Published October 2009
A fuzzy black and white photo shows the house at 704 Buchanan Boulevard from above, sometime in the late 1910s. Surrounded by pastureland, the 5,000-square-foot Arts and Crafts-style structure looks like an elegant country mansion. The house was built around 1910 by dean of Trinity College William Ivey Cranford and was one of the grandest homes
in the fashionable Trinity Park neighborhood. But a century later,the house had become less sherry with the dean, more flip-cup at Delta House. After being carved into rental apartments in 1925, it began a long decline, acquiring yellow vinyl siding and strange, stumpy posts to support a drooping porch. It became a popular party spot for Duke students, and the indignities mounted: fraternity graffiti on the fireplace, fire damage to the upstairs porch, a sloppy mural spray painted on one of the bedroom walls.
But to another dean – Dean of Duke Chapel Sam Wells – the Cranford House was the answer to a long-held and long-shared dream.
“My wife [Jo Bailey Wells] and I had originally hoped to live in the neighborhood where Durham and Duke most obviously intersect – on the edge of East Campus,” says Sam, who came to Duke from his native England in 2005. “But we hadn’t been able to find a place to live there when we first moved.”
Three years ago, their luck changed.
Responding to tensions between Trinity Park homeowners and party- happy student renters, Duke bought a dozen houses – including 704 Buchanan – and put them on the market. The catch: Owners had to obey historic renovation covenants and agree to not rent.
That was just fine with the Wellses. The couple immediately hired Trinity Design/Build, a firm specializing
in historic, eco-friendly renovation. They worked closely with Sara Lachenman, a Trinity Design/Build employee who since has moved on to launch her own design firm.
“Sara’s priorities matched ours very closely – an interest in historic period and preservation, coupled with a desire to go green wherever possible,” Jo says. “Many people think those two areas don’t belong together, but I find it exciting to push the envelope and prove that they can.”
Lachenman says of her clients, “They’re English, and they have a sense that houses are supposed to be old and are supposed to be there forever, andAn unfinished attic with 18-foot-high ceilings was outfitted with a contemporary loft apartment which has become home to visiting relatives, friends and scholars. A basement became an underground garage. Five rooms on the ground floor were demolished to create one large open kitchen and dining space, which now serves as the main family living area for the Wellses and their two children. And remember that spray-painted mural? Part of it was left intact. Now hidden behind clothes in the master bedroom closet, it’s a reminder of the house’s past. “We call it the ‘Truth Window,’” Lachenman says.
Lachenman and her team also managed to incorporate a number of green features rarely seen in historic homes. There’s a gray water recycling system, which uses water from the washing machine and showers to flush the toilets, and a separate storm water cistern on the roof to use for landscaping. Spray foam insulation helps cut down on heating and cooling costs, and special energy efficient windows save energy while maintaining the original historic glass.
All this did not come cheap, of course. The final price tag? About $980,000 for the renovation, dwarfing the initial sale price of $180,000.
Recognition has come their way, most recently in June, when Preservation Durham presented the Wellses with a George and Mary Pyne Award, which honors restored buildings that “contribute to the architectural history of Durham.”
One thing the Wellses enjoy most about their home is how it can accommodate large groups for Duke Chapel functions. But when the Wellses talk about welcoming visitors into their home, they don’t just mean cocktail parties. Sam hopes to create a greater connection between the university and the city of Durham. He and his wife have already hosted a number of gatherings designed to bring the communities together.
“The house was well known for many years as a fraternity house, and many generations of Duke students have known it as a location for parties,” he says. “We hope it will continue to be known as a house of celebration, a place where people arrive as strangers and leave as friends.” DM