Artist and designer Linda Lane finds a permanent haven in Greensboro’s Fisher Park
By Cynthia Adams • Photographs by Amy Freeman
From the outside, the Bob and Linda Lane home has a friendly, grab-a-seat-and-enjoy-the-shade, sort of vernacular. “Simple, not too showy,” in the words of Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro.
The Mediterranean revival, two-story, brick 1924-era home, is set back from the street with granite block curbing. (That curbing is a historic Fisher Park feature, defining the district’s period homes and streets.)
Captain Basil J. Fisher, namesake of the land he donated in 1901, would likely approve of today’s picturesque parklands and homes, all lovingly preserved within one of the Gate City’s most popular neighborhoods, long part of the National Register of Historic Places.
Former swamplands have been transformed into stone-lined waterways, accented by quaint stone walls and bridges within the park — set against a backdrop of luxurious trees, flowers, trails and an abundance of granite. It comprises the heart of the neighborhood, and the Lanes are in close proximity to the park.
With ample porch space for neighborly entertaining, Linda Lane says this open space is a wonderful extension. “The porch serves as our foyer,” she notes, speaking like the designer she is.
The front door opens directly into the main room, which is flooded with natural light. The room’s large granite fireplace also bears the distinctive grapevine mortar work, another Fisher Park signature.
Although the house built by Dr. Denis Roscoe Wolff nears its centennial, it is still robust: solid, honest and unpretentious as granite. Unpretentiousness matters to the Lanes.
So did the home’s provenance, given Linda’s volunteer work on the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission.
“We both have been addicted to looking at houses since forever.” Bob is a Realtor. The couple has previously renovated and flipped homes, living in them before selling.
“Neither of us had in mind to be actively looking. We were clearly going to sell our [Starmount] house but didn’t know when. We ended up looking and falling in love,” says Linda.
And no wonder. This house hadn’t been “ruin-ovated.”
It had four bedrooms — spacious — especially considering it was designed for a family of three. Wolff built the home in 1924 around the time of his marriage to Sanford “Sandy” Thomas Wolff. The eight-room house cost a whopping $13,778 to build according to the permit that ran in the newspaper. Then again, adjusted for inflation, that would be $206,584.59 in today’s dollars.
Many Greensboro residents of a certain age have fond memories of the couple’s only child, George Thomas Wolff, known for his wit and kindness. He became a beloved, highly respected family physician like his father. Denis died in 1941. His bride, Sandy, survived him for 52 years. George Wolff died in 2016. Now, the Lanes, empty-nesters with a hankering for historic architecture, are nestled into the former Wolff family’s foursquare.
With small projects and tweaks still under way, the house is immensely comfortable, colorful and almost modern in its first-floor open plan. But as a designer, Linda finds one’s own home is the hardest project of all.
That, in part, is because deadlines aren’t exactly deadlines. Her personal projects often come after clients’. And they are closely deliberated, despite the seeming informality.
The Lanes bought the house in 2015 while still living in Starmount.
The Fisher Park house as they found it was spacious and perfectly livable, Linda admits, a wry smile on her lips. The kitchen had even been recently updated.
Foursquare homes — two-story, with a rectangular footprint and a front porch that runs along the full width of the house — are the most commonplace residences in the historic district, with 60 listed in the Fisher Park inventory. However, this house wore Italian Renaissance features, says Briggs.
Meaning what? Although foursquare in form, Briggs explains, the defining Mediterranean style is revealed by “the icing, the decoration.”
The “icing” here is visible in the “dark brick, the wide overhanging eaves with exaggerated brackets and the massive porch supports.” Briggs calls it “a style that was elegant and sophisticated, yet simple and not too showy.”
The Wolff home could possibly have been designed by architect Harry Barton, he speculates. Clues of this, he offers, are the overall “design, wire-cut brick, and scale of the house.” (Barton, a successful rival of prolific architect Charles Hartmann, left his own imprint on Greensboro, particularly on the campus of Woman’s College, now UNCG.)
Yet . . . by current standards, the house was lacking.
“The reason the house sat on the market is because it had so few bathrooms,” says Linda. In fact, it had only one, an upstairs bath. That single bath did have a charming original tub and freestanding marble shower, all in excellent condition. The separate shower was a pleasant surprise. It even has excellent water pressure, as Linda later discovered.
“We kept coming back and looking at it,” she remembers. “I was hedging. Then we realized it was perfect for what we would need.” As it turns out, they were thinking of downsizing anyway. “This was the downsize,” she says, “but it’s still big.” There was even a partial third floor, which became an informal retreat. A great nest for storage, a TV, or, well, empty-nesting.
The house now has 2,800 square feet by Lane’s guesstimate. Not exactly small, yet smaller than the Lanes’ former Starmount home.
“We were in a house that was 4,500 square feet. Which was way too much,” Linda says.
“I used to think when I was younger, and people said they were downsizing, they were having financial straits.” She laughs. “Now, it’s so redemptive and freeing. Now I see it totally differently.”
But initially, of course, Linda wasn’t quite sure. The updated kitchen needed better flow, in the designer’s opinion. And they would have to address the lack of bathrooms.
Experience was on their side. So was a layout that would mean they could incorporate underused space without building out. Linda’s wheels turned immediately.
The Lanes had been flipping houses since their years in Washington, D.C., where they renovated four row houses on Capitol Hill, the city’s largest historic district. Linda, who was born in Beirut but raised in the United States, spent her formative years working as a designer for a large Washington firm.
At the time, the district was a dodgy area; it hadn’t yet become the wildly expensive neighborhood it is today.
Before leaving Washington in 1999 to live in Greensboro, Linda says, “the world was having a good economy but Washington was a drug-laced city. I (still) loved living on the Hill, and all the work we did.”
Renovation became irresistible to Linda, whose dreams are filled with houses and streetscapes. She dreams of being a bird in flight, zipping through an urban area, “looking down on a street at buildings.”
And, of course, the artist and designer dreams in color.
Linda remains excited by the work of restoration, of “taking something that has been beaten up and discarded, and refreshing it. That is the most rewarding thing we do.”
She discusses repurposing objects, like the marble they removed in the upstairs bath. About avoiding change without purpose. “I’m more careful about what walls have to come out. There is a justification to make it bigger. It can be done (thoughtfully).”
The leitmotif in Linda’s work is grit, she says. “To tear out walls, do renovations, restoration. I loved getting dirty. The real nuts and bolts.”
She once thought about working in architecture rather than design. Now she toys with getting a contractor’s license. As she has done numerous renovations, she says she has learned to become a project manager.
“I call myself an interior designer, because that was my schooling,” she says. But she’s also evolved into an artist of sorts and “an artisan of other skills as well. I can do a working drawing of a piece of furniture as well as a layout of a kitchen.”
At first, she thought there wasn’t much that needed changing in the new home. “That’s when everyone who knows me starts laughing. Everybody who knows me says, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Linda admitts she was soon daydreaming about the floor plan.
“The kitchen wasn’t functioning well. We made the decision to do that change before we moved in . . . we’re used to having lived through projects before.” For instance, when they bought the Wolff house Linda was project manager on Hillside, the iconic Fisher Park property built by the president of the Jefferson Life Insurance company, Julian Price. For Linda, the restoration was a career highlight.
“To be involved with such an historical gem . . . I was really bonded with the history of the house.”
For many, a high-profile restoration, plus buying a house that needed a kitchen makeover would be daunting, but not Linda. “I get in a zone, and that’s the way it is.”
She laughs. “I don’t mind it. I don’t mind getting dirty. I just love having workmen and the sound of buzz saws around me.” Linda shrugs, “Then, I’m happy when they pack up their tools.”
She had the house’s original oak floors refinished in a darker stain, a tweak that had surprising and immediate impact.
The kitchen was the primary focus of change. Plus, the couple agreed on adding an extra full bathroom at the same time.
“We took the pantry, existing kitchen, and the porch into the existing layout. The porch is not considered part of the square footage when unheated. When we brought the footprint of the porch into the house, it became our laundry/new bathroom. That really was a godsend.
“It ended up being a beautiful rectangular space; functional.”
Cosmetics, like painting and refinished original floors were the other fixes. “Nothing changed, other than the kitchen/butler’s pantry/porch.”
Except for the addition of a powder room. This year the Lanes refurbished the second-floor bath. By removing a slab of marble from the existing shower, it opened the space. The slab became a countertop for a new vanity.
“The tub is original; the slab of marble is original,” says Linda. “The fixtures stayed in place.” Paint, window treatments and décor all evolved.
The third-floor retreat was left much as they found it. A family heirloom, a pendant light with slag glass, hangs above the third-floor landing.
The granite fireplace with grapevine mortar in the main room, however, is most prized.
“I just love sitting in my living room, and even had a fire just by myself…it is the most beautiful fireplace I’ve ever had. Not something that goes unused.”
The refreshment of the Lane’s home was largely done by the beginning of this year.
As renovations drew to a close, Linda enjoyed the last bits, just “fiddling with details.” Some of the details Linda values are vintage, consignment shop finds, or things repurposed from the couple’s former homes.
In the dining room, original Parisian chairs found on 1st Dibs surround a dining table discovered in a reseller’s shop.
“It was in its natural state of oak. Real traditional,” she says. “With tiger graining. Exaggerated lion paws feet! It was an extension table; it is mechanically brilliant.” (Describing how the aprons pull out and the table extends, Linda marvels at its design.)
She refinished the table in darker tones for heightened effect.
Now it’s a “java-toned oak,” she says, lingering. “When closed, it’s a 50-foot square. I always wanted a square table; the room is square. With a square rug. The symmetry was important.”
The custom chandelier above it is an example of rule-breaking, Linda says. Repurposed from Linda’s own lamp and a Raleigh designer’s Murano glass, the collaborative design is meant to be noticed. “Overscale on purpose.”
