when they were both working at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. before moving to North Carolina in 1992. Steve joined a High Point practice. They have a son, Jason, who is now grown and works at Southern Roots in Jamestown.
They needed a sanctuary. A soothing “and happy place.”
When possible, the couple did work themselves. “Steve is repapering the powder room this weekend,” Kathy says, and unfurls a coral paper. It will replace a very graphic black-and-white paper she has decided must go after living with it several years. Like some other things, the black-and-white lacked serenity. It sparked no joy and now it had to go.
Slowly, the Rohrbeck made the already comfortable home their own. The prior owners, for instance had used the living room for dining. They returned the dining room to its original place adjacent to the kitchen. The living room was the first renovation project.
The formerly gold-colored living room was painted a warm white that changes with the light. The furnishings mingled antiques with new, contemporary accents. Much of the art was already in the Rohrbeck’s collection, but a few larger pieces were added. The room acquired a more contemporary, transitional feel, with tone-on-tone walls and accents of coral lifted from the French plates used on antique side chairs and pillows.
Kathy loved fabrics and loved the pursuit of colorful accents. She produces a large bag of carefully labeled fabric samples she sourced from Printer’s Alley in Greensboro and other fabric outlets as the projects were underway. The samples are a complementary mix of neutrals, interspersed with corals and blues.
She found French antique plates, white with coral-colored raised leaf motif that provided creative inspiration throughout the rest of the house. (Those had sparked so much joy, Kathy bought them from a High Point antiques shop and wanted them displayed on the wall.) Chinoiserie and other antique pieces made the cut but were reupholstered in less dated fabrics. Large-scale, sculptural Chelsea House sconces punched things up further, enlivening and modernizing the light-filled space. Upstairs, they recently remodeled the master bathroom and painted. More edits occurred to their furnishings. A large armoire was painted white to lighten their spacious bedroom.
The kitchen, which was small by comparison to modern homes, required attention. The couple, who loved cooking and good wines, deserved the extra elbow room. Kathy knew a reconfiguration would require removing a wall and she also wanted wood flooring throughout — the white tile seemed impractical. “It had been done in the ’90s,” says Kathy. Now the kitchen opens to the family room, which opens onto a terrace — and provides a view via a bay window of the stately oak the family values.
Kathy, an especially avid cook, likes to entertain and cook for her family most weekdays. She redesigned the kitchen, drawing upon her experience. (“I watch the Cooking Network,” she says. “I love to cook.”)
She now works part-time for REAL Kitchen & Market on Lexington, a High Point catering business, but primarily spends time at the front of the store, no longer cooking as she once did.
Given her years working on the catering side, Kathy knew what was needed. “The kitchen I designed. I picked out the cabinets, and would pick something else out, and I would run them by Anne.” Having a designer to touch base with was very helpful, and she vetted Kathy’s decisions. She favored Shaker-style white cabinetry, with white marble counters in one section, and soapstone in another. “I had no concept of scale. I tended to go with smaller things, and she got me to see it is better to have fewer things that make an impact. Something that is larger.”
As her tastes have refined and simplified, Kathy consistently leans toward simplicity in her culinary tastes, too. “Ina Garten is my favorite,” she smiles. On a given summer evening, Kathy might whip up a tomato tart, with mozzarella, basil and fresh tomatoes and salad, or something on the grill.
She knows the tomato tart recipe by heart. Kathy advises using prepared pie dough, rolling it out as the base for layering on a few fresh ingredients. “Put the dough in a tart pan; then put a layer of fresh mozzarella cheese, eight ounces, grated, then two tablespoons of fresh basil on top of the cheese. Then layer freshly sliced tomatoes. Salt and pepper, and grate some parmesan on top. Cook it at 400 degrees for 35 or 40 minutes.” She prepares the tart, a salad and maybe some grilled chicken — that, she says is a fast dinner.
There’s another Rohrbeck-tested and go-to dish, often prepared in her sun-drenched white kitchen.
“My favorite dish is chicken Lombardi. When I bring a dish to somebody, that’s what I usually take. But I make all kinds of stuff,” she says. “I like to try new things.” The Rohrbecks enjoy wine and keep a cellar in the basement. “We like going to wine dinners. We’re in a wine club.” In her childhood, Kathy’s Portuguese grandfather grew his own vines and made his own wines. (They were not very good, she adds, wincing. “Very sweet.”)
Her grandfather’s house, she recalls, was painted pink. She smiles at the recollection. “Pink!” While an unusual choice in the Northeast, it probably referenced his home in Portugal; he emigrated to the States when he was still a young man in his 20s.
Now a colorful, Mediterranean-inspired painting in the kitchen invokes Kathy’s grandfather’s spirit, along with a soft, joyful palette that speaks of the sea and the sky.
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to Seasons’ flagship, O.Henry. And she, too, is owned by a house.