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Home Schooled

A couple turns a former business college in North Carolina into a family home.

Anike and John Fuller didn't set out to buy a 19th century college, it just sort of happened that way. They were living in Charlotte, N.C., in 1990 when a realtor sent them to look at a house in Mocksville, about an hour to the north. Next door to the house was the old Hodges Business College. Despite the fact the old college wasn't for sale, and was filled with junk spilling out into the yard, the Fullers were smitten.

"It was a dreary rainy day and we drove upon the building from the side of the woods and John immediately wanted it," Anike says. "We wandered through the open door, onto the rotted floor and into small cubicle rooms piled with old wide ties, brightly colored shoes and lots of junk.

"Upstairs was one large open space with more junk and a leaking roof. It was the ideal combination of an old building with only a shell to renovate and the opportunity for John, as an architect, to design the interior space. We never even looked at the house next door that was for sale."

Built in 1894, the structure served as a college until around 1911. For a while the land was leased to tenant farmers, who divided the downstairs into small cubicles where they lived. Later the building was used to store remains from estate sales.

John wanted to create a true historic restoration and return the exterior to the 1894 appearance. Inside, he wanted to get creative and transform the large open spaces into living spaces while maintaining as much of the original character as possible.

"It was a difficult combination of historic preservation, being true to what the building was, and creating a place to live and raise a family," John says.

The transformation to a family home was not smooth. First, the general contractor called two months before work was to begin and said he had lost some of his team and had to bow out of the project. The Fullers decided to act as their own general contractors with help from a single contractor.

In the meantime, the four members of the Fuller family were living in a 175-year-old, 950-square-foot log cabin.

"Our first step was to clear out of the college all the tools, wood, furniture and boxes that we had stored in it. This involved having a shed built and moving things into the basement of our office building," Fuller says. "A hired hand began demolition of the old wood walls. During this time the brick masons tediously attempted to match the mortar color, having to let it dry in between test colors to truly see the color."

Once restoration began, a father and son masonry team began scraping mortar joints, replacing bricks, taking out whole sections of a wall and rebuilding it. "We also dug below ground level to restore the brick foundation and waterproof," Fuller says. "The maple tree roots surrounding the building had destroyed portions of the foundation. The also called to inform us that the front wall was going to fall off and needed a structural engineer to investigate and reinforce, that cost us an additional $30,000."

Fuller, with some help from friends, installed the new simulated wood shingles chosen to match the original roofing. After interior was framed out, plaster and veneers were restored. Professionals were called in for various other projects.

The cubicles and an interior staircase that had been added later were removed. Floorboards were replaced on both levels, they replaced the roof and bell tower and added a back door downstairs. "Because the original school had been nothing more than two open rooms, with no electricity and no plumbing, there were no other conversions," John says. He spent many hours planning the placement of windows and locating a new interior staircase (originally the college had no stairs inside), while keeping the space as open as possible to retain the original sense of space.

"Coordinating location of plumbing and electrical away from the solid brick walls was another issue. The North Carolina Historic Preservation Office also debated the floor opening to the bell tower because that was not original. But we knew that the bell tower would go unnoticed unless you could view it from below because there would be no other access to it," Fuller says. He laid out the floor plans around the new bell tower and its large central opening. They located the kitchen, dining room, living room, libraries and a half-bath downstairs. The bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry rooms are on the second floor. The attic contains studio space and a guest room.

"The central staircase was a very special project done by a craftsman and made out of quarter-sawn white oak. The plumbing, mechanical and electrical was finished up and then reclaimed heart pine flooring was installed. A beautiful custom-made kitchen island was being made close by and installed prior to move in date," Fuller says.

Once it was time to move in, the Fullers made the transition from a cozy cabin to spacious home. They initially found the building to be a bit cool. But they're enjoying the space.

"Our girls can jump rope or ride a double-seated trike or run laps inside. It takes quite a few minutes to open and then close all of the 22 window shades. Downstairs, without the shades pulled, we (feel like we're) in a large fishbowl at night. During a summer day looking out the windows you feel like you're in a tree house," Anike says.

Heating the large, open home can be a bit challenging. "We installed a geo-thermal heat pump system to make it as energy efficient as possible since we have such high ceilings and open space," John says.

While the architect side of him enjoyed the challenge of restoring the old building, John says this is most likely the last time he'll take on such a project. But he also says the family cannot imagine moving back to a traditional family home.

"I was drawn to the unique features of this old building and the great character it has. One of the enjoyable things in life is to experience different things: Food, environments, cities, people and spaces. We live in a really cool space! If you can save a part of history and create a great space at the same time you've done a lot!"

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