Linda made an intentional calculation, making the room dramatic by so doing. “It’s breaking the rules, (for a chandelier), but her work inspired me to go bigger.”
Furnishings in dining room include an orange, French Bombay chest from the Historic Newport Collection created by North Carolina company EJ Victor, says Linda. Its twin is in a guest room. The pair has been used in prior homes.
Orange is Linda’s accent color: her “popping” color.
“I love the color orange. The dining room has a neutral palette other than the pop of orange and the chandelier. The draperies are a muted plum. I love plum/lavender/purples.”
How would Linda describe the interiors?
“I love the period of the ’30s. It’s not quite Art Deco,” she says. “The dining chairs speak to me for being 1930s, maybe early 1940. The vendor on those chairs specialized in Art Deco chairs from France. That’s the historical footnote.” The main text is filled out with a Louis XV cabinet, chinoiserie — 1750s, versus Art Deco. “That’s where it becomes this intertwining of periods.”
Linda stays with that theme of interlacing elements as she discusses the dining room.
“The influence of the chinoiserie is important to me; I have those huge jardinières near the radiator. They came from a designer who had done lots of travel in the far East before China was in everybody’s face,” she says, waxing enthusiastic. “They’re old chinoiserie. Then I realized I have to pull it back — I can go overboard.” She laughs.
“Louis XV had a lot of chinoiseries in the period,” she adds.
Her taste for the ornate French style can be traced back to 1978, when Linda joined a six-week program in Paris at what is now Parsons Paris, studying under the school’s dean of students, Vieri Salvadori. The students had free access to the Louvre.
Counterpoint to the grand — the chinoiserie and gargantuan table with lion paws — is the straightforward — a sideboard Linda describes as simple/modern. The impresario used contrast in order to compose a unique narrative within the room. (For all interesting rooms convey a story, as she explains.)
“The push and the pull of the story you tell visually,” Linda notes. “You do it with words. I do it with things . . . And I don’t want to explain it,” she says and laughs.
There’s also more of Linda’s designs than she initially discusses. Her fabrics. The fabric in the downstairs bath featuring Asian cranes is one among Linda’s textile designs still very much in use.
“Century Furniture still runs that fabric in a beautiful aqua color. They just reordered it.”
Upstairs, Linda stops before a pier-style mirror on the landing. In order to use it here, she was forced to have it cut down in order to fit.
The bed in the guest room “is a classic mahogany four-poster with a canopy design; I reglazed into a real pretty green. I love taking old classic stuff and giving it a tweak. Give it a new life. It’s so fun.”
As Linda walks through her home, she openly admires the tradespeople she works with on projects. She asks, “Where are you being the mechanic, where are you being the artist, and where are you being both?” In managing design projects and restorations, her work is often a collaboration with tradespeople; she “speaks their language.”
“You know that book, Steal Like an Artist?” she asks. I do. The book by Austin Kleon sits on my bookshelf, a gift from artist William Mangum. It is, in fact, much favored by creatives.
Steal Like an Artist is a roadmap for navigating a creative life. Linda says she feeds her creative self by doing things like taking a recent drawing class. She also likes to go old-school; she still hand-colors her renderings — whether for a room design or a fabric she is developing.
This book gave Linda the confidence to finally say, “You know what? I do know what I’m talking about, and I am an artist.”
The Lanes’ historic home is proof.
Despite multiple past renovations, during which Linda and Bob would renovate while in place, then move to the next project, she says the Fisher Park home is different. It proves “to be the keeper.”
And a good thing, given the pandemic that resulted in the cancellation of the High Point Market last spring, a move that rattled designers nationwide. But again, Linda proved resilient. “I’m quietly happy to be at home. I’m a real homebody, and my home means a lot to me. And I feel like I shouldn’t be so happy I’m at home? I don’t get cabin fever.” Lane admits to feeling a bit guilty.
She describes a subsequent conversation with her daughter.
“She’s 30, and this is their first 9/11, so to speak. And you start thinking of chronological events, how her friends may lose their business in Chicago. But we may be on the verge of an innovation.”
Disruption as innovation; Linda toyed with the idea.
All that nesting in the time of a pandemic has made her reflective and she harked back to her student days, recently unearthing a folder from her time studying in Paris.
“We were studying the history of French architecture from the 1500s to the present day,” Linda recalls. The other half was spent on the interiors program of decorative arts and interior design.” Apart from some travel to the Middle East, Linda said she had not been exposed to Europe.
The Paris experience built upon her prior training and lent significance and context for certain maxims.
“Why do pairs make you feel better? What is symmetry?” Linda asked. She studied “the correlations that become so important in your work.”
The observations — from architecture to paintings — changed her. Rather than handing down hard maxims, her immersion in French style empowered her to break them. Challenge them.
“Design becomes almost a sixth sense when it becomes all-consuming,” she says. “My whole life has been observing as an artist.”
She quoted an influence who said, “decorating is the art of decorating comfortably.”
She muses about how comfort is created; “It either happens or it doesn’t. It’s an innate gift,” And as the weather turns cooler, she might build another fire. h