Six Windows and a Vision – A Journey Home

millerapt2Sunlight pours through the bank of six windows that front Main St. in downtown Newberry. The soft southern light warms the heart pine floors, succors the pots of night blooming cereus, and highlights the art work hanging from structural bolts on the side brick wall. Classical music plays softly in the background, rising into the exposed rafters. Steam wafts from coffee cups.

Welcome to the home of Franklin and Barbara Miller at 1309 B Main Street, the newest downtown home in Newberry. A project, which much to their chagrin, took three and a half years.

Franklin and Barbara’s first home in Newberry only took two years of camping out with a hot plate on a dryer. In 1994, the Barklin House Bed and Breakfast on College Street was completed. It was a beautifully renovated and decorated period home with updates and changes that made it a functional bed and breakfast. They even planned it so that it could easily be turned back into a single family dwelling.

The Barklin House was Franklin and Barbara’s retirement plan. They got a wonderful, comfortable home, space for Franklin’s art studio—a passion that he now has time to pursue—a garden for Barbara, and a supplementary income.

Their former careers, Franklin was an engineer and Barbara a banker, equipped them with many of the skills they needed to make this transition. They knew about construction and how things work, had done a lot of planning, researching and budgeting. During that time they also became well informed on city regulations and local skilled electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. They used locally sourced people for work in their home, whenever possible.

They successfully ran the Bed and Breakfast for 16 years and had a great time doing it. In 2008, however, they realized the time had come to move to the next phase of their lives. Barbara said of their decision to sell, “It’s a lot of work to do a bed and breakfast. We just didn’t think we could continue to maintain the standards we had set.”

They began researching the possibilities about a year before they closed the Barklin House and sold it. At their age, they knew this new home needed to be comfortable for them even as they grew older. They also still needed a supplementary income. Main Street living with commercial space below seemed the answer. They talked with the folks who had developed the apartments and retail spaces across from Memorial Square in downtown Newberry. They kept their eyes on the downtown real estate market.

That’s when they found the six big windows facing south at 1307 and 1309 Main St. The upstairs of the two buildings were a mess. The stairs going up to the second floor was more like a ladder than stairs. There was a shared hallway between the two buildings, even though they were built separately.

They both remember what a mess everything was upstairs. Franklin said, “This (upstairs space) would have been hard to fall in love with at that point.” On the positive side the commercial space below was in good shape and would serve them well as income.

Barbara shook her head. “I just remember all those windows and all that light.” From those windows and that light, Barbara developed a vision for their new home, distilled from their past experiences with Barklin House, research and their current needs and interest. Franklin said, “Barbara has the vision. She knows what she wants and how to look for sources.”

Barbara said of Franklin, “He has a real understanding of how things work. That comes in really handy, like when we were working on the windows, the roof, and…” Her list was quite long.

They bought both buildings in June of 2009. The bottom line is it took both Franklin’s and Barbara’s skills and their patience to get to their home overlooking Main Street today. It took three and one half years, partly because this project was bigger in scope and more unique than their first Newberry project, partly because they had the luxury of doing it right…the first time.

Barbara and Franklin have advice about surviving a three and a half year building process successfully: they both agreed that you need to make a budget and stick to your budget. Translate as, “A building project is never going to go exactly as you planned. Changes will be made, and they probably will cost more.” Ask Barbara about her Sub-Zero refrigerator and that fabulous gas stove, which both got cut from the budget when the roof of the building had to be replaced.

Suggestion two: Plan, plan, plan, not just for today, but for the future. For example, Franklin and Barbara knew they wanted a deck on their roof, but did not have the money in the budget to do that now. They still put in the deck supports when they replaced the roof, and this meant that putting in the deck in the future would not compromise the seal of the roof.

And, their last sage advice is, “Never accept the first solution that is presented unless you like it. There are lots of options. Do not despair.” Ask them about their fire floors and the fire protection sprinkler system they installed.

As mentioned earlier, planning was critical to the success of the project. Barbara explained their planning process, “We really had three concepts that guided us: adaptive reuse, universal design and minimalism.”

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive Reuse is when you look at a building, respect it for how it was used before, but you are not bound to use it the same way.

Originally, both of the Main Street buildings had been commercial spaces at street level and upstairs. Upstairs offices for professionals are no longer common on main streets in small towns. So, Barbara and Franklin planned to design and use the upstairs of the two buildings as their home.

They respected the character of the two buildings but decided to gut the second floors of both 1307 and 1309 to the outer brick walls. All internal walls were removed. Some were put back, but not all. Now, that’s adaptive reuse.

They not only gutted the inner walls, but they also made the momentous decision to replace their roof. They decided to put an elevator in that would service their home and the roof top. Their roof wasn’t in such great shape to begin with and cutting into it for the elevator would compromise it further. They consulted their engineer, their builder and architect on this decision. The roof had to be replaced.

By the way, replacing the roof wasn’t in their original budget. Remember what they said earlier about budgets! Ask Franklin, who ended up painting the entire interior upstairs.

Some hard-learned words of caution from Barbara, “It’s so easy, when you are working with a beautiful old structure, to get caught up in the romantic idea of the beautiful brick, exposed beams and lovely restored floors, but we had to learn to put our mental energy and our finances into making sure we got the fundamentals right.”

Another budget-busting, hard decision was to replace the uneven floors throughout the upstairs. This was a low point from a budget perspective, but a high point from an adaptive reuse perspective. They took up the floors thinking they would have to replace with new wood, but friends came to the rescue. The friends connected them with Grizzly Forest Products in Joanna, which salvages and rehabs old heart pine.

Their own roof became their floor. They were able to salvage enough heart pine from the old roof structure to do flooring for over 2500 square feet. They even have some flooring left over.

Universal Design

This principle of design gives you a space that can be most comfortably used by the most number of people.

Franklin and Barbara have no thresholds in their home. The hallways are wide. Their light switches and electrical outlets are not high and low as they normally are. They are at a height that someone in a wheelchair could reach comfortably. As mentioned earlier, they have an elevator. All of this means that they can live in their home comfortably for a much longer time.

Minimalism

Barbara and Franklin’s home has a modern vibe. Their kitchen has streamlined grey cabinets. The staircase is enclosed with a stainless steel railing worthy of any glass high rise. There are not huge storage spaces in the home.

Barbara will tell you that minimalism is more than downsizing. It’s about living a simpler life.

“We looked at everything we owned and asked ourselves, ‘Do we really need this?’” she said. Consequently, they have fewer clothes and fewer pots and pans.

Photos, sentimental items, they shared with family members, or kept if it was important to them. Many photos are on computers. Craig’s List and numerous yard sales helped to cull out the items they no longer needed.

Luckily, minimalism does not mean there can be no artwork. The long wide staircase hall that runs from a back-wall window to the bank of windows in the front is lined with Franklin’s paintings. They are bathed in a soft natural north/south light. Paintings hang from bolts in the brick wall in the front living area, rather than from an old fashioned picture rail. Smaller paintings sit on the ledge of the wainscoting that hides their electrical and plumbing in the home.

Franklin’s art studio is to the right at the top of the stairs to their home. Blessed with northern light, it is filled with canvases and art supplies. True to their budget constraints, they are still working to finish this room. There are plans for a Murphy bed that will allow the room to be a guest room when needed. The adjoining bathroom will be finished last.

Their bedroom across the hall is what a bedroom should be, warm and cozy, with family pictures lining the wainscoting. Lighting softly highlights the exposed brick and original rough plaster. It’s Barbara’s favorite room.

What is it like living downtown?

This question is probably the most frequent one that Franklin and Barbara get from people. She replied, “It’s really neat. We can walk to supper, walk to the Opera House and watch downtown events from our window! It’s just another kind of community.”

She rattled off the names of all of the shop owners on their street and told stories of ways they had made Franklin and her feel welcome. All you have to do is check out Barbara’s Facebook page. She is a one-woman fan club for downtown living and Newberry in general.

She summed it up this way, “I know if we were sick, I could call Neville at The Grille on Main, and he would send Ralph over with soup.”

It doesn’t get much better than that, especially when the warm sun is filtering in the six windows overlooking Main Street in Newberry